Above: Witcher screenshot courtesy CD Projekt
The time is right. The lights are low. The CD player is playing soft, sexy tunes in the background. You're so into the moment that you barely stop to wonder why anyone still has a CD player anymore. There's a pretty face in front of you and it's slowly approaching your own, lips pursed, a gentle blush spreading across their cheeks. It's smooch time, and you're into it.
And then the face-skin disappears and you're both just disembodied eyes and tongues flapping in the breeze. Your mother never warned you about this.
Ah, you know what? It's too easy to make fun of Assassin's Creed Unity for its buggy kisses. That whole face-disappearing thing was fun, but the kissing in that game—when the faceflesh was present and accounted for—was actually really, really good. And not even with a "for games" caveat.
And it was more than just a good snog, too. The scene that everyone's hopefully seen by now—if not, do so, here—is intimate and passionate in a way that many games don't quite manage to convey, because animating two discrete entities is, frankly, a total pain in the arse.
It's not just that [Andromeda's] kissing looks like someone rubbing two Barbie dolls against each other, it's that the whole scene in which they do it is deeply unsexy.
In Assassin's Creed Unity, these two characters, Arno and Elise, have snuck off from a party to have an illicit smooch. What makes it illicit? Well, Arno is Elise's adopted brother, and yes, that's a bit weird, but they're not technically related, and besides, they're in love. There's a sort of flirt-waltz between the two, a constant movement forward and backward that cleverly illustrates their banterous romance, their lust for one another, their familiarity. Their faces come close, close enough to kiss, teasing and tempting one another in a way that instantly tells you how they interact when they're alone.
It's not just the kissing that makes the scene sweet and romantic. It's the subtlety of the animation as a whole, alongside good writing and a definite sense that whoever directed the scene knew what they were doing, and might well have been working from experience. Maybe not with the 18th century garb, but, close enough.
But, in general, video game kisses are memorable for the wrong reasons. They're often clumsy, awkward things that would only occur in real life if the two people involved had never used their lips before.
Mass Effect: Andromeda's animations have already had their fair share of criticism—but it's not just that the game's kissing looks like someone rubbing two Barbie dolls against each other, it's that the whole scene in which they do it is deeply unsexy. It's a shame, because Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare's game before Andromeda, had a better grasp of scene-setting, in which the smooches took place in your down-time. Inquisitor in the streets, tonsil-tennis player in the sheets.
Andromeda, on the other hand, is all clumsy flirting and soulless gazes—even after its visual-upgrade patch. Everyone's always trying to make weird analogies about how exploring space is like having feelings—which, sure, it might be, but you could make taking out the trash sound romantic if you tried hard enough. When the characters kiss, it's weirdly fluid—there's no build-up, hesitation or tension, just a smooth transition into makeout city. Like robots locking steely, "lip"-like ports.
Kissing—and you may not agree with me here, because kissing is intensely personal—is all about the build-up. The tension of wanting to press your lips against someone else's, about that lip-biting moment where you can't help but look at their mouth instead of their eyes. The slight nose-graze, the breath inwards, the anticipation, that missed heartbeat as you try desperately to hold yourself back from madly snogging the person in front of you. Kissing is great, but that anticipation, that's the moment you wish you could bottle.
Naughty Dog is great at this kind of thing, their animations displaying both a fantastic degree of care and attention, and the fact that the studio has the luxury of big-budget motion capture to play with. It's all small moments, like Nathan Drake's sagging shoulders when he loses at Crash Bandicoot, Elena's expressive eyebrows, that express emotion even when the voice lines don't, immediately. Obviously, their approach isn't one that every studio can take, but it's one way to get around the issue of bad video game kissing: using actual humans and getting them to (kinda) make out, cameras allowing.
A lot of studios obscure the kissing in some way, by having hands or arms in the way of the Awkward Lip Zone to hide how clumsy it looks, or by fading to black or panning away in a demure fashion. The Witcher 3 has some intensely sexy kissing scenes, and they rarely feel awkward, because they're filling the gap with other signs of intimacy—as is the case with the infamous unicorn scene.
In this scene, we see Geralt and Yennefer getting spicy when they're meant to be at a wake, which already adds a layer of quickie frisson that makes things seem a little naughtier than just a regular smooch-sesh. Geralt's working his way around Yennefer's neck, but it's not the kissing we're focused on—it's the sorceress's expression as she eyes up the stuffed unicorn in the corner. The Witcher 3's developers, CD Projekt RED, clearly know where their strengths lie—and if it's not in making lips collide in an appealing way, then they can lean on their characters' well-animated facial expressions to get things steamy when actual physical contact can't do it alone.
In video games, as in real life, it's not the actual kiss that's the most exciting part, it's all the stuff that happens around it. The intimacy between two people (or more, if you like), the tension, the flirting that comes just before the lip-locking. We know what kissing looks like, which means that when it goes wrong in a video game's animation, it's all the more obvious. But it also means that we can probably skip the actual kissing part itself if all the other foreplay is done well—and that's as much about good writing as it is about animation. Make us feel like the characters actually want to get that close to each other, and we can usually fill in the actual kissing bit for ourselves.