Kiss and Tell is Waypoint's new column, written by Kate Gray, examining the depiction of love and romance, sex and intimacy in video games, across its many and varied forms.
I've played a lot of games with sex in them, but rarely do I play a game that actually feels sexy. Because games aren't very sexy in general, are they? They've got a lot of the same ideas as sex, like twiddling and flicking and frantic mashing and quick-time events where you have to aim for a tiny spot with split-second-perfect timing or you get shot in the head. Although, you know, your experience of sex may vary.
But games just don't get sexiness right all that often. They're too goal-driven: high scores, perfect run-throughs of levels, achievements and trophies. Sex can be goal-driven, and perhaps it's the ultimate goal-driven activity, since everyone involved is probably hoping for a nice, climactic ending. But it's not a win state, and it shouldn't feel like one. Sure, it's fun to make someone orgasm, but good sex isn't always dependent on that. Even if it is a nice full stop at the end of a very sweaty sentence.
So, often, I watch in-game sex scenes with the detachment of David Attenborough watching two amorous penguins going at it from five feet away. "Interesting," I say to myself. "Here, we see the wild Geralt of Rivia spanking a woman on her bare ass, part of a mating ritual that he will repeat, move-for-move, with every subsequent woman he beds."
Sex scenes are there to titillate, but usually not to engage you in any meaningful way. You'll find story elements before and after the sex scenes in Dragon Age, Mass Effect and The Witcher, but not during, never during. They're too busy being very graceful and going "oh" and "ooooh" and "uh! UH! YES!!!" by that point, because god forbid one of them does a fart or gets leg cramp like people in the real world.
Anyway, I played Love Conquers All Games' Ladykiller in a Bind quite recently. I started off in the shared kitchen of my apartment, but very quickly had to move somewhere a little more private.
Ladykiller in a Bind is a game about BDSM relationships, which means all of its sex scenes are, in some way, about power play. That's not everyone's sexy cup of sex tea, for sure, and there were some scenes that didn't tickle my lady pickle in quite the way the others did. And hey, that's cool! Kinks and fetishes are widely varied, and BDSM is one of the most popular; no doubt this game hits all the right buttons for a lot of people that are rarely catered to in games. Two thumbs and several dicks up to that, my friends.
You want to stick your entire foot, all the way up to the ankle, inside a condom, and spank your partner with it? Why not! If it's sexy, you do you!
But, oooh, the best bit of Ladykiller is the story within the sex. It's not afraid to have people talking to each other while gasping for breath, or having a music-like ebb and flow that crescendos, diminuendos, fades out and sparks back up again. Sex isn't always a half-an-hour fuck-a-thon that starts, middles and ends; sometimes it's a dynamic thing that pauses for tea and cake, or lingers, slowly, lazily, for hours and hours throughout the course of a day. Isn't that wonderful?
The sex isn't separate from the characters. It's not just two lumps of polygons jerking and rubbing against each other in a hands-off cutscene, it's part of the narrative, part of the relationship between two people.
I mentioned Dragon Age and The Witcher earlier, and perhaps I wasn't entirely fair to them. Though the actual sex part in those games is, you know, just an animated cutscene, there's still some fantastic characterization that's refreshing to see in AAA games. DA: Inquisition has a scene in which your character shaves something into her pubic hair—you never see it, but the conversation between you and your paramour is fun, silly and romantic in a pubic-hair-declaration-sort-of-way. In The Witcher III, there's a scene in which Yennefer hornily (pun intended) suggests a session on a stuffed unicorn. Which, okay, is logistically baffling, but sweet, and meaningful to the two characters.
(They would fall off, though. Unicorns weren't built for two people to bonk on.)
Here's something else Ladykiller does that I'd like to see more often: It doesn't treat penetrative sex as the only possible way of doing sex to each other.
It's called penetrative sex for a reason, folks! That modifier means that "sex" is a wild and varied thing that can be whatever you want it to be. You wanna try bagpiping? (Look it up, or, uh, don't.) Sure! That's sex! You want to stick your entire foot, all the way up to the ankle, inside a condom, and spank your partner with it? Why not! If it's sexy, you do you!
My main point is this: On the big Venn diagram of "things that aren't sex" and "things that are sex", you get to decide what's in the latter set. Why is that a Venn diagram at all? I don't know, I just like making Venn diagrams. I don't have to understand them.
Ladykiller in a Bind gets that. Its sex scenes often don't feature penetrative sex at all, and when characters explicitly say they don't want to do that, it doesn't become any less sexy. Consent is this interesting and fluid thing in the game that can be given and retracted and adjusted as they go, and that's just part of the dynamic of the scene, because humans have the ability to choose and decide and change their minds. Isn't that fantastic?
Often, sex scenes in games are weirdly separate from the humanity and believability of their characters. It's weird, because studios are putting more and more effort into creating characters with believable and complex personalities and motivations, but that seems to go out the window as soon as the wangs and baps come out. Then, it's all about getting off. It's not about bonding or talking or any of the stuff that came before and after the rampant thrusting. Just about getting to that goal.
I'm really excited about games that are interested in not just getting my characters off, but getting me off. Hey, I don't find passive sex scenes all that sexy. I like a bit of plot, I like having input, I like experimenting and, oh, go on, a bit of a kink that I haven't explored before. That's how we learn what we like, right?
Games can be a fantastic way to explore that, to make sexy things for all sorts of people, for LGBTQ players, kinky players, women players—players who just aren't catered to by the industry at large when it comes to what gets them going. And yeah, it won't be for everyone. But the world of sex is so intrinsically intimate and personal that it never will be.
Kiss and Tell will be back next month.