Day Week everyone!
In celebration of this most chocolaty holiday I have decided to take a look at the portrayals of sex, love, and relationships in video games. This one is for all of the I’m-a-lover-not-a-fighter types out there. I take a look at a few of the more memorable virtual romances that I’ve come across and try to piece together what is good about them and what is hilarious about them, and why video game romances aren’t more common than they are.
Blue Alien Lovers, Part 1
This section contains spoilers for Star Control 2..
The first game that I ever played, Star Control 2, turned out to have a sex scene in it… and an alien sex scene at that. The scene involves the player, as a human star captain fighting for the freedom of the galaxy and Talana, the star base commander of the Syreen. The Syreen are blue humanoid aliens whose entire population is now (almost) entirely female. The male portion of the population was destroyed in a catastrophic geological event that tore their homeworld apart. After finding the secret to that devastation and gaining some vengeance on those responsible, Talana offers to *ahem* reward the player by offering to participate in some personal research.
The player’s reward is a sexy fade-to-black love scene. Talana has decided to turn off the lights, so everything that happens is left to the player’s imagination, with Talana’s speech displayed against a backdrop of black providing some fuel. The player can be timid or gung-ho in their experimentation with the alien by traversing down a conversation tree. Overall though, the scene has an air of humor about it, with one of the dialog options for the player being, “You’re not going to turn into some weird alien monster now, and bite my head off, are you?” It is implied in the closing credits that the player’s character and Talana were married later and lived happily ever after.
Come my dear, I have an assignment which requires your special skills.
This section contains spoilers for Command & Conquer: Red Alert.
The Soviet campaign of Command & Conquer: Red Alert was the backdrop for another video game romance. In one of the pre-mission briefings, Stalin leads his sexy aide, Nadia, away from a briefing table, telling her, “I have an assignment which requires your special skills.” The innuendo wasn’t lost on me even back when I first played the game in 1996. A bit later in the campaign, maybe a mission or two, the player observes Stalin laying in bed with Nadia, both drinking wine and celebrating the conquest of Berlin. She mounts him momentarily, but their love is interrupted by an important phone call. At the end of the campaign she poisons him.
What makes the Red Alert scene different from any of the other items that I’ve examined is the medium: whereas most other games use either the in-game engine or pre-rendered cinematics to advance the story, Red Alert used full-motion video. Here’s a link to a spliced together movie of the love between Stalin and Nadia, including their hot cuddling scene. Woah! I think I might need to have a cold shower after that one.
Will you go synchronized swimming with me?
This section contains spoilers for Final Fantasy X.
The best love scene in a video game that I’ve encountered would have to be the scene between Yuna and Tidus in Final Fantasy X. Here they are, two young adventurers, trying to save the world from a colossal monster known as Sin, adrift in a sea of emotions and surrounded by danger. Their love slowly grows throughout the course of the game, but the cinematic that draws their love for one another to the surface is the synchronized swimming love scene: deep within a forest, Tidus finds Yuna crying in a pond, overwhelmed with fear, and decides to comfort her. He wades in, moves in close, and kisses her. She is startled, but after a moment kisses him back, and the two fall into the moonlit pond. They swim, swirl, and kiss as romantic music plays in the background.
Blue Alien Lovers, Part 2
This section contains spoilers for Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2, and Dragon Age: Origins.
Two of Bioware’s excellent role-playing game franchises also have sex scenes: Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins. What differentiates these games from others mentioned so far is that there are numerous potential romances in each game. Whether or not a character warms up to the player depends on the player’s dialog choices, their decisions involving other party members, the completion of certain plot events, and the player’s sex.
Both Mass Effect games have the potential for an alien love scene with a species known as the Asari. Like the Syreen, the Asari are blue and humanoid. While technically not female (the Asari have only one sex), they also have distinctly female sex characteristics. When Asari mate, with their own species or another, they engage in a sexual interaction where personalities blend together and both partners have a highly emotional experience. It just so happens that Commander Shepard can choose to mate with Asari, regardless of Commander Shepard’s sex. I am not certain, but I believe that this is the only inter-species mating possibility that the player can experience first hand, though other relations are implied in the game universe.
Dragon Age: Origins follows the same principle as Mass Effect with regards to building a relationship with the player’s party members. However, where Dragon Age differs is its inclusion of a possible sex scene as plot. After I had seduced Alistair with my mage, Lily, everything was going well. Right before we were going to go kill the final boss of the game, the Archdemon. Another member of my party, Morrigan, approached me and said that the Archdemon could only be stopped if she had sex with Alistair (now the king) and conceived a baby that would take the Archdemon’s soul… or something. Because Alistair was so in love with Lily, he required a lot of coaxing to go along with the plan. The specifics aren’t as important as the point that the event had an effect on the resolution of the story, which I thought was rather interesting and makes me wonder if this event happens if I do not seduce Alistair.
In both Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins the sex scenes are rather tame. There is no depiction of genitalia or nipples that I have witnessed, although Mass Effect does show butts on occasion and naked backs. The focus of the love scenes is on the characters’ faces and expressions. Also, there is only ever one sex scene between any two characters, and the scenes are non-interactive and last less than two minutes from start to finish.
So what does it all mean?
When I sat down to write this entry, I kept thinking how odd it was that so few games have love scenes. After all, think about movies: I would say that most (or at least many) movies with PG-13 or R ratings have a sex or love scene, be they dramas, action movies, romantic comedies, or sci-fi flicks. The scenes are rarely explicit and typically brief; they are along the lines of the scenes from Mass Effect. So why are they so rare in games?
A lot of reasons, I think.
First, like in movies, love scenes can adversely affect the profitability of a game by raising the rating. My old film studies book used 25% as a rule of thumb for the amount of money lost if a movie went from PG-13 to R. It wouldn’t surprise me if games are the same. I know that Mass Effect received some criticism when it first came out for its love scenes. If a game is both highly violent and highly sexual, it will most certainly receive much criticism when released. I’m totally calling Duke Nukem Forever on this last one. I know that game is going to start a riot somewhere. When it comes out, I’ll have to keep an eye out for resistance to it.
Second, the virtual medium makes it uncomfortable for something in a game to be erotic. In a movie, it’s okay to think that a woman is beautiful because she is a real person, even if the character portrayed is fiction. In a game, though, the character is recognized by the brain as a collection of pixels, not as a person. I think that this is why the full-motion video sequence in Red Alert has the most potential of any of the games I examined to be erotic. I believe there is a natural barrier to having an emotional response when viewing sex scenes in games that nullifies their impact: our minds know better. In short, pixels aren’t people.
Another point which my girlfriend brought up was that because the sex scenes are often optional, the player may feel guilt when choosing to experience them. I thought that this was highly insightful. In a movie, the viewer is presented with a set series of scenes, if the movie has a sex scene and the viewer wants to experience the content as the director wanted, then the viewer will see the scene. In a game, it’s different. It’s like saying, “I don’t have to see this, but I want to anyway.” Choosing to observe (or take part in) a sex scene in a game can be considered akin to masturbation… which is a very, very bad thing, and can make people feel guilty. Am I a creep for pursuing a relationship with Liara in Mass Effect?
Fourth, games tend to make the player’s main character anonymous so that the player can more closely identify with their character. This makes it more problematic from a story perspective as the relationship feels forced and shallow if it happens regardless of player choices; unless the player can affect the relationship it will feel hollow.
Fifth, games still have a fair amount of social stigma, and sex scenes, which many people do not see the artistic value of, alienates potential customers from not only the game, but gaming as a leisure activity. Gamers too, may feel embarrassed to admit to playing through sex scenes in games.
That’s what I’ve come up with over the last couple of days of thinking about this topic. If anyone out there has thoughts about why love scenes aren’t as prevalent in games, I’d be glad to hear them!
All of this focuses on only relationships between the player’s characters and non-player characters in the game world, player-to-player relationships as a result of games is an entirely different topic which I hope to tackle someday. But now I need a rest. Whew. If you’ve made it this far, I applaud your reading stamina!