Monday, April 11, 2011

Hot Coffee

Early last week a ripple went through the internet as Irrational's Ken Levine declared sex scenes in video games ridiculous, equating them to puppet sex a la Team America and saying that although he doesn’t think that sex should be removed from games as there is a time and place for it, it is not yet graphically possible to render them as something other than snicker-worthy. And whereas I agree, I have to admit that even the graphically stupid clinking together of lovable characters within my favorite video games still resonates high on my girl level as a cunning reward. But while I say this, I am thinking about my passionate embraces with Fenris, the elf with a wicked chip on his shoulder and an intense hatred for mages in Dragon Age 2, in particular because it’s the most current example I have in mind. Choosing a mate in the BioWare series often involves a lot of investment-giving them gifts, carefully choosing the correct way to interact with them and investing a lot of time into the relationship to achieve this climax of snuggles. But when I sat back to think about what other sex scenes I have experienced while traversing the video game world, I have to admit that some of them do border on ridiculous-beyond just visually-and I started to wonder whether they are totally unnecessary or whether the addition of more adult themes adds more to particular games due to the gravity of their theme or narrative.

My first exposure to the idea of sex in video games was while playing GTA. This is a pretty sure way to perceive the whole topic as largely negative. I remember watching as a friend pick up a ‘lady of the night’ in a stolen car, the car then rocking back and forth while moaning noises floated out, and then him physically booting her from the car. I think he even tried to run her over. So...yeah...silly, obviously, but not the best portrayal of ‘adult sexual themes’ in the video game world. Then the whole San Andreas debacle went down, turning the phrase ‘Hot Coffee’ into a visual of poorly depicted oral sex every time I walk into Starbucks even to this day. Overall, though, these representations, while being fairly negative, were also depicted in a fantasy world where you spent most of your time stealing cars and outrunning the law - a sort of exaggerated big crime novella. No one took this too seriously, right? No one except parents, the media, everyone who played video games, retailers, etc...

Okay, so is there an example where video games, silliness and sex exist together in a positive way? I would say that the sex scenes in Fable do just that. It’s as easy as crooking your finger to a random NPC, leading them to any available bed and choosing whether to ride the risk rocket or play it safe if you happen to have a certain item in your pack to prevent unwanted children or STDs. The screen fades to black, but we still hear the characters engaging in the horizontal mambo via naughty phrasing such as 'well, aren’t you a big lad?' Sadly, in a markedly discriminatory move, the more gruff, workman types, such as the blacksmith, also spread the most diseases, and the prostitutes that hang out along the dockyard are the only ones likely to engage in group sex, but you never actually feel like you are participating in anything other than pure silliness. When my character and her husband made the big love it felt more like cheering on a sports event than interrupting a private moment of intimacy. The loading screens show you how many marriage partners you have compared to your friends, as though it’s a contest. A promiscuous contest, to be sure, but all very funny and fanny-slapping as opposed to serious and a necessary bit if you wanted to produce offspring.

If I can think of the most absurd way to use a QTE, it is during a sex scene. Yet right now I can think of two games that I have played recently that have employed that particular mechanic to do the deed, Heavy Rain and God of War 3. Here you are, sitting on your couch with a heightened sense of anticipation as to what button will display, your finger itching to punch the correct one. Instead, you end up taking off Madison’s bra with a slow tilt of the controller while hitting L1 and it felt really stupid. Even in the context of the narrative, the whole ‘I’m hurting , you’re hurting’ desperation didn’t come though because of the stop and go button choices. And they meant this to be extremely poignant, as nothing else in the game was done for humor’s sake. But it just came off as farcical and clunky. Especially if you got one wrong and had to start over. I imagine this is what it feels like to be a teenage boy trying to unhook the clasp on his date’s undergarments while in the backseat of a moving car, only without the murder mystery looming in the immediate present. I liked Heavy Rain, but this whole scene between Ethan and Madison was just unnecessary.

Now, Kratos, on the other hand, had to please a goddess with his quick button pressing. Seen from the voyeuristic perspective of hand maidens who either coo in admiration or cringe in disappointment, the whole scene is obviously supposed to be taken lightly. Aphrodite leers and beckons, Kratos grins and grunts. It’s pretty much perfect in context, and takes you away from the gloomy setting of the underworld for a few minutes. Plus as the...event...heightens in intensity the hand maidens actually lean forward and practically lick their lips. Kratos is all man in that mannish way. Girls in gossamer costumes should be giggling behind their hands and fluttering their eyelashes suggestively. Totally unnecessary other than to drive in the point that your hero...yeah, he's not that kind of hero.

But for all of the ridiculous ways that sex has been used in the aforementioned games, there are a couple that employed this tactic with full-on visual representations that were indeed corny, but still made my heart swell with the aww factor. The first one is in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. Just returned home to Monteriggioni from the whole Roman affair, Ezio takes to his rooms to relax while soaking in a claw-footed tub. Without invitation, Caterina Sforza decides to join him (that brazen hussy). Within moments we are treated to a cut scene of them cavorting joyfully in a giant bed, with Caterina wearing just enough to cover the naughty bits and Ezio being covered solely by Caterina. While watching this scene, I wasn’t shocked or surprised-in his environment Ezio is a powerful assassin, for crying out loud, I’m sure if we were asked to guide him to a bed each night to ‘sleep’ a willing maiden would be waiting every time. I was more wondering what happened to Cristina in that moment. So, yes, even though Caterina riding Ezio like a horse for a few minutes was silly looking graphically, it tied well with the story and gave those who hadn’t touched any of the previous games a bit of insight into the kind of man Ezio was during his time in Italy. A rogue, a deviant, a murderer...and a sexy, desirable man.

My other favorite game to employ this tactic is obviously Dragon Age. Although the ‘laying it down by the fire’ scenes in Origins were sweet and goofy looking all at once, I have to admit that part of the fun in playing the game is getting to that specific scene. It took a lot of work (aka, talking and listening) to finally get a high enough respect or ‘friendship’ level with someone else in your party to achieve the cut scene. So it really is the culmination of a lot of time invested in just one character, making party decisions based solely on their opinions and principles in order to win their favor. I thought of the intimate scenes in the tent to be a sort of achievement (and it was, for 360 users), representing not only how my character felt about another, but that they felt that way about me, too. It’s the same way in Dragon Age 2. I recently finished my second playthrough, titled “What Would Fenris Do?” because his character captivated me enough to want to invest another thirty hours into the game just to see him smile at me (as opposed to hate me as he did when I was a mage). I chose a LOT of responses based on not only how I thought a templar-loving, mage-hating champion would, but also because I knew it would please my man. When our ‘sex scene’ turned more into a passionate make out session resulting in a ‘elf-who-hates-himself’ the morning after, I, as the player, was actually disappointed. It all turned out in the end, which meant more passionate make out sessions that looked exactly like what Levine was describing-two puppets clanking together-but I was incredibly satisfied because it was still emotionally resonant, even through the cartoony visualization.

Truthfully, I am not looking forward to the day when graphics can design the perfect sex scene. I'm not sure if it has to do with my age, my femininity or my personal sensibilities, but I prefer the wink of the developers showing just enough to let the player picture the rest with pure imagination. This is the beauty of books, telling in words what your brain must imagine on its own. Hardcore scenes are totally unnecessary in video games because they will add zero to the narrative. But as an adult, playing an adult-rated game, I can see the benefits of the hints scattered here and there, even if they look like two cut-outs bonking up against one another in a less than romantic way because they add a depth to narrative in a mature tone. Well, maybe not GTA. That’s just trashy.

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