In a move that should surprise no-one who is even remotely familiar with me, I’ve been thinking about sex. That’s an internet hat-trick right there: Explicit sex, video games, and middle-class white people who think their opinions matter, the famous trilogy of the world wide web. All I need to do now is start filming housecats in compromising situations and I’ll have the full set. Might as well start now – those “cheezburgers,” amirite?
Anyway, back to sex, a phrase I don’t get to say often enough. A few articles ago I accused filmmaker-in-denial David Cage of having made one of the most awkward sex scenes it’s possible to make, in the creative endeavour that was Heavy Rain. In it, one of the protagonists is attempting to rescue his son from an insane killer by completing multiple deadly trials over the course of a week. Having evaded death numerous times, suffered hideous burns across his torso, mutilated his own body, been on the constant run from the police and forever struggling with the constant knowledge that little protagonist junior is one bad choice away from being sent to Hell with all the other video game children, the hero somehow finds the willpower to get it up and bump uglies with another player character. I guess the convenience of the child in danger is that if he thinks about it midway through the act, it’ll stop him from finishing too early.
Hardly a bed sprinkled with rose petals, is it? Maybe he wants to have a replacement kid ready in case he screws up royally, but it’s still absurd. And of course she has to go on top, because if somebody in his physical condition leans forward too much, their innards will fall out and smother the person they’re straddling. How could they not be turned on?
Even if the context wasn’t surreal at best (and psychologically revealing of the writing staff at worst), it still made me cringe to watch the whole thing. It’s not as if the graphics were bad – they were pretty good, not phenomenal, but sufficient enough to maintain immersion in all other scenes. But suddenly it was very obvious that I was watching a couple of polygonal models clonk against each other. It would have been less surreal and embarrassing to mash a couple of stick figure drawings against each other and make kissy-kissy noises in front of a camera.
I wonder if it was ruined by the knowledge that the scene was made collectively by dozens of people. Sex is something that most people still think of as private, or at least very personal, a shared experience between two persons. But the understanding that there’s nothing personal about this, that it’s a false construct made to explain part of a story, that might detract from the whole thing… But I doubt it. We wouldn’t feel that way about any other form of love-based scene, such as a first kiss or a romantic dinner. No, it’s not problematic that it’s personal, it’s something else. And besides, you can still ignore that feeling in a movie, something that’s made by just as many people, if not more.
Is it the failed attempts at eroticism? Nah. Don’t get me wrong, that Heavy Rain scene and the infamous ones in Bioware games are about as sexy as a middle-aged accountant committing infanticide by the glow of a TV showing Ann Widdecombe, but again, you can see sex scenes in films that are focused around love instead of allure, and they don’t make me want to cringe straight through the wall in an attempt to escape. I just process them in the context for which they are intended and move on, but it’s harder to do in gaming. I don’t know why, it just is.
I think that the contrasting motivations between the gamer and the characters don’t help. Ethan Mars, Madison Paige, Ezio, Commander Shepherd… They all have their canonical reasons for wanting to do the nasty with other people in the game, but their reasons are usually different to ours, based around love or seduction. Whereas the player’s reasons are usually less intimate, more based around bored, dispassionate amusement. Curiosity, the completionist urge, that’s what drives us to find out, and the schism between their heartfelt drives and our observational ones become all too obvious when we’re watching them bonk each other in scripted, choreographed thrusts and moans.
Taking a step back, I think that might be the real mood-killer – the fact that these people are doing it on our orders. Anybody can sense the weirdness in coldly instructing two people to either fall in love or feel horny on cue. It’s the extension of the old “press F to pay respects” madness that Saints Row 4 was wise to made fun of. Short of using a Wii remote to simulate jerking off a partner, there couldn’t be a way to make it more humiliating.
I’m not going to get involved in the “is there a need to even have sex scenes in games” debate, because I wouldn’t ever make a statement on what content is or isn’t necessary in art. The Binding of Isaac is a game about child abuse and the damage that can be done by a religious upbringing. Hotline Miami is all about the mistreatment and deception of those with learning difficulties. This War Of Mine is all about the loss of morality of favour of survival, and all three manage to be superb games whilst dealing with dangerous or controversial issues.
There’s no inherent reason why a game with sexuality as a core theme should necessarily be bad or come across as cheap, in fact it should speak to a lot of people. But it speaks to the comparative immaturity of gaming that they just can’t get it quite right, that they can’t make it seem genuine and it usually comes across about as organically and naturally as a terrorist attack, and just as erotic and loving.
Actually, I think the graphics quibble I threw away earlier might be more relevant than I thought. When the focus of the scene is on the physical contact between two folks, we need it to look real enough to fool us. If smooching lips suddenly clip through each other, or limbs seem disjointed and angular, it snaps us out of the delusion, because now the bodies of the heroes are the point of interest. For that reason they need to look as real as anything, because otherwise we’ll consciously know that something that should be as natural as possible is being structured in the most artificial way. You might as well just bung a couple of blow-up dolls in a centrifuge and you’d get the same result from your audience.
Gaming will have to grow up a bit before we get it right. It’ll have to work out the most tasteful way to display two people making love, it’ll have to stop the vending machine mechanics of “hand over gifts and niceness to go to bed with somebody” and it’ll have to get past the over-simplistic presentation of the most complicated aspect of human interaction.
Oh, and stop forcing bad voice actors to make cheap moaning noises. Just let the music swell or something, because it always sounds like two seals slowly dying in unison. Trust me, I’m English – if there’s one thing we know how to do, it’s disapprove of sex.