Schlepping across the deserts bordering Vegas, I find myself as much on the lookout for signs of vice as I am for adventure. Why do I do this? In reality, I’m a mild personality. I don’t smoke, don’t do drugs. I drink only rarely. And then there’s sex, the snickersome reputation of which, frankly, bores me.
New Vegas transforms me, however. I become egocentric and flippant, stealing strangers’ cash and medical supplies, my purple-haired character dressed in clothing ripped from the corpses of her fallen enemies. I shoplift cartons of cigarettes to sell for caps, which in turn I use to buy various stat-boosting chems and liquor, caring not for their eventual after-effects. I take the drugs and become mean in battle, a mysterious camera amplifying the awesomeness of my headshots tenfold.
And then there’s sex.
Contrary to my real-life indifference to it, I pursue it in game worlds. It’s not the sex so much that piques my curiosity (after all, it is only politely and very vaguely alluded to in New Vegas, with a blackening screen signifying the act). No – I am more interested in the way portrayals of sex, and the sex industry especially, are handled in the fictional worlds of video games.
In the real world, prostitution is concealed behind nonchalant exteriors, a depressing facet of urban life better not questioned. We avert our eyes as we pass. Games, however, give us the chance to actively explore such a world without fear or inhibition, and maybe even experience what it’s like to indulge in it a little ourselves.
Still, for a medium that’s capable of echoing real life so eloquently, the world’s oldest profession can sure seem skin-deep; prostitutes often appear as little more than amusing, poorly-dressed caricatures. I find myself thirsting for something more miserable, more realistic – especially from a civilisation reduced to something rudimentary and crude in the fallout of a nuclear war. The new pioneers of Vegas etch out meagre livings as farmers or merchants, the more successful becoming soldiers. With so little to relieve the monotony of toiling in barren land, wouldn’t it make sense that prostitution has experienced a surge in popularity?
Brazened by my enmeshment in the game world, I am shameless, and certainly not adverse to paying for intimacy.
A ruined apartment building I visited in Westside had been taken over by a tough-talking female pimp. She had three whores. One was Maude, an elderly woman with deep wrinkles who proudly claimed to have been hired for her vast experience (though the pimp refuted this, suggesting that Maude’s purpose was to service the patrons who “didn’t have standards”). Another whore nicknamed Sweetie, the pimp said almost dismissively, was the “normal” one. Speaking to the girl myself, even I was surprised to find there was a sharp mind behind the dirty mouth. Sullenly, she described how she had abandoned her ‘career’ on The Strip due to the way the leaders of a prostitution ring, the Omertas, fed their employees chems as a way of subduing them, keeping them controlled. Fancy that, I thought appreciatively, a whore with standards.
Just as interesting was Jimmy, a well-groomed male prostitute who sneered at me; he served only male customers. He had been captured as a slave of Caesar’s Legion, soon after which he’d been adopted by one of the officers as a ‘helper’, the connotations of which, of course, were sexual. He had fled when he learned that the Legion punished homosexuality by death, and after ending up in Westside, settled into the only profession he knew: that of servicing men’s needs.
When they weren’t working, the building’s sex workers idled in bedrooms with boarded-up windows. As I moved through the building, discreetly picking locks and pocketing objects, I found myself privy to their unenviable lives. The ceiling had collapsed in many rooms, allowing plaster to crumble to the floor. Heavy furniture had been overturned and never righted again, slowly buried under years’ worth of the building’s dirt and debris. In one lower-floor apartment, a number of syringes were lined up neatly on a table, with further addictive drugs scattered on the floor. I suppose it may say something about me that despite whatever pity I felt for the building’s inhabitants, I still swiped those chems.
On the outskirts of Vegas, the game’s scummy, debauched epicentre, I was asked to recruit in-house prostitutes for a small bar and casino, specifically catering to clients with ‘unusual tastes’. One such prostitute was Fisto, a tellingly-named sexbot I’d gone to a lot of trouble to activate. After I’d finally found and uploaded his operating program, it didn’t seem right to not at least give him a try. (It really wasn’t as interesting as you may think, but I quickloaded the game afterwards because I didn’t think I could continue, knowing I’d willingly subjected my avatar to that.)
And then, in the centre of New Vegas, I came across Gomorrah, an Omerta-operated haven of filth.
It’s one of the first things you see upon entering The Strip, a tall, concrete building that wouldn’t have looked out of place at an airport – except, of course, for its neon red edging, blinking showgirl signs, and the barely-dressed dancers on the pavement outside, cheered on by drunk soldiers. Employees at competing casinos called it the “least classy place in town”. I’d made a beeline for Gomorrah before any quest or NPC had even sent me there, guided only by my curiosity of the lewd.
Gomorrah’s interior was decadent, with prostitutes in black leather freely sauntering between faux-Parisian lounge beds covered in deep red, silk cushions. Sheer fabric was draped from the ceilings, suggesting some vague semblance of privacy in a crowd – not that Gomorrah’s customers were shy. As I brushed past a man, he turned to me, gushing, “Man, I love this place – it smells like booze and sex!”
To be found in the courtyard was the building’s big draw, a prostitute named Joana. Her name had been mentioned repeated times in a journal I’d pickpocketed off one of the brutish Omertas, recounts of his backroom dealings interspersed with lengthy descriptions of Joana and his sexual encounters with her. I didn’t need to go looking for her myself; she approached me immediately as I entered the courtyard, swathing me in a suggestive sliver of a voice. “Feel free to visit my room anytime you please,” she purred, eyes half-lidded. “For you… I’ll waive the fee.”
She was dressed in leather, flimsy straps of it that could barely contain her dignity; she was pretty, too, with wispy, dark blonde hair and pillowy lips, but the thick collar around her neck signified ownership. While I’d've run a mile upon seeing her in real life, I knew there wasn’t much of a threat here in New Vegas – and if her bosses had any qualms, well, I had plasma guns. I obediently followed her upstairs to her private room.
As a petty thief, the first thing I noticed that none of Joana’s items were marked as her own. I could steal whatever I wanted right in front of her face, and she wouldn’t complain. Once again, mechanics filled in the story; this girl was owned by anybody and everybody who could afford her. She was theirs for a price – as were her possessions.
Joana continued to offer her services in spite of my shameless thievery, her baby-sweet voice disturbingly insistent. Had she affected this act so long that she had forgotten how to act like a normal person – or was the syrupy veneer hiding something?
With my polished skills of persuasion, it didn’t take much to break her. Joana collapsed, sniffling, admitting her addiction to a morphine-like drug that resulted from being imprisoned and sexually abused by her employers. Her boyfriend, an ex-worker of the casino, had been exiled when the boss learned of his relationship with Joana, and she had nobody left. Just dozens of faceless customers and a sadistic boss, using her as a tool of their depravation.
I was pleased. The circumstances of Joana’s captivity were appalling, yes; still, this was the sort of backstory I’d longed to uncover from the prostitutes of video game worlds. Joana was crying, her lack of clothing making her tears seem all the more pathetic. She sobbed, telling me she wanted out of this brutal arrangement with the casino bosses, begging me to find her boyfriend and get her out of there. Begging me to help her.
What could I do? I agreed.
And then I slept with her anyway. She was vulnerable, and the moment was opportune. After all, horrific story aside, I still wanted to explore the game’s sex mechanics, and hey. I was curious. I had always wanted to know what it felt like to be a prick.