Hey, you! There’s a new podcast out there by the Game Taco guys and I’d like you – yes, you! – to listen to it! They were kind enough to invite me onto the show a second time, due to all of us having been involved in Melbourne’s 48-hour game jam. Myself, I hovered at the shoulders of game developers by day, wrote letters about my observations to Kotaku’s Mark and Tracey by night, and helped judge the games at the end of the whole thing. Game Taco’s Smoo and Mr Ak did some hovering of their own, and Anna was the only one actually brave enough to participate as a developer.
So last week, we all gathered to discuss our experiences; forward the podcast to an hour in if you’re interested in just game jammery. Besides that, we also discussed Dragon Age’s assimilation of Felicia Day, hidden object games, a cat MMO (!), and sex in Bioware games. I had massive fun recording this podcast, so yeah, have a listen.
And under this cut, just some additional thoughts on the handling of sex in Mass Effect.
“I don’t agree with them putting sex mechanics in the game.”
This is an actual quote, as uttered by me, on the above podcast. It’s a topic we touched on in the podcast twice! I’ve been thinking about it since, my stance on the portrayal of sexual relationships in games.
Wait, I lie. I’d been thinking about it long before that, but a few lines in the podcast made me realise why I’ve been so hesitant to talk about it at length.
Firstly, it must be said: I’m a writer, not a speaker. I feel generally clumsy in speech, even when around people I’m comfortable with. I don’t usually make a habit of pointing out my flaws, but it’s what I think happened on the podcast; I didn’t express my concerns about sex in games very well at all, leading to some confusion and the Taco team good-naturedly suggesting that I wasn’t making any sense.
This is all by no means a criticism of the Game Taco crew, whose ideas and opinions I hugely respect; I’m actually very pleased they felt they could challenge me the way they did. But it’s the sort of belief a lot of people seem to think I have when it comes to discussing sex in games – that because I disliked it in the Mass Effect series, I must be some kind of repressed, sex-hating loon that becomes a hypocrite by even just being curious about the subject.
I mean, yes, I am sick of Bioware’s repeated method of dumping sex into their games for no real reason. Back when I was playing Mass Effect for the first time, people didn’t ask me anything about my other choices or the game itself, just which character I had romanced. (Kaiden, if you’re wondering, and not because I found him more attractive than the other two. The decision was arbitrary; all were pretty damn yawnsome.) Judging by the endless number of Twitter conversations about Dragon Age that I am privy to, that series’ relationships are also apparently pretty thrilling to some. Having never played Dragon Age, I can probably tell you more about its romantic opportunities than everything else in the entire game combined.
I always wondered why gamers find laughable implementations of sex in their games so memorable. The romances, at least in Mass Effect, were nothing like their real-life counterparts. It felt like a cheap way of inserting some “depth” into a video game. It felt superficial, and I’d feel kind of silly getting flustered over a pixel-male anyway, really. I mean, look at the above picture. Is this really an adult treatment of sex? Silent Hill 2 showed us the psychology and the ugliness of sex; New Vegas’ sex options only add to its characters’ immensely sad stories.
Do the romances of Mass Effect add anything other than something to giggle about like a pubescent teen?
So, I told Game Taco, I was “sick of sex in games”.
Later, when Anna mentioned Alistair of Dragon Age: Origins, I agreed that he would most likely have been the character I would’ve pursued too, had I persisted with the game longer than the two hours I’ve played.
At this point I remember Mark and Smoo kind of frowning and grinning at the same time, Smoo halting conversation to ask, But wait. Didn’t you just say…?
Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to avoid sex in games.
Bioware, I feel, has done an embarrassing job of implementing romance in Mass Effect, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to steer clear of every sex scene in every other game I play thereafter. Dragon Age, for all I know, might actually handle the topic quite well; how am I to know it if I simply dodge its sex options? If I’m honest, I’m actually really drawn to games and with sexual themes that look as if they may be portrayed in a mature manner. I was intrigued by Dragon Age’s Alistair as, during my short playthrough of the game, he was the one character whose humour and kindness stood out in the face of my dwarf’s tragic story. I’m really not so narrow-minded. And anyway, what sort of game critic would I be if I didn’t know what I was criticising, if I wasn’t looking for new opportunities for a mostly immature subject to enlighten or challenge me?
I scrambled my words a bit on the podcast.
I don’t disagree with the use of sex mechanics in a game.
What I find more and more intolerable, I’m coming to realise, is gratuity. If I can play a game to its end, sex-free, without it impacting the greater story at all – as is the case in the Mass Effect series, to which sex only adds a slight wash of colour – then it’s not needed. Simple. Sex is inserted into a game like Mass Effect for the sake of making the story seem “profound”, making the game look “mature”. It has the opposite effect in the way that it triggers adolescent, dreamy sighs of bedding the dying assassin Thane, or Butthead-style heh heh-ing about taking the protective gear – and the virginity – of the vulnerable and dishearteningly young Tali. None of it feels particularly adult or even necessary to me.
I tire of gratuity, but I definitely don’t hate sex in my gaming. I’m quite fascinated by the way games treat the subject. So even if a game includes what I find to be a tacked-on “romance”, I’m still going to play it. I’m playing Katawa Shoujo currently and though I’m told you can turn off the sex scenes, why would anyone – even I – want to? The developers put them in there for a reason, and I like to figure out why. And even if I do end up disappointed by yet another useless romance, I’ll have learned as much from it as any game romance done well, if not more so.