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Achievement Unlocked: Sex!

May 5th, 2009 | Posted by Denis Farr in Link-out

Alex Raymond, of the While !Finished blog at the Iris Gaming Network, explains how games have established a rather simplistic view of relationships in her post “Women Aren’t Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex“:

What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence-you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex-the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are “rewarded” with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result-the reward-of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership.

Using as a basis for her comparison Thomas Macaulay Millar’s “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” from the book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape, she illustrates how this creates a problem when trying to make a compelling world with which to interact, as well as one that does not dehumanize its inhabitants. While this is in response to the recent MTV Multiplayer article on Alpha Protocol, she also takes a look at Mass Effect. As she points out:

In addition, it perpetuates the narrative of the Nice Guy (described in Millar’s essay, and elsewhere): that men are entitled to sex from women if they follow the rules and do the right things, or in the case of Alpha Protocol, “select your responses wisely.” It is not only dangerous but just plain unrealistic to portray a world in which every single woman is a potential sex partner: in the real world, there are lesbians, and there are straight or bisexual women who won’t sleep with you no matter what you do, because they are human beings with their own preferences and desires and interests.

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36 Responses

  • wordsmythe says:

    “There are straight or bisexual women who won’t sleep with you no matter what you do”

    I make a joke about nerd stereotypes here.

    Thanks for putting this together, Denis. There’s certainly a fair amount of good talk on this subject, and I think the industry and culture could really benefit from paying attention.

  • I have to say I feel for designers when implementing a relationship system. Its got to be incredibly diverse, complex, and well integrated into the game to create any level of realism. Even if done “correctly,” isn’t there a threat that the player will interpret what you consider a respectful relationship as a ranked system of choices towards achieving sex as a commodity. Which, sad to say, some individuals attempt in real life.

    I appreciated Mass Effect for its approach. I built a relationship in the game but never had sex. That doesn’t mean Raymond is wrong in this case, or that others can’t interpret Mass Effect with a similar lense. Rather, perhaps even the best attempts to build a sexual relationships in games will be easily critiqued for long time to come. It may be the fate games suffer as choice-based simplified representations of complex realities.

  • I haven’t played Alpha Protocol, but as to Mass Effect… there are a lot of women who I was nice to in that game who I didn’t get to (or want to) have sex with. I also seem to remember being able to play a female and have sex with a male crew member just by being nice to him.

    She demands non hetero options in games, but there are numerous games that allow homosexual relationships (not saying they’re fleshed out well, but neither are the hetero ones). She also wants games where the members of any given couple are equals, which I guess open world games are pretty bad for so far but, again, Mass Effect basically figures out. If you play as an adept, Ashley saves your ass constantly!

    I’m not saying I disagree with the assessment (again, haven’t played Alpha Protocol which she seems to dislike the most) – this is important stuff to look at – but I’d like maybe a little more thought put into how to work out what these better sexual relationships would look like.

    Should I be able to get some women to like me by being mean/abusive to them? Should there be a random dice roll at the beginning of each playthrough that determines whether characters are straight, gay, bisexual, transgendered, etc? Do we have to change the voice acting to cue the player to these things? How do we do that without running into representation issues? How do we afford that?

    The fact is that most males and females, gay and straight, that I know see the beginning of a relationship as a chase. Maybe I hang out with too many predatory females? Anyhow, the model of the chase is hard to rid yourself of in a competitive space such as a sci-fi or fantasy roleplaying game. I like the notion of developing a relationship over time and sex not being the end goal, but should we also include things like fighting over what curtains to buy, NPC infidelity, and male sexual performance issues? Surely there’s room for some of this in different games, but not across the board.

    It really begs the question: how many times do you have to fail in courting a female in a videogame before it becomes acceptable for one of them to give in to your advances? How do we model this statistically? Is it a bad thing that we’re teaching kids that they have to have conversations with a woman about her aspirations and family history before trying to shove tongues down throats?

    • Alex says:

      All those questions you ask are things designers should decide for themselves and their game. What I’m asking is for designers to expand their horizons when thinking about relationships and sex in games and how they are implemented.

      The thing I perhaps should have made more clear in this post is that the commodity model of sex is a CULTURAL problem that goes well beyond video games. The way video games portray relationships is an unfortunate logical result of our culture. But even if this model is a cultural problem, many, many people and relationships in real life break that mold and are better for it, and it would help change the culture if video games adopted a more egalitarian view of relationships and sex.

      “How many times do you have to fail in courting a female in a videogame before it becomes acceptable for one of them to give in to your advances?”

      The answer to this, as in real life, is never. Dude, if a lady is turning you down, STOP. She’s not interested! Don’t keep harassing her until she “gives in”. Respect her goddamn wishes. (And who wants to be with someone who only said yes because she was too tired of saying no anyway?) Maybe you should read Millar’s essay.

      • “The answer to this, as in real life, is never. Dude, if a lady is turning you down, STOP. She’s not interested! Don’t keep harassing her until she “gives in”. Respect her goddamn wishes. (And who wants to be with someone who only said yes because she was too tired of saying no anyway?) Maybe you should read Millar’s essay.”

        Alex, I thought it was obvious from my conversation with Denis here that I was serious about designing around the kind of changes you demand. The question you freak out about here is one of simple statistics, however. I was specifically goading you into asking yourself, since you want a world where females say no, exactly how many females you’d like to see say no before one of them wants a relationship. Because I want this too, but I don’t want it to look fabricated… although fabrication would certainly work for an art game.

        I don’t see sex as women giving in to advances. Rather, I saw that as the only model for relationships in the games that you were willing to allow; furthermore, I didn’t agree with lumping Mass Effect in there. That’s why the question sounds so obviously rhetorical, Alex.

        Maybe you shouldn’t assume that the male you’re talking to isn’t a feminist. Or at least read the tone of my comment before talking to me like I’m a date rapist.

        • Alex says:

          “I was specifically goading you into asking yourself, since you want a world where females say no, exactly how many females you’d like to see say no before one of them wants a relationship.”

          But what you *actually said* was how many times should you fail in courting *A FEMALE*, singular, so my reading is at least understandable.

          I’m not sure why you think it should be a random dice roll or something to determine whether the player will score or not. Shouldn’t the potential relationship partners be fully formed characters that will or won’t be interested in the player character based on how the player acts and what the player says? I’m asking for more complexity here, not abstraction.

          And I criticized ONE ASPECT of Mass Effect’s relationships. I’m not “lumping it in” with anything. I didn’t even play the game so I can’t say whether each individual relationship follows the commodity model; but I did read enough about it to know that my two criticisms (described in more detail in my other comment below) are valid.

        • “before it becomes acceptable for one of them to give in to your advances”

          The random dice roll wasn’t to determine whether or not you’d “score.” Rather, the randomization (not one roll) would basically make it so that each time you played through each character would have a randomized sexual preference/persuasion. Please read my comments before continually throwing out ridiculous ad hominems–I did you the courtesy of reading your Millar article.

          Purity balls, Girls Gone Wild, and rape-apologists are easy targets. I’d rather see interesting examples. That’s why I liked the performance model. Please don’t slight me for enjoying healthy sexual relationships UNDER the very conditions the article you linked demands.

      • @ Alex: Read the Millar essay. As someone who reads more then their fair share of feminist lit/film crit, I was a bit hesitant to spend my time on something that would probably be nothing new to me. The beginning sections about puritans and Girls Gone Wild had me angry at you for asking me to read it, because it was so obvious a straw man and so stupid a thing to write about.

        But then I got the performance model of sex, and I really liked that part. The thing is, I don’t think enough about stuff like this because I don’t hang out with scumbags. The commodity model doesn’t enter into my actual lived experience, except perhaps when frat boys yell after me (“hey fag”) because I wear skinny jeans.

        And I had already agreed with you that ME was hetero-normative (I remembered that males couldn’t have sex with Kaidan while I was talking to Denis below). I am still going to have to part with you though, in that I think the relationship that a male Shephard develops with Ashley conforms much more to the performance model of sex than to the commodity model. Perhaps its because I always played as physically weak characters and she was a Soldier. Perhaps because I actually cared about the stories she told me about her sisters and her father.

        • Alex says:

          Purity balls aren’t real? How is that a strawman?

          If the commodity model doesn’t affect your experience at all, then you have more privilege than you realize.

        • Straw men aren’t “not real,” they’re “not hard to argue against.” See above.

          Play games before writing about them.

        • @ Alex: To round things off a bit. I agree with you about Alpha Protocol. I agree with you about sexual relationships in games. I agree with you that Mass Effect is heteronormative. I read the article you wrote, and the article you linked, and I agreed with both of them.

          All I did was list some design problems that I thought would need to be explored before the kind of relationships you wanted to see could be realized in games.

          Where I disagree with you is in the assertion that Mass Effect wholly subscribes to the Nice Guy/Rape-Apologist male profile that you believe it does. I disagree with you here based on my own experience playing the game and conversing with the female character Ashley while playing a male Shephard.

          And yes, I recognize my privilege. I am an upper-middle class Jewish straight male. I have an enormous amount of white male guilt (which I know is a flaw that easily gives way to more privilege). I read and write copiously about race and gender representation because I think it’s the right thing to do (in a Kantian sense, doing it for no reason other than that I think it should be done).

          To light things up, yes, we Jews have the privilege of being the most historically maligned group of people after women, homosexuals, and the Romani/Untouchables. I also have the privilege of practicing the performance model of sexual relationships described by Millar, and the privilege of being a feminist who female writers on the Internet have a knack for accusing of misogyny simply because I disagree with them on simple, isolated points. I am a happy person.

        • Kateri says:

          @Simon “The beginning sections about puritans and Girls Gone Wild had me angry at you for asking me to read it, because it was so obvious a straw man and so stupid a thing to write about.”

          I was totally confused (wasn’t able to read the referenced essay, as Google Books appears to hate me) as I couldn’t find anywhere in Alex’s essay where she mentioned either of those things, and couldn’t work out why you were attacking her so viciously.

          Then I finally worked out that you were attacking HER for something in the OTHER PERSON’s essay, that she had at no point referred to in hers. While saying you liked the part of the essay that she had used in her piece.

          Sooooo… why on earth were you attacking her, again? And how do you think that helps create a reasonable atmosphere of discussion? I’m amazed it got past moderation, to be honest.

          Also, I read your comment about “How many times do you have to fail in courting a female in a videogame before it becomes acceptable for one of them to give in to your advances?” the same way she did – you were very unclear. Please stop treating her as if she failed basic reading comprehension. Your whole approach to her is unbelievably condescending, and I can see why she might now regret having allowed CD to crosspost her work at all.

        • @ Kateri: The first thing Alex said to me was, “Maybe you should read Millar’s essay.” This was condescending, and I replied in turn. I’m not going to argue with you if you don’t think it was condescending. I refuse to accept the idea that I have to be kind in any way to somebody who doesn’t treat me with equal kindness. Neither she nor I read each others’ scribblings well enough.

          I think that after you get enough comments approved on the site, it allows you to get them through automatically. This experience has reminded me of my rule of only talking about feminist issues in real life as opposed to on the Internet.

        • Kateri says:

          “@ Kateri: The first thing Alex said to me was, “Maybe you should read Millar’s essay.” This was condescending, and I replied in turn. I’m not going to argue with you if you don’t think it was condescending.”

          I’ll accept that she was condescending at that point, but looking back, I can see why – you had just written something that AT FIRST GLANCE looked assholeish in the extreme. Now, fair enough, you actually meant something different, but please consider that she doesn’t know you from Adam, and has no doubt encountered a plethora of very real assholes, and is beyond sick of dealing with them.

          “I refuse to accept the idea that I have to be kind in any way to somebody who doesn’t treat me with equal kindness. Neither she nor I read each others’ scribblings well enough.”

          I… bloody hell, I just don’t think I can begin to… *implodes*

          *deep breath*

          1.) http://blog.shrub.com/archives/tekanji/2006-03-08_146 with particular regard to the bit about trust needing to be earned. She was perfectly ‘kind’ to you until you said something that appeared Very Dumb. Having people be ‘kind’ to you is a privilege.

          2.) This isn’t about kindness, it’s about respect, and taking a minute to try and understand where someone else is coming from. When someone takes offense at something you say, even if you’re SURE it’s a misunderstanding, the sensible response, to my mind, is not to lay into them like it HAS to be their problem not yours. It’s to step back, think “shit, I upset someone. Lemme reexamine what I just said and figure out what was offensive and why, and how I can apologise and make a mental note to not say something so unclear/dumb again”. This is about racism, but the same principles frequently apply: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/archives/2005/12/02/how-not-to-be-insane-when-accused-of-racism/

          3.) You talk about equality, but do you understand that in this situation, your opinions are NOT equal? You have no idea how it feels to be in her position, or any woman’s position, in that you cannot possibly understand the amount of pure shit we have to deal with on a daily basis from people who Just. Don’t. Get. It.

          4.) To you, these are idle ‘scribblings’. To people who have to live with these issues, they are NOT mere scribblings, they are extremely personal and painful issues, and you clearly have no idea how privileged and insensitive you are sounding right now.

        • @ Kateri: I read those links when you put them on Brainy Gamer. I understand that my argumentative and asshole-ish nature conflicts with the messages on those websites, which I did take to heart in part but also disagreed with in part. For instance, in the case of this post I was entering into an area of somebody else’s privilege and was thus not in a power position. In any case, like I said, I’ve realized that I’m not mature enough to carry on conversations about feminism on the Internet. The way I write (passive aggressively) is not conducive to it, and it leads me to get into fights with people who I in fact already agree with.

        • @ Kateri: Let me re-clarify. I didn’t just read those links when you put them on Brainy Gamer. I talked about the contents with every person of color and feminist that I knew in order to work through my issues with them. I’ve thought about it a lot.

          Also it struck me that the fact that my comments were getting auto-approved while hers were not was putting me in a privileged position that I wasn’t even aware of. I do prefer counter-argument to censorship, though. I think maybe this site could use a registered membership to avoid having to pre-moderate, so that they can instead post-moderate.

  • Also, Denis, you absolutely need to find out if Bogost is giving his new Genesis of Ms Pac-Man speech somewhere in your area. You’re going to love it. Ask LB Jeffries (he was at the GDX one). I don’t wanna spoil it here, it’s so freaking good.

  • Denis Farr says:

    Jorge, one of the problems is in constructions of NPCs. Much of Raymond’s critique comes from the treatment of female NPCs (even when we have female protagonists, they often don’t have choices in romantic pursuits). While relationships are complex models, even using a simple model to represent them is infinitely more problematic when the NPC has no real depth. In order to step forward into a complex system we need to treat both parties as complex entities.

    Simon, even when homosexual relationships are allowed (and I’ll admit heterosexual ones are not much better thus far), they often pale in comparison to the options available to heterosexual counterparts. Either that or they are still othered (Fable 2 doesn’t, from what I’ve heard, but its predecessor did, as does Sims 2).

    While you as a player might choose not to have sex, it is still telling that sex, in these games, is considered an ultimate point, instead of just something that adds to the relationship. It’s that placing on the pedestal that creates the commodity–once you have sex the relationship is somehow cemented.

    As toward representation, in open world games that seem to encourage roleplay and creating a character, randomization as such would be a turn-off to most, I feel. However, not most games are open world, and in those games, we’re still stuck with primarily white, heteronormative males who sleep with women and seek women as goal points or achievements. Open world games are still light years away from being fully believable, but that may also be due to how we interact with them and our own perceptions of how we interact with that world (which includes perhaps more expectation in the player to create the story and to open up the narrative).

    “The fact is that most males and females, gay and straight, that I know see the beginning of a relationship as a chase. Maybe I hang out with too many predatory females?” The problem is that’s just the beginning of the relationship. Relationships in games are not nuanced yet, they act as the beginning of a relationship the entire time, including how we approach sex.

    “Anyhow, the model of the chase is hard to rid yourself of in a competitive space such as a sci-fi or fantasy roleplaying game.” Just because something is difficult is no reason not to try. Why does sci-fi or fantasy and roleplaying have to be competitive? Where is that rule? Competition in games is the easy route, and the easiest way to show a goal, especially as we’ve seen it for decades now. It does not mean it’s the only way.

    “I like the notion of developing a relationship over time and sex not being the end goal, but should we also include things like fighting over what curtains to buy, NPC infidelity, and male sexual performance issues? Surely there’s room for some of this in different games, but not across the board.” Nothing should be across the board, but there needs to be room for improvement somewhere. So far we’ve really to see much (if any) improvement along these lines, so to worry about it becoming overwhelming is putting the cart before the horse. Since this is unexplored area (outside of dating sims, perhaps, but I don’t have much experience with those–perhaps a project for me), these are questions we should ask, but we haven’t really asked them yet, so how can we say what’s going too far?

    “Is it a bad thing that we’re teaching kids that they have to have conversations with a woman about her aspirations and family history before trying to shove tongues down throats?” Do we have those conversations now? NPCs being chased rarely divulge their aspirations, and even if they do, it isn’t often that we’re helping them attain it. Our fetch quests seem mostly to consist of helping them with current problems. Conversation trees should be beneficial, but there’s a lot of room for improvement–including hints in those conversations when a person is simply not interested. Having a robust conversation that slowly dwindles would be one way of going about such a method.

    I will see if Bogost is going to be anywhere near–definitely sounds like a talk I’d like to hear.

  • The randomization thing was to address her demand that “some bisexual and straight women might not want to have sex with you, because they can choose not to want to,” as well as to pepper the population with a realistic mix of sexual preferences. And I didn’t say there was a rule that RPGs are competitive, just that they *are*, by-and-large. Some of these arguments you raised I already clearly agreed with in the body of my comment, so maybe you were thinking I was arguing against the writer instead of trying to work through design problems?

    Also the conversation about a woman’s aspiration and her family life is exactly the conversation you have with Ashley in Mass Effect (hence why I used it as an example). And I did have sex with Ashley in Mass Effect, I was simply pointing out that there were about 20 other women I was nice to in the game that I couldn’t have sex with (some of them even tried to kill me after I helped them!)… I just think Mass Effect tries pretty damn hard to be sensitive to these kinds of issues in a way that Alpha Protocol clearly doesn’t, and that they shouldn’t be coupled like this.

    Reflecting on this has also made me realize that, depending on the type of person you are, it’s actually easier to find sexual partners in real life than it is in a game like Mass Effect. We’re talking one comment at a drunken party versus 2 hours of dialogue trees (if you listen to the voice acting).

    I didn’t even like Mass Effect before reading this article.

  • Denis Farr says:

    Ah yes, that makes more sense with the randomization. Having not played Mass Effect, I cannot speak to the sex in the game (beyond the over sensationalized lesbian sex scene which may not have been–varying reports based on to whom you speak and where they fall on semantics). That’s a case which I cannot speak to, but in many of these games they do still seem to make particular personalities and instead of randomizing make it clear-cut as to yes or no at some point. Alpha Protocol seems to be the direct point of the request not to make all women able to be slept with.

    There do seem to be massive differences between Alpha Protocol and Mass Effect (the former seems much more linear and does not allow a protagonist selection at all). Though the larger point may still be the penultimate moment of sex. How was the relationship with Ashley after having sex with her? Did it improve, or was that the cap of the relationship?

    As to why they were paired, I think Raymond is trying to point out Millar’s point of creating a model where sex is a commodity, and instead of having sex be something both parties agree to, it’s merely something to which one person does not say no (what a bothersome sentence that is).

    “Reflecting on this has also made me realize that, depending on the type of person you are, it’s actually easier to find sexual partners in real life than it is in a game like Mass Effect.” I’d also like to see this reflected, but sex seems to be either a very laissez-faire affair with no attachment (Witcher, for example) or some shining beacon toward which we need progress. It’d be nice to break from that model as well.

    • Well no the relationship with Ashley or the Asari female ends with the sex, because directly after that scene you enter end-game mode. Maybe/hopefully Mass Effect 2 will remember which partner you chose and develop the relationship further? I did actually agree in my initial comment with Raymond’s desire to develop relationships further, I was just trying to figure out how to do it (which details to include or exclude)!

      I just remembered that male characters can’t have sex with Kaidan in Mass Effect, which means they allow female homosexual relationships but not male. So that’s definitely a weakness. I did really like that you didn’t just have to “be nice” to Ashley to get her to enter into a sexual relationship with you-you also had to be somewhat xenophobic, showing her that you preferred her over your Asari crewmember. That was an unusual level of nuance. Then there was the fact that the “sex” with the Asari, whether you were male or female, was a literalization of Platonic lovemaking (it was more like mind-melding).

      It also struck me that I’ve played so few RPGs where you can even have sex that Fable II’s open, blending sexuality stands so prominently in my head and clouds the fact that there are so many games that allow heterosexual relationships only. So I apologize for that mis-step.

      What I want to see most of all is a AAA game that forces the player to play a homosexual male; they’d be able to choose whether to pursue a male partner or repress their sexuality. It would be very interesting to see what hetero players of the game would decide to do.

      • Denis Farr says:

        It’s curious that the end-game comes about then, but I suppose I’ll just have to eventually rent the game (or buy it on some Steam sale). I certainly think it’s useful to think about where we should go, and how much is too much. Overall, I’m just amazed to think back on games and realize how much technical progress we’ve made, but are still facing so many growing pains in actual storytelling in both the traditional and new formats we’re facing.

        It’s something I realized when commenting in the thread at the original post, sex in RPGs seems largely a Western fascination. Romance seems played up much more in the jRPGs with which I’m familiar, and it’s rarely ever left to the devices of the player to decide the course of that romance. Perhaps some wiggle room here and there, but it seeks to tell a very straight-forward love story.

        Unfortunately, due to concerns on commercial viability, playing as a homosexual male will be some time away. It is curious to me to note how many more options there are for female with female sex than the opposite in games–Fallout 3 comes to mind. Then again, in the original Fable such was not an option, if I recall correctly. That may be a sign of the locale of the studios creating the games? Something to look into, at least.

        Yeah, The Witcher is one of those games in which I’m morbidly curious. I’ve heard arguments for and against the trading card system, but my initial response is just to cringe. It exemplifies what Raymond talks about in such a painful way. In many ways it just feels like it exemplifies in very literal terms the larger problem that Alpha Protocol may face (especially after reading the interviews they’ve had with the developers).

        “My thinking on the “it’s simply a situation in which one partner doesn’t say no” issue is just to posit that in Mass Effect when you play as a female it’s the exact same process to get Kaidan to love you. They’re at least egalitarian about it. The idea of making it more nuanced than that would require either the randomization I mentioned or a really complex algorithm that would take account of everything you did and said and then matched it with a hidden preference table on each character (ie they like it when you kill plant monsters in front of them but hate it when you team up with the Turian guy… a bunch of really wild things you’d never be able to guess but that would reflect actual human psychology).”

        I’m not someone who’s delved into programming at all (yet–somehow ended up with a starting book), so I can’t speak as to how feasible this is. Is it something that could be included with any reality? Then again, would it be considered worth the money?

        While it seems like a great end goal, I think perhaps starting simpler may be the clue? It wasn’t all that long ago that Experience Points pointed out that the touching that occurs in Prince of Persia stands out precisely because we rarely see believable intimate (and not necessarily sexual) touching scenes in games thus far. If that’s where we are, we have a lot of communication to cover in terms of just the basics of relationships.

        • As far as its feasibility, that wouldn’t be very hard to do… just annoying. It’d be an extra variable to add to each object/action and then a whole bunch of stuff parsing them out to the table on each individual character. Computationally simple but difficult to make realistic in practice. I think it’d be worth it, though.

          But you’re right about starting simple. How about GTA4 not making its only homosexual character a simpering moron? Right?

  • Oh yeah, and reading that comment about the Witcher in Raymond’s comment section made me want to throw up in my mouth. Playing cards for sexual partners? I haven’t played that game yet, and there’s another reason for me not to any time soon.

    My thinking on the “it’s simply a situation in which one partner doesn’t say no” issue is just to posit that in Mass Effect when you play as a female it’s the exact same process to get Kaidan to love you. They’re at least egalitarian about it. The idea of making it more nuanced than that would require either the randomization I mentioned or a really complex algorithm that would take account of everything you did and said and then matched it with a hidden preference table on each character (ie they like it when you kill plant monsters in front of them but hate it when you team up with the Turian guy… a bunch of really wild things you’d never be able to guess but that would reflect actual human psychology).

  • Kateri says:

    When I was writing a companion mod for Morrowind, the tone for the romance was set by a friend remarking “Sex in games won’t be realistic until someone utters the words, “Ouch, That was my elbow!”" Previously, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna include a romance, as I knew I could never write ‘traditional’ Mills ‘n’ Boon romantic scenes. After she said that, I knew how I wanted to handle it!
    Also included: jealousy, bickering, sulking and occasionally calling you the name of his ex-girlfriend. But there IS an upside, however it’s one of a hopefully-realistic emotional bond rather than one with ‘tangible’ benefits.

    What I find satisfying about it is that for every player who adored the romance part of the story, there is another who’ll tell me, “we were great friends, but I didn’t pursue the romance because he just wasn’t my character’s type.” Which is exactly how it ought to be. :)

    Currently in pre-production, a companion who’ll sleep with the player on a casual basis, but won’t actually enter a romantic relationship unless you really get to know her – who fears emotional intimacy more than sexual intimacy. I’d be interested to see how many (esp. straight male) players are actually interested in doing that, instead of just stopping with the (really not wildly titillating fade to black) sex option. I actually think the number is higher than one might think, within my target audience at least. One thing people have said to me about the character already is that they actively want to get to know her better rather than just sleep with her, sooo…

    • Alex says:

      Dude. Awesome!

      There was a post on Feministe (I think?) a while back about the statistics on men who join dating sites, and how the majority of them are actually looking for a potential marriage partner. It also had stats on how men live happier and healthier lives when in a monogamous relationship. It was really interesting (too bad I can’t find it right now >< ).

    • @ Kateri: That sounds incredible! I didn’t know Morrowind AI could do anything but unlock dialogue trees and adjust reaction levels based on your factions/stats. Sounds like I need to find a PC version and crack it open!

      I’m going to have to be honest, though. There’s a key difference between men who play videogames who have sex regularly in real life and men who don’t have sex regularly. For the former, they’re not really interested primarily in pursuing a sexual relationship in games. They’d be much more likely to want to engage in a friendly/sustained relationship with a female avatar. But it’s a double-edged sword, because since they’ve had regular relationships they’d expect the AI to behave at least somewhat like what they’ve experienced in the past–like you said, one friend wouldn’t buy it without “ouch, that was my elbow.” Which means you get pretty quickly into Uncanny Valley–faster than you would with any other subject.

      You work sounds freakin’ awesome though!

  • Alex says:

    I’m really not hating on Mass Effect, honest. It deserves some serious props for presenting sex and relationships in a truly mature way. I have only two criticisms of it; Denis got the first one in his comment above, that sex is the climax (sorry) of the relationship–that’s very Hollywood, so it’s also not very realistic.

    My other criticism is the heteronormativity of it. If they had actually wanted to be inclusive of gay men and lesbians, they would have had at least one dude for male Shepard to have a relationship with. Liara is, frankly, a cop-out. The only reason she is there is for straight gamers who love oogling lesbians (I suspect the reason male Shepard can’t romance a man is because it would squick out straight male gamers when it is presented as romantic rather than humorous as in Bully or Fable). And BioWare could respond to the complaints with “but she’s not REALLY a lesbian, she’s a sexless alien who just HAPPENS to be gendered female!” Why not have a human lady for female Shepard to sleep with?

    Other than that, I definitely think Mass Effect is a step forward.

    One weakness of my post was that I left out casual sex; there’s nothing wrong with casual sex, of course, as long as it’s two consenting adults who know exactly what they are getting into (meaning there is no coercion or trickery, which is simply wrong). This is only problematic when you’re playing as a dude who is collecting women as conquests, a la The Witcher.

  • Mass Effect feels like a significant step backwards from Jade Empire which included gay, lesbian and straight relationship options. That said it also allowed for the option of male characters to “get” both female characters.

    I also find it frustrating to see Obsidian taking this route because one of the most interest elements I found in KoTOR 2 (Also scripted by Chris Avellone) was that one of the female party members was very clear about how she was not interested in you. I suppose that shouldn’t have felt so unusual but it did, and I was pleased to see a female companion who didn’t exist purely to serve as the reward for some “romancing” side-quest.

    • Agreed, Mass Effect definitely takes a huge step in the direction of Hollywood space opera – Shepherd is basically meant for one of the two women on his ship, and the process toward making love to one of them feels very predetermined. Why I like it is this: if I have to play Hollywood, I’d prefer it to be good Hollywood. I also think Ashley is a pretty strong female love interest compared to most (admitting Liara is typical submissive, gentle stereotype), making her especially conducive to the performative sexual models that Raymond wants.

      KoTOR 2 was such a huge step across the board. The fact that they tempered straightforward moral choice by making the presence of different teammates affect the outcome was light years ahead of every other moral system in games.

      As to Mass Effect, are we not forgetting that Tali is a character with a complex back story and no romance side-quest? From my conversations with the crew members, I developed a Platonic attraction to Tali much more than with the other two women. Is this fact negated by the fact that she has to wear a crazy water-breathing contraption and is therefore rendered as not-human (or not-woman, or not-sexed) in a way the other women aren’t? Meh, maybe.

      Now I need to play Jade Empire again. I don’t even remember relationships in that game.

    • Kateri says:

      @Simon

      You’re absolutely right about the Uncanny Valley widening the more you try to fill it at times, or rather, you fill one crack, and then the crevasse next to it suddenly looks that much bigger in contrast.

      Even so… I think that making enjoyable/immersive romances in games is as simple (and as complex) as creating realistic and interesting NPCs. If you do that right, then the rest starts writing itself.

      I had fun trying to fill the Uncanny Valley with my little characterisation bucket and spade because I was an amateur, working in my spare time, with no deadline, no expectations and no pressure, so I COULD. Real games makers don’t get that kind of luxury, because all too often, stuff like NPC writing and dialogue isn’t prioritised. And that’s such a shame, because it really doesn’t take that much to create at least a reasonable semblence of a character who is ‘really there’ with you, and not just pixels on a mesh. Often it’s just about taking the time to play through the game and think, ‘now, what would Party Member X be saying at this point?’ Hell, if the voice acting budget’s already blown, I’ll take text-only! But I think we all remember Michael Abbot’s recent tirade on THAT subject – don’t skimp on the VA budget either!

      Justin mentioned KOTOR2, and I agree totally that there was so much potential there, your comrades were fantastic for the first half of the game. Then, you could practically see the line where they ran out of development time, and the extra dialogue, the little scenes on the ship, the character and relationship development all just… dried up. Atton was a fountain of snarky hilarity at first, but by the end all he could talk about was one line about playing cards. ;_; (Perhaps he was a fan of The Witcher?)

      In conclusion: forget achievements and freaking PLAYING CARDS, just give me characters I like and can believe in, and the interaction becomes its own reward.

  • Alex says:

    @Simon:

    “Where I disagree with you is in the assertion that Mass Effect wholly subscribes to the Nice Guy/Rape-Apologist male profile that you believe it does.”

    I don’t believe it does and I never wrote that.

    • Oh snaps. You’re right. It’s the quoting on this piece that makes it look like you do, and then I wasn’t able to mentally separate it when I re-read your post. Cool, then.

      • Denis Farr says:

        In which case, I apologize for not making it more clear. As this was my first post for Critical Distance, better capturing the whole of an argument, even if I supplement that alongside the quotations better, is something for which I’ll strive.

  • To any future readers of this comment section, here is a quote from olliemoon that explains exactly what I was missing when I started being rude to Alex:

    “Are you too blindsided by your own privilege to realize that something like Alex’s post isn’t about debating theory but about the actual reality that women live with? We don’t exist for your personal intellectual growth.”

    My sincere apologies to all parties.