Friday Roundtable: Should Games Portray Romantic and Sexual Relationships?

When videogames aren’t getting a grilling from the concerned, think-of-the-children media on ultra-violence and addiction, sex and nudity have become a new favourite scapegoat for those wishing to undermine the medium for the sake of a misdirected sense of  great justice. But, with the likes of the tacky Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas ‘Hot Coffee’ mod in existence, can anyone blame them?

Or, are we being prudes? Did San Andreas‘ humourous nature permit the rather disturbing and highly scandalous ‘rhythm-action’ minigame? Can the same be said for Leisure Suit Larry and Duke Nukem, which both dabble precariously on the fine line between saucy and sexist? Then, there are the more ‘mature’ game romances championed by RPG-aficionados BioWare. Are the relationships struck up with the likes of Miranda and Morrigan genuinely deep, or are they merely shallow subplots to distract the player from finishing the main quest too quickly?

So many questions, but only one Friday Roundtable: this week, Declan, Pascal, Chad, and Martin share their thoughts.

* * *

Declan:

Do romantic and sexual relationships belong in videogames? Gamers still live in an era where their most beloved entertainment medium rarely portrays female characters with any hint of modesty. Should we be surprised when the average gamer is a thirty-something male? The typical male space marine marches into battle in full combat armour, whilst his female counterpart inevitably forgets her bra and full-length shirt, a decision not exactly suited to combat. Let’s not kid ourselves: sex sells. Would Tomb Raider have done as well had its protagonist been Larry Croft and not Lara?

Ah, Leisure Suit Larry. Where did it all go wrong?

With games like Leisure Suit Larry and Lola on the shelves, you’d be forgiven for thinking the industry incapable of modelling believable romantic or sexual interaction. Though both of those examples aim to be tongue-in-cheek, they amount to little more than frat-boy sleaze. Take more serious games: The Witcher had its ‘sex cards’, collectibles awarded to the player after a sexual encounter with a female character; Fahrenheit, though liberal and (more-or-less) thoughtful in its portrayal of sex, superfluously included a scene where its female lead ambled around her apartment in skimpy nightwear, but not before an intimate shower scene.

Don’t mistake me for some sort of Elizabethan puritan: If a sensitive topic, like sex, can be done well, then by all means include it. BioWare – perhaps exceptionally – have done a generally good show of depicting romance in games, Mass Effect and Dragon Age being the most striking examples. But, despite this comparative maturity, pursuing a romantic relationship with, say, Tali in Mass Effect 2, is almost an inevitable consequence of a few dialogue selections. Relationships are instigated at the will of the player, and that is about as complex as it gets. Dragon Age: Origins’ identical approach to romance was worsened by its ugly and awkward sex scenes.

Can we overcome this uncomfortable obstacle, or will unhooking a bra with a controller’s shoulder buttons forever be a strange sensation?

Pascal:

So I gotta know, Dec: what game are you playing where bra-undoing is mapped to the control pad?

Generally speaking, sex and relationships aren’t as much a mainstay in videogames as violence – they’re not even in the same galaxy! Usually the extent of a relationship between a male and female character is Mario’s savior to Peach’s victim. The relatively few times we have seen actual relationships to date have been more recently, for the most part within the last two console generations. Maybe it’s starting to replace blood and gratuitous violence in the old “corrupting-the-kids-who-play-these-games” debate. BioWare is certainly no stranger to this aspect of their characters; many of their contemporary games feature optional relationships between characters. I remember this back in Jade Empire, where I was surprised that my female character ended up with a girlfriend by the time the credits rolled.

That’s another thing to consider: now that relationships have infiltrated the games we play, it took a comparatively short time for same-sex relationships to appear. Lionhead’s Fable II enabled players to choose a homosexual identity if they wished.

In Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream demonstrated how to write believable relationships.

On a very basic level, romance and attraction are a basic human need, and thus shouldn’t be construed as a taboo or shocking subject to be explored in games. But just as romance novels tend to not be everyone’s cup o’ tea, love in games makes for a more difficult sell.

Two last points worthy of note: There are some games which eschew the traditional ‘videogame with emotions’ in favor of a game based solely around the concept of relationships, at the same time showing the personal pain and blunt misery that can come from them. The upcoming Catherine is a good example of this, with its protagonist haunted by a fear of committment and guilt for cheating on his girlfriend. Was Shepard guilty after getting frisky with Liara? Finally, PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain took the concept of a loving relationship and turned it on its head, where the married couple become so estranged from each other over the death of their son that they finally divorce, and their lives take on a much more gloomy and barren quality.

I say including sex and love in games is favorable; it adds a new (if sometimes paper-thin) layer to the game’s characters. Apart from enjoying the dungeon hack ‘n’ slash of Dragon Age II, I had a sense of victory when I finally succeeded in having Hawke talk Isabela into a torrid night in bed – or was it Isabela who did the convincing…?

Chad:

It’s kind of funny that you mention Leisure Suit Larry, Dec, as the point of the original game was for this late-30s loser to lose his virginity by midnight, or he would kill himself. In any case the games were full of eye-candy, but Larry always played for humor (and often at its protagonist’s – and by extension the player’s – expense). *Insists the Larry games not involving Al Lowe do not exist*

In any case, I rather like romance subplots in games, so long as they’re optional, don’t eat up massive parts of the game, and are competently written. Sad to think that Revan and Bastila are better written than Anakin and Padme, isn’t it? Chemistry, or the illusion of it, as the case may be when you’re a silent protagonist like a Grey Warden, is an important part of the mix. BioWare seems to be the one company that has a competent handle on implementing these subplots, and they’ve run with it.

Oh, dear gods!

Most of us probably experienced our first romance subplot in a BioWare-made game. In my case, it was Baldur’s Gate II. I had no real idea it was going to happen, I was just being my nice guy Paladin self, comforting Jaheira after Khalid died, and before you know it I’m running a sidequest chain for her. I mean being Lawful Good, I was going to romance a Harper, not an evil Drow priestess… I’ll stop before I confuse the non-D&D geeks.

As for sex? Well, sex is a part of life (not my life at the moment, unfortunately), and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be included, thematically or otherwise. I really don’t see why people seem to get up in arms about sex, something most people will do in their lives, and yet they’re ok with graphic violence, which most normal people aren’t going to commit. BioWare handles it reasonably well in Mass Effect. Let’s say…’tastefully’, where most other games are content to ‘fade to black’. My only problem is that there are rarely consequences. Wait, I take that back: Wasteland had you getting herpes as an actual status effect for sleeping with a prostitute, and in the expansion pack for Baldur’s Gate II, if you romanced Aerie, she would be pregnant. At least Geralt in The Witcher has an excuse.

With Mass Effect 3 having same-sex romance options, can you say “insane pairings ahoy”?:

“Shepard.”

“Wrex.”

*MAKEOUT*

Pascal:

True that, Chad, the Larry games are all about the sex, or usually the lack thereof (at least on Larry’s part; everyone around him seems to be getting lucky all the time!). So in that case, it’s the quest for sex that makes for a game, and when Larry finally was successful at the end of a game, you felt like cheering out loud – Larry’s score was the long-awaited price for your troubles.

On a side note: Chad, were you celebrating or disavowing Larry Laffer games not involving Al Lowe? (My personal favorite: LSL 7: Love For Sail)

Back on topic: I think it’s important to delineate between games that offer a romantic side-plot, or are all about romance and relationships as a major part of the game/plot, and games that feature seedy, gratuitous scenes for exploitation. June’s Duke Nukem Forever, for example, is purely exploitative, but it makes no bones about it, and wouldn’t even be worth a look any other way. Its tongue-in-cheek approach to exploitation of every sort excuses its chauvinism. On the other hand, I remember the ‘Hot Coffee’ scandal of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Strange that these scenes – consensual, off-screen sex between two adults in a relationship – should have raised so many eyebrows. Meanwhile, in earlier installments of the series, one option to regain health was to pick up a prostitute, drive to a dark alley, and set the car a-rocking.

Chad:

I was disavowing the ones that weren’t made under the Sierra banner, basically. The two godawful ones from recent years. The ones where you don’t play Larry Laffer, but his dumbass nephew or something. The ones that do not exist.

Also, I don’t know why we haven’t brought up the bravest romance in any game ever: that of Parappa and Sunny in Parappa the Rapper. Never before has the forbidden love between a dog and a flower been portrayed quite so well.

Even when the romance is written into the plot and not really interactive, it can be done well: take the Nate/Elena/Chloe love triangle in Uncharted 2, which is probably more interesting than whatever the hell it was Drake was searching for (I honestly don’t remember). Nate and Elena had a good thing going in the original…and then Chloe shows up as Drake’s old flame. It’s almost cliched, but it’s so well played and written that it comes off as fun and generally charming. And let’s face it, were I in a relationship, I too would reconsider it if a woman with Claudia Black’s voice showed up.

Mass Effect 2: another game with some stellar romance.

Martin:

My first experience of seeing a relationship (and carrying it out, so to speak) in a game was Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and I have to agree that the relationship between Bastila and Revan was so much more believable than Anakin and Padme ever were in the movies. Again, it all comes back to BioWare’s handling of the topic. It’s the fact that you can’t just dive straight in and instead must build and nurture a relationship that makes it more meaningful, and purposeful to the game. For example, the way my Shepard’s relationship played out with Miranda (as it would have done for many players) seemed quite natural, while still having a great element of romance to it (that being the love-making scene happening as you enter the Omega 4 Relay, on your way into the unknown).

On the other hand, other games have portrayed it terribly. One of the most disappointing aspects of Fahrenheit was how Carla somehow fell in love with the man she’d been hunting for days, so suddenly. What we get next is a pointless sex scene. This lack of relationship development throughout the game not only hinders the player’s engagement with the story, but also doesn’t do much to help videogames.

Therefore, videogames should portray this sort of stuff, but so long as it’s sufficient. That’s not to dismiss Pascal’s point about Duke Nukem Forever. That game is like that for a reason.

Duke Nukem, a parody of the super-macho. Don't like it? Blow it out yo... Ah, fine, I won't go there.

Chad:

The thing about Leisure Suit Larry and Duke Nukem both is that they’re not super-serious. They’re cartoon characters. Parodies. Their attitudes are pretty much played for laughs, as Duke is pretty much a pastiche of the super-macho heroes in ’80s Schwarzenegger flicks (like Commando). Larry I’ve always thought of as being kind of the Animal House of gaming, a raunchy but ultimately pretty good-natured sex comedy, where the ‘heroes’ tend to be losers who inevitably find themselves in funny or embarrassing situations and have to rely on wits and dumb luck to get out of it.

Martin:

Exactly, and those stereotypes are enjoyed for those reasons you give. I mean, Leisure Suit Larry strikes me as being the American Pie of videogames, albeit less crude, perhaps. And I love how outrageous Duke Nukem is; it’s what makes it so laugh-out-loud funny. I only hope that younger gamers who are unfamiliar with Duke Nukem 3D don’t misinterpret his character or read too much into how he is with women – do you think there’s a danger of that happening, should (as they inevitably will) minors get their hands on the game come 10 June?

Pascal:

Buyer beware, I say! I don’t think there’s any way anybody who’s seen the commercials for the game, even if they’re not familiar with the franchise, could expect a conservative experience – this game’s a through and through T&A extravaganza, and makes no bones about it.

That being said, it’s inevitable for the first wave of outraged parents and activist groups to hit every local media known to man, and cry bloody murder about the unraveling of societal fabric; I file this under the same heading as the dad who was speechless and incensed about the “adoption jokes” in Portal 2 – get over it and move on with your life already!

The Mortal Kombats and Dooms of the world were the major source for controversy when I was growing up, and their blood-filled and/or satanist messages were surely meant to turn my generation into a mass of foaming-at-the-mouth, raging, savage devil worshippers who bathe in baby guts for relaxation – I say we’re no more or less well-adjusted than the generations before us. Kids are resillient – if parents are irresponsible enough or lack the common sense to keep a child who can’t handle mature subject matter from playing Duke, then they shouldn’t blame it on the game itself.

...and all faith in humanity was lost.

Declan:

Pascal, I don’t think the general public should be outraged by sex or nudity in games either. What’s worse is that there are plenty of conservative news outlets intent on demonising and misconstruing videogames as the playthings of a few friendless basement-dwellers. Need I remind anyone of the ridiculous “‘Se’Xbox?” headline that the ever-respectable Fox News ran on Mass Effect’s romance scenes? They danced around the fact that they were tasteful and relevant, rather concentrating on the possibility that children might see a bare backside or the side of a breast, as if any young adolescent competent enough to finish a complex RPG hadn’t witnessed anything more erotic on National Geographic; naturally, the game’s age rating was dismissed.

Also, don’t get me wrong: I certainly appreciate the tongue-in-cheek humour of the likes of Leisure Suit Larry and Duke Nukem. They have always taken comedic approaches to sex and romance, and should therefore be treated with that in mind. However, the latest iterations of the Leisure Suit Larry series, Magna Cum Laude and Box Office Bust, have been abominations, lacking all the tact and humour of their ‘90s predecessors. Fairies with dildos? Really? Like Chad, I refuse to acknowledge their existence.

At the same time, I don’t think romantic and sexual relationships should be packaged in for the sake of it. If they’re not done well, it shows. As Martin said, the sex scene between Lucas and Carla in Fahrenheit was sudden and totally unexpected, a bizarre affair slapped on not long before the game’s closing credits. Even as a clueless 14-year-old, despite the – dare I say it – titillation of the moment, Carla no longer seemed an independent, strong lead, but rather a whimsical servant of a stoic Lucas, who, oddly, didn’t appear to care too much for the event.

It is clear, though, that developers do need to innovate and think beyond the superficial of a few correct button presses, though how this can be achieved is beyond me. Does it all boil down to better writing? In a game where romantic and sexual relationships aren’t central to the plot, there’s the double-edged sword of wasting time on extraneous scenes of courtship and writing stupidly hollow and unbelievable dialogue for virtual sex dolls. Though Mass Effect 2 had its superb relationships between Shepard and Jack and Liara, in stark contrast, we have the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Fable II, the latter with its frankly embarrassing sex scenes with easily romanced bystanders, and an awkward blacked-out ten seconds of camp Carry On one-liners; the fact that you could catch STIs made it even more ridiculous, almost to the point where it seemed Molyneux and co. were including a clever pro-contraceptives campaign for oversexed British teenagers.

To paraphrase Pascal, sex and romance in videogames have barely been touched. BioWare have really been the ones to bring them both into the ‘mainstream’, so to speak. With that in mind, perhaps it’s unfair to judge what could be thought of as an immature theme so soon.

* * *

BnB writers have shared their thoughts, and now it’s your turn. What do you think: How should romance be portrayed in games? Is there room for rhythm-action sex minigames, or are they precisely what demeans the themes of romance and sex in the medium as a whole? Should developers try and approach the subject with careful innovation, or should it be omitted altogether?

The table is yours.



Comments
3 Responses to “Friday Roundtable: Should Games Portray Romantic and Sexual Relationships?”
  1. Jordan Rivas says:

    I was disappointed with the romance subplots in ME2. I’m annoyed and repulsed by the attempts at romance dialogue options in Dragon Age 2. Bioware has unfortunately traveled from mildly believable and naturalistic in their depictions of romantic character relationships to cheeky and awkward.

    I think in the mainstream Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit have shown promise. On the indie front I think “Digital: A Love Story” and “Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It just Ain’t Your Story” are both contemplative and sober explorations of romantic themes through an interactive medium.

    • Martin Watts says:

      I can’t entirely agree on Fahrenheit, mainly for the reason I gave in the discussion concerning Carla and Lucas’ relationshop. It was just so forced. However, Tyler’s relationship with his girlfriend (whose name escapes me) was actually pretty well portrayed. It showed the strain that external events can have on a relationship in a very effective way. That and Tyler’s overly casual personality was perfectly-suited to prolonging the difficulty.

      Thanks for your comment, Jordan, hopefully you’re becoming something of a local here! 🙂

  2. Steerpike says:

    Great discussion. SHOULD games? Sure, absolutely. CAN they do it really well right now? No, for two reasons – graphics and animation technology don’t make it look realistic (it’s like mannequins knocking together), and developers aren’t yet very good at crafting realistic romances. Romance and sex scenes shouldn’t be a reward for getting a conversation tree correct or reaching a point in the game, they should be part of character and narrative evolution. I think there’s opportunity here, but so far what we’ve seen is baby steps. Outstanding dialogue on the subject, guys!

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