So recently there have been quite a few articles circulating around the interwebs about why sex in video games looks unrealistic, or games being viewed as art or similar to movies, relating specifically to how it just isn't there. I don't think that will ever happen, just by the nature of how video games are. They are different from other mediums, and should be embraced as such. (This blog contains spoilers for The Darkness, NieR, some talk of Deadly Premonition, and a picture of Miranda's Ass. Large spoilers marked.)
I was thinking about why sex scenes in video games don't have the same impact as a sex scene in a movie, or doing the horizontal monster mash in real life, even. Starting off easy, in Fable you get to pick an arbitrary woman, and your flirting is comprised mostly of trying to impress her with your farts/belches/jokes/dances. Then after you marry her, you get to see the other 714 different characters in the same town that look exactly like her, and it makes it rather pointless to have selected her as the shining example of fidelity and womanhood. Her seven dialog lines are rehashed over and over again as you go through the motions to get to a quality knobbing, and maybe even an achievement pop.
When you play Mass Effect you are running around the galaxy with your harem of space babes. All of you are quipping one liners as you take out robot hordes, shoot down giant insects, or just kill bounty hunters. I am so horny right now! But seriously the entire game is spent in the heat of battle, with mild emphasis on dicking around on the ship. I think this starts to explain why I only liked the secretary on the ship. Don't get me wrong, there was video sex appeal with some of the other characters, but she was the only person who I got a chance to talk to about crap that wasn't story related. I mean, if I spent all day with crazy hot chicks, but all we did was work, talk about work, then debrief after work, I would want to date anyone else in the world (I work in insurance). I want to go out for a beer with them, invite them to a movie, stick my hand down their....you know, get to know them before I show them the wedding tackle.
Image searching 'Miranda that ass' is safe for work!...for about 3 pictures.
So then the question is left hanging there: what makes a connection to a character relatable, and more importantly, bangable? My answer is the little things in life. A relationship isn't formed by the defining moments in your life, it is defined by the day to day between two people. It isn't a sprint to see who gets to love first, but a marathon to see who hates last. So what games had this right? The first game is the Darkness
In the Darkness you play as a ruthless mob member, suddenly imbued with god like powers. You tear through gang member after gang member, without a hint of remorse. It is your day job. Then you meet up with Jenny. And you know what happens? She made you a cake. It's your birthday. Lets watch some TV. Cuddle on the couch. No mobsters. No demons. Just you, a girl, a couch, and the TV. I will admit, the first time I played, I stayed with her for the achievement associated with wasting the time. The character's thoughts mirrored my own: “This is kind of lame sitting here, but there is probably a reward at the end of it. This TV program is stupid. Not even going to eat the cake. I have no less than 100 people to kill, including Pauly. I suppose I should get on that, but there is a girl resting on me. Ah well.” That moment made the connection to me. Just sitting there, enjoying her virtual company, combined with her innocence, made her death all the more poignant.
This is one of the most defining moments of my gaming life
So many games use the Super Meat Boy approach of: this is you girlfriend, you love her because she is your girlfriend, do you love her, k, shes dead now ooohhhh noooooooo. Games have the opportunity to take the time to build the relationships. You can play for 80 hours, and even if you spend one of those developing a single relationship it is more time than any movie can.
The second example is a part of the game called Deadly Premonition. Did I say a part? I meant the whole thing. The entire game was a series of small encounters. Name your favorite scene from that game. Was it York eating lunch with Emily, when Mr. Steward shows up? Was it when York first showed up and talked to Polly at the inn? Or how about when you are driving, and talking about movies? The entire game is centered around interactions between characters. None of the memorable moments are the same as Call of Duty where it is some action centric nuke fest. From my perspective, when I have left a girl I don't think about her in some epic moment that defined our relationship. It was that song that played in the park, or the time when the waiter talked about some internet meme. The gameplay in Deadly Premonition is terrible, the graphics decidedly last gen, but the story it tells is superb. This is what makes everyone, but specifically Thomas' and Emily's stories that much more interesting to follow through the game. (Come to think of it, Grand Theft Auto 4 did a lot of this as well, just going on dates and shooting the breeze, which made all of the characters conclusions a lot more meaningful. I was legitimately mad at the end of both games, possibly from that connection.)
So why don't games focus on the small details like that? Games are first meant to be interactive. The player always wants a chance to pick up the controller and play along. Vanquish spent about twenty minutes setting up “yo, you see those robots, shoot em”. The first time I played, I skip the intro. It wasn't important, I just wanted to shoot. If a game doesn't offer some control to the player, then why are we even playing a game instead of reading a book or a movie? So to create an experience where the player is having small interactions, yet keeping involved is difficult at best. PRESS LB TO CUDDLE. Just not quite the same. The small interactions while meaningful are often hard to convey as button presses. Having never played Heavy Indigo Prophesy Rain I can't say how well these actions are integrated, but from what I hear...poor.
Reason number two why games are bad at conveying this: games are meant to be fun. All games are action centric, and spending the time to build character and develop feelings isn't 'fun'. Press X to talk to have your character reflect on his emotions. QTE to tell a joke. This could (and usually does) go on for long amounts of time. One of the most interesting experiences I had was playing the game NieR (play it!). I made it to the village of Facade, a village devoted to rules. A local explains the first three or so without letting you opt out. At first I was speeding through text, and then I thought: “If I were reading a book right now, I would be loving this, but I just want to kill stuff”. As soon as I realized that, I took my time with the game. I listened to every rule that she mentioned, and laughed at some of the more eccentric ones. Enjoyed the little bits. This did absolutely nothing for me later on. There was no password to get through a door later, no clue to how to get a more powerful weapon. It was just part of the lore of the game. (SPOILER: Later on when the town gets attacked, I was moved. When the king helps you in the last dungeon of the game...sacrificing everything he has to buy you time to help your daughter, after all he had been through. The whole scene is one of the top ten for me in that game. And that's saying something. END SPOILER) I think for most people though, the pointless exposition would only serve as a hindrance to the action.
This leads into the fact that games are meant to be action centric. Look at every Lord of the Rings game. Frodo walks for twelve hours, talking to Sam. Then, they stay at an inn. Then they walk and talk for twelve hours. The elves give them some bread. The king is slowly being corrupted by an agent of Sauron. In the meantime, holy crap, Gandalf is fighting a Balrog, throw that in the game. Town under siege, giant epic battle, all good. Oh, Frodo is leaving the Shire? Sum that up in an epilogue, lets goooooo. If a game doesn't focus on the action, the point of having it as a game is gone.
Imagine....forty hours of walking. Walking with you hetero life partner
The last thing that separates a game has to have difficulty built in. Difficulty implies failure. Failure implies restarting from a checkpoint, and ruining any mood that might have been. Action is easy to interrupt for a 'try again' screen, but romance is a little bit harder to pick back up, mostly because to me it comes off as a spur of the moment thing. Its a passing remark, a half nervous, half witty comment, meant to impress once just to get someones attention. To watch that same awkward, forced comment again and again because I didn't deliver it with the right emphasis? That would kill any connection I made.
I just don't think that video games will ever be the medium for meaningful or sexual encounters as long as these things hold true. And I don't think this is a problem with gamers, but the whole system. We play games to have fun, and action is what is the main cause of fun. To take time to build character is to take time away from the action and fun, and why we play the game. I am curious to see how Catherine turns out, stateside. The game seems to put action and storytelling side by side. I also haven't played 999 yet, but I have heard good things about it's storytelling. Perhaps there needs to be a new genre of game built towards storytelling so that no standards are set for the genre. Until then, it just wont work.