Sex is hot, steamy and the pinacle of everyone's lives. If you haven't had sex yet, you have yet to enter adulthood and are just a little babby.
Or at least that's how sex is presented in mainstream media. Comic books, movies, television shows and even porn present sex as something it pretty much isn't. Sex can be filthy, embarassing and weird. It can happen with awkward couples who don't know what they're doing or between two strangers who don't know each other's ins and outs.
Unlike in dominant media, sex is not a fine art. I would compare it more to a child's paper-mache art project. It's rough, with a lot of flaws but there's the intention of something beautiful and that's what matters. Unfortunately that's not how most media presents it, including video games.
The sad reality is that quite a few video games present sex like this.
It's embarassing to watch. It presents sex as some kind of dominant male power-fantasy... which is fair considering that's what God of War is. I didn't expect much in terms of realistic representation of sex in a game where you gouge out a cyclops' eye with your bare hands. Needless to say when it comes to sex, women do not stand around and stare as a man bangs a group of women at the same time, with all of them climaxing simultaneously in a shower of red orbs as a reward.
As I said though, that's the tone God of War is going for. It's a 13-year-old's version of edgy gore in the same way Mortal Kombat was in the 90s, so we should reasonably expect a 13-year-old's depiction of sex. I'm being insulting because I find this sex scene ridiculous, but I don't want to insult the developers too much. It was their artistic choice to include this in their game, and Googling 'God of War sex scenes' yields numerous cringe-worthy results.
But we can do better. Let's look at some examples of games that try, with some failing and succeeding in different ways. Not all of these games necessarily depict the act of sex, but talk about sex and have some degree of respect for the topic. And the first game I thought of was Persona 4.
Persona 4 has numerous options when it comes to dating. Most of the females you have in your party are datable, and their quest-lines have you help them resolve some kind of trauma or stress in their lives, with the two of you growing closer as a result. Yukiko is the child of a wealthy family and heir to their resort, but she doesn't want to run the resort and wants to choose her own destiny. Naoto is a female detective disguised as a male, with her gender identity being pretty fluid for the most part. As you help her solve a case you help her discover how she feels about her gender. It's all pretty well-written stuff.
No matter whom you choose, you help them resolve their problems and the bonds between you become romantic. There's a final scene where your partner expresses their love and it's implied there's sex afterwards by the way they ask to spend the night.
I do like how you need to develop your relationship with your partner before taking the plunge into such a momentous ocassion. It feels like you and your partner are working towards something special. However, this isn't without problems.
The first is that sex is treated like a reward. It only comes at the end of the relationship, and there doesn't seem to be anything left afterwards. You can talk with your partner and continue spending time with them, but after that night the relationship doesn't continue to grow from there.
The other problem is that the game has no qualms with you two-timing and forming a relationship with everybody you can. This takes away from the impact of forming a real bond with another person, and presents each potential partner as replaceable. Persona is described as half-dating sim, and while this is sort-of true, it's also a friendship sim. It wants you to form connections with the people around you, and some of that is lost when those special connections are so replaceable.
Up next we have a sex simulator where you can bone anyone and anything in any way you desire. Mass Effect!
Silly controversies aside, Mass Effect is very similar to Persona 4. In each game you have an option of which teammate to romance, with the options growing in each subsequent game. In each game you connect with your potential partner through dialogue and can have special encounters with them where you court them. Mass Effect kind of suffers since each partner is mostly filled with admiration for you. After all, you're not just any space marine, you're Commander Shepard.
Mild fantasy-fulfillment aside, I think Mass Effect does a good job of forming a bond between the two partners. My favourite has always been Garrus. He's a man focused on the mission, and looks up to you professionally. However, he does have a soft spot for you, but doesn't know how to phrase things. He's not the romantic type, and struggles to get past not only the professional divide, but the species divide as well.
But he's cute. He struggles with things you'd expect a person of an alien species to struggle with, and his moments with you are tender. In Mass Effect 3 he takes you out on a date where you shoot at targets, and you have the option of letting him win or showing you're a better shot. There's no right answer, and though the scene plays out whether or not you date him, it carries a sentimentality with it if he's your chosen parter.
Now, Mass Effect would suffer the same fate as Persona 4, where sex becomes a reward at the end of the relationship before the final mission. But there's something different about Mass Effect, and that's how your choices have some consequences.
At the end of the game your partner shares a moment of love before the final mission where no one knows who will live or die. Seeing your partner end up dead during the suicide mission of Mass Effect 2 was heartbreaking for me, and something I wouldn't wish on anybody else. But assuming your partner does live past each game, their lives continue on. You reconnect at some point in the next game and have an awkward conversation about where you've been for months and where your relationship stands. It's great stuff.
You get the sense that two people got into an intense romantic relationship prior to a live-changing mission, and now these two people are staring at each other and don't know what to do.
"So.... what now?" says the person who you shared the night with prior to the mission where you didn't know if you would live.
It's great stuff, and you can choose where to proceed from there? Was that night just a fling used to distract yourself from the horrors of what was to come? Or was there something there that you want to go back to? Or maybe that sexy green man on Deck 2 has got your eye and you're fixing to move onto the next hot alien? It's up to you and your preferences, but you can't get around that awkward conversation.
Again, it's not perfect. There's a bit too much "Shepard, I look up to you soooo much" that it's a bit cringey at times. But it develops things and asks you to look at the choices you've made and where you want to go next. Sex isn't just the cheese at the end of the maze, but something that tethers the relationship at different parts. Not perfect, but it goes somewhere.
So we've had two games where sex is used as some kind of reward for player choice, with varying degrees of success. Is there a game that offers sex in a non-interactive form that does it tastefully? Yes, and it's not where you'd think it is.
That is BJ Blascowitz in Wolfenstein: The New Order. How does a man whose name is BJ, a precursor to the macho-manly-men protagonists of 90s FPS games show sex in a positive light? By making it feel human.
The New Order takes place in the 1960s where the Nazis won World War II. Blascowitz is an American soldier whose been in a coma since the end of the war and awakens to find the world in a dreaded state. Anya, his caretaker during his coma, helps him escape and the two form a relationship as they flee from the Nazis and rebuild the resistance.
Blasowitz is presented as a family-man in a world where he doesn't have a famiy. He has dreams of a faceless woman making burgers on a barbeque and kids running around in the backyard. But he doesn't live in the world where that can exist. Instead the world is bleak, where he and anyone deemed unfit is exterminated, and he'll never get to live a real life with a family.
So he and Anya hook up on a train to Berlin. At first it doesn't seem like anything other than stress-reducing sex, which is great. Moments beforehand Blascowitz is threatened by a Nazi general, and I think anyone could use a break from the world after that. In that instance sex isn't a big moment in their relationship, but a casual hookup when their lives could end at any moment.
But they continue to bang as the game goes on. The two begin talking sweetly to each other, and in Blascowitz's dreams the faceless woman becomes Anya. She becomes a part of his fantasy where the world is normal and he has a family. It's implied they're trying to conceive a child together and make a real family.
I won't spoil the ending, but their relationship and his yearning for a family feeds into the main plot really well, and makes the ending far more dramatic. It's only plot-relevant, but regardless it presents sex as something for short-term messy fun and as something to be shared romantically.
My final example sits pretty close to me. It's my favourite visual novel, Don't Take it Personally Babe, It Just Ain't Your story.
Don't Take it Personally casts you as Mr. Rook, a failed writer who has taken up teaching literature at a pretigious private school as a mid-life crisis. Unfortunately you ended up in a class of hormonal and dramatic teenagers with their share of sexy adventures.
Christine Love is a fantastic writer, and creates something engaging for all ages here. While the drama is centred around teens, it's engaging from an adults perspective. We both get to chuckle and say "yup, been there, done that." We also get to see how their situations are resolved, and how those resolutions can apply to other real life scenarios, regardless of age.
In the game, the students use the school's social media platform, which you, unbeknownst to them, have complete access to all of their private communications. Like a voyeur you spy on their social lives, in the excuse of preventing bullying. Actually though, you're intended to help them resolve their social problems and end up acting as a councellor to them.
One couple suffered a bad breakup and are trying to get back together again. One boy just broke up with his girlfriend and has himself finding feelings for a boy in his class, despite identifying as straight. Meanwhile one of the students is trying to hit on you, breaking the student-teacher relationship.
And each of the couples deals with sex in different ways. The broken up couple end up patching things up and use social media to send dirty texts and nudes to each other. It presents their sexual activity in a way we see in the real world, but not in video games: as being easily exploited and viewed by others online. You can view the very intimate details of their relationship and how they use social media for sex.
Meanwhile, the straight boy turns out to be gay and ends up going out with the other guy in class. You learn that they spent an intimate night together, which seals the deal for the discussion of his sexual orientation. The is-he-isn't-he conversation ends pretty much there and the two create a supportive relationship. It sounds like the game is trying to say "he had gay sex, therefore he's gay" but it's not that way at all. When others have questioned the validity of their relationship, the two were able to move past that and do something special together.
Meanwhile, as a teacher with very poor adherence to the rules, you have the option to go out with the student who has been pestering you, and even buy one of your students alcohol for their night with their special girl. These students are young, experimental and are either figuring out their sexuality or excersizing it liberally. If you couldn't tell, queerness is one of the key themes of the game, and Love is able to tell a powerful story where sex becomes a part of the relationship instead of a dramatic reward, and the player is given a voyeuristic look into those relationships.
We've touched on a lot of different typs of games, from JRPGs to western action-RPGS, shooters and visual novels. Each one tackles sex differently from the others, and while no game has handled it perfectly (I don't think that'll ever happen) each game tries to respect the topic.
Sex means different things to different people. For some people sex is meant to be a moment shared only with someone they truly love, and is something to be built up to. For others sex is something used for fun, or to take their mind off of something else. There's no right or wrong way to have sex, and I feel like too many forms of media send the message that there's only one kind of sex.
I think the games I've talked about have shown otherwise. I want games to normalize the topic of sex, to remove not only the taboos of it, but the expectations of what sex should look or feel like. Games should explore sex in different ways, not as a reward or QTE, but as something to be had between two or more people in varying circumstances.