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analogue: a hate story

Why do Romantic Options Suck?

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Why do Romantic Options Suck?

Commander Citrine Shepard of the SSV Normandy didn’t have time for romance. To her, the characters who wanted to jump her bones were boring, flat, and occasionally psychotic. Thane was clearly on a suicidal rebound after the death of his wife, Jacob may as well have been a computer terminal that hung out in the weapons lab, and Garrus was just a friend. Not to mention Samara was the virgin mary and the commander would feel like a predator by responding to Yeoman Chambers’ repeated requests for a consequence-free night. Either way, this was a suicide mission goddamnit. No time for fun or games or trying to figure out how you would even get Garrus’s armor off in the first place.

I will take ANY excuse to use this image. Any excuse.

I will take ANY excuse to use this image. Any excuse.

I mean, isn’t that thing like fused to his body at this point? Have you ever seen him wear a t-shirt?

In real life though, Commander Shepard didn’t romance anyone because the player (me) wasn’t interested in the handful of options presented. Personally, Tali seemed like a fun character to interact with, and I like her rapport with my Shepard. It seemed a shame she couldn’t be romanced by a Shepard of either gender. So, I rolled a male Shepard on another run just to see what happened.

I was just as bored with her romance as I was with everyone else’s.

Quarian containment suits also function as convenient censors in case of unexpected intimate situations.

Quarian containment suits also function as convenient censors in case of unexpected intimate situations.

Bioware games are often hailed as some of the best written games of all time, with fantastic characters and, of course, romantic options. Unfortunately, those romantic options fall flat more often than not. Just be nice to a character, and eventually they’ll want to jump your bones. Then, you’re treated to a sexless sex scene and go on with your game, only ever thinking about it when the character mentions your night together in passing.

The problem is that there isn’t a lot of space in Mass Effect, or even any Bioware game, to develop a relationship past the surface level one presented to you. Tali might grow as a character after you complete her loyalty missions and see how she acts in dire situations, but your relationship with her never goes beyond a commander-subordinate or friend-friend, unless you flip the magic switch that makes her super physically attracted to you.

These kids belong together, mostly because they can never ever leave their crazy space armor,

These kids belong together, mostly because they can never ever leave their crazy space armor,

Dating sims excel at growing a believable relationship between you and another character because that’s all they do. You only get to have actual conversations with your partner characters in Mass Effect between missions, the meat of the game. Essentially, it’s a matter of where the gameplay focus is. If the gameplay focus is romance, you need to make it work. If it’s shooting aliens with fireballs, romance is probably a secondary concern.

That’s not to say what Bioware does isn’t admirable. Their characters are spectacular, and it’s easy to see why people want to fall in love with any of them. Garrus is charmingly awkward, Tali is sweet and kind, Jacob is...uh...well, you get the gist. There’s the secondary problem of the odd selection of characters you’re given to romance. There are always complaints that certain characters’ romances are exclusive to one gender, or that some characters aren’t romanceable at all.

In fact, Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider addressed this in a blog post recently. He mentioned that people are always disappointed, either in the romances themselves or the selection of available romances. He says he’s been accused of having an agenda by fans angry that their character didn’t get picked. And he answers the burning question that’s been scorching my tongue since the Tali romance annoyed me so much, why not drop them entirely?

To be fair, Dragon Age gets a little more risque than Mass Effect does, but that's probably because Alistair doesn't wear a 10-ton suit that's keeping him alive.

To be fair, Dragon Age gets a little more risque than Mass Effect does, but that's probably because Alistair doesn't wear a 10-ton suit that's keeping him alive.

Gaider says that Bioware’s strength is in their character writing. That romances are a Bioware signature, something unique that they do that almost every other major game developer can’t even get started on, let alone get right. Gaider asks what they could replace romances with? Whatever it is, he says, had better be “damned good.”

And I’m inclined to agree with Gaider, if only because other romantic “options” fall flat on their faces. Maybe Bioware doesn’t nail the romantic part of the equation, or even the choice part super well, but they do make characters you want to fall in love with. I’ve never seen another game with characters that even get close to approaching that.

"It's only natural that I fall in love...because you are the protagonist and you talked to me like 30 times."

"It's only natural that I fall in love...because you are the protagonist and you talked to me like 30 times."

The Persona games feature various romantic options as “social links”, relationships you can build to give you a boost in battle. The problem is, there’s really no choice to them. Sure, you can pick better options that’ll please your chosen paramour, but at the end of the day, as long as you talk to them enough, they’ll go out with you. Persona 4 doesn’t even penalize you for cheating on your girlfriends. You could be dating the entire town, and no one even bats an eye. And trust me, they all know, it’s a tiny town.

Hubba's a creepy old man, but at least he's open minded.

Hubba's a creepy old man, but at least he's open minded.

Fire Emblem: Awakening’s shipping mechanic, in which you pair off characters to increase their stats and create new units from their children is less about romance and more about playing matchmaker god. Pick who goes with who, and as long as they’re compatible, they’ll pop out a kid for your army. No choices, no mess, no fuss. It’s like chess, but you can pick the pieces up and make them kiss until a new piece magically appears.

Even games that feature romantic interests for their protagonists without the illusions of choice tend to be lame. Uncharted’s Elena exists mostly to shrug and look annoyed whenever protagonist Nathan Drake quips after slaughtering a village of mercenaries. Most of the time, we don’t even get to to know the love interests. Shadow of the Colossus starts with the death of Mono, Wander’s beloved, and we have to help rescue her. Dishonored begins with the murder of the empress, and then eventually gets around to telling the player that oh yeah, turns out she and Corvo were totally getting it on in the bedroom and you should probably take this whole thing more personally.

To be fair, Mono never said NOT to make a deal with the devil for her life. She never really said anything, actually...

To be fair, Mono never said NOT to make a deal with the devil for her life. She never really said anything, actually...

That’s mostly a quirk of writing though. Revenge is an easy motivation for the slaughter of thousands,  and games tend to have less than stellar writing, simply because they need to put their priorities into making something that plays well. Obviously, there are plenty of games that buck the trend, but when you combine stilted writing and the illusion of romantic choice, you’re just asking for disaster.

Go on! Bake her a cake!

Go on! Bake her a cake!

Very few games nail both sides of that equation Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story is a visual novel with dating sim elements, and has two spectacularly well-written paths for its romanceable characters. Of course, they’re the only two characters in the game, and since it’s a visual novel, it lives and dies by its writing. Unfortunately though, it’s not the standard. Most of the time we have games like Persona, with great writing, but sort of lackluster “romance” elements, or Fire Emblem, with an interesting romance system, but a lack of real options.

CHROM: LIVE AND UNCENSORED.

CHROM: LIVE AND UNCENSORED.

Seriously, the fact that Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn’t let you ship the male cast with each other is a crying shame, especially considering the way some of them act around each other.

But, romantic options are here to stay, simply because they’re popular, and for good reason. We like having choices, we like to customize our experience. Also, some consumers really like the idea that they’ll get a PG 13 sex scene at some point during the game. But, they might just keep feeling half-hearted, at least for a little bit.

Big-budget, AAA titles don’t prioritize fantastic writing, because it’s not something they think their core audience cares about. Similarly, they tend to avoid having same-sex relationships in games because they want to remain “uncontroversial”. Due to budget and time concerns, It’s harder for smaller indie games, which often have the space to prioritize good writing, to have significant romantic options if that isn’t the whole point of their game, like in Analogue. Like it or not Bioware really is the only studio with a big budget behind them who tries to have significant romantic options at all in a game that isn’t about romance. Maybe Intelligent Systems will try harder with their next Fire Emblem though. Hopefully they learn from their mistakes, because man, I ship Chrom and Frederick so hard.

They're adorable!

They're adorable!

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

Games can’t have sex in them. Sure, Mass Effect can insinuate sex and cut to black, and God of War can feature a topless lady or two, but when it comes to a realistic, mature depiction of sex, major publishers and the ESRB get skittish.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Full frontal, uncensored nudity will get you slapped with an AO rating. Adults only, 17 and up, the video game equivalent of movie’s NC17. It’s been described as the kiss of death for any game that gets it, since none of the console manufacturers let AO games on their machines, and many brick and mortar stores refuse to stock them as well. Games that get the dreaded AO are often resubmitted with edits and censors to bring them down to an R, just because they’d never sell otherwise. The only console games rated AO are Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was re-rated after the hot coffee scandal, and re-re-rated after a patch, and Thrill Kill, which was never released. Everything else is sleazy PC games like Riana Rouge, and Wet: The Sexy Empire.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

So PC is where sexy games thrive, not just in North America, but all over the world. While North Americans got Sierra’s Soft Porn Adventure in 1981, Japan was hot on our tail just a year later, with Koei’s Night Life, a PC-8801 game that birthed the eroge (EROtic + GamE) genre. Interestingly, Night Life wasn’t meant for single dudes; it was marketed towards couples, with a catalog of sex positions to try out and a schedule for tracking a woman’s period. It might seem weird that Koei was at the fore of the sex game industry, but other Japanese publishers jumped on that boat immediately. Square, Enix and Nihon Falcom all published early eroge in the 80s. In 1986, a company called Macadamia Soft released 177, a game named after the Japanese legal code for rape, wherein the layer character did some pretty horrible things. The controversy made it all the way to the Japanese diet, and cooled eroge publishing for a time, until developers banded together to put 18+ stickers on all their games, a practice that still exists in Japan to this day.

Not to be beat, American developer Mystique upped the ante, releasing the infamous Atari 2600 “porn games” Bachelor Party, Custer’s Revenge, and Beat ‘Em and ‘Eat Em in 1982. All three are renowned for being generally awful, amazingly offensive, and for being punchlines that come up whenever sex and games are mentioned in the same breath. Mystique vanished in 1983, another victim of the video game market crash, and was replaced by Playaround, who went on to release a handful of adult-themed games, though impressively, each of Playaround’s games had two modes, one intended for men, and the other for women. Of course, they were aimed towards straight men and women, but still, a fairly forward thinking move from a company who almost released a role-reversed version of Custer’s Revenge.

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

After that, Japan started delving deeper into new erotic genres. ASCII made Chaos Angels, an erotic RPG, in the 90s, Kaneko modified Qix, Taito’s tile-revealing puzzle game and put pictures of women in various states of undress under the tiles, making Gals Panic. Japanese developers were, and are, fantastic with names. Meanwhile, America was seeing tamer games like Leisure Suit Larry in 1987, which featured no nudity, but strong sexual themes. It was definitely made for adults, with lots of sexual references and dirty jokes, but it rarely gets any more mature than, say, Family Guy. Even so, retailers refused to stock Leisure Suit Larry, Sierra employees threatened to quit over the game, and Sierra received massive amounts of hate mail.

Dating sims and erotic visual novels dominate Japanese PC games in a way we don’t see here. Sex is just a fact of games there, while in North America, even Leisure Suit Larry’s tame, 14A approach to sexuality was cause for uproar. Of course, eroge have their own set of issues, like the growing number of underage, or loli, characters being featured, which has been cracked down on by the Japanese Diet, but that seems like a fairly reasonable thing for the media to get up in arms about. Either way, both in the East and West, sex and games mostly meet on PC.

Once CD-ROM games picked up, and the multimedia craze of the late 90s got into swing, full motion video became a natural fit for western erotic games. Black Dragon’s Riana Rouge, one of the few AO-rated games, featured a Playboy Playmate in the starring role, with stunning, 1996-quality video encoding to make sure you couldn’t see very much of the uncensored material anyway.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

These days however, porn games in the west tend to fly under the radar They’re low budget productions that rarely find wide distribution or popularity. Bonetown, a 2008, download-only PC game from before being a download-only PC game was cool, is known almost exclusively as a punchline, just like Mystique’s games. But that’s pretty much where erotic games end in the West. Bioware continues to put romance options and sexless sex scenes in their games, and modders will never cease striping the clothes off of any character who happens to be in a PC game, and that’s about it. There’s also Second Life, which, pretty much caters to any kind of sexual desire or fetish you can think of. However, all of the sex and sexual associations we attribute to Second Life are exclusively fan contributions. People use Second Life as a way to live out certain sexual fantasies at times, and, as far as I can tell, it seems to be doing a much better job of it than any other game on the market, even if it wasn’t explicitly intended for that purpose.

Japan continues to have erotic games, mostly in the visual novel genre at this point though. Mirroring the trend of recent adult-themed interactive fiction games, those developers seem to have found that it’s easier to create the illusion of a sexual encounter with drawings rather than 3D models, and words rather than janky penis controls. Sex simulators are mostly the realm of games like the controversial RapeLay, which, for all of its truly disgusting aspects, also happens to be a pretty terrible game, and a worse sex simulation. But first and foremost, it is disgusting.

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Otherwise, the highest profile sex game in recent memory was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s hot Coffee scene, a sex minigame left in the debug menu that was unlocked by a hacker fan. Of course, after being discovered, Rockstar ruched to correct the issue while being assaulted by a media frenzy about how games were corrupting the innocent children with weird, janky, polygonal sex. After that, it’s mostly indie developers, as well as authors who contribute to the growing pool of adult interactive fiction. As the industry matures, fewer people seem to want to throw their hats into the sexy ring.

People want sex, sure. Sex will always sell, but publishers don’t let it. When it comes to video games, it’s probably more accurate to say that the promise of sex sells, because real sex isn’t something the ESRB, Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo want to let you get involved in. Meanwhile, indie developers are working in smaller confines, often in less popular genres, where it would be more difficult to accurately simulate sex in any realistic way. Plus, plenty of people don’t want to be seen as making porn, which is pretty reasonable.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

Of course, sexual themes still work their way into western games. As mentioned multiple times, Bioware insists that all their games have romantic options that culminate in sex scenes, indie developer Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus games include a sex scene or two among the many logs you read, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a AAA game that didn’t make a dick joke somewhere in it. The promise of sex sells, and it will continue to, because if anyone ever promises more, Fox News will bear down on them like a sack of hammers, just like the did to Rockstar.

Is it a good thing? Well, even in Japan, where sex in games goes unchecked, we get games like RapeLay and 177. In the west, we get exploitative titles like Bonetown and Rianna Rouge. Sex is a great thing, but when it comes to industrializing it, it seems impossible to avoid the sleaze. So next time you see a sex scene in a game, appreciate all the risks it took to get it in there, and also pray that Oculus Rift VR sex games don’t take off anytime soon. You know, just to be safe.


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