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Hey, videogames, enough with the bad sex

It was obvious The Witcher 3 (2015) wasn’t going to be a sexy game the moment I met Keira Metz. Curvy and blonde, Keira first appeared submerged in a tub of artfully positioned bathwater, then in a dress hung open so wide it would need heroic amounts of magic or starch to keep its contents confined. Keira wouldn’t look out of place waltzing onto the set of a third-rate porn flick, looking for a rough, manly, monster-hunting plumber to fix her pipes. She came across as just another videogame Barbie doll, and from that early point in the game, The Witcher 3 seemed destined to be yet another parade of them. For all the artistry and taboo breaking that games have indulged in during their history, they’ve always seemed to run scared from sex. Mostly, it’s simply been absent. Perhaps that’s no surprise when body graphics that aren’t laughably grotesque is a relatively recent invention. When it has oozed and slithered its way into games, sex has, by and large, done nothing but reinforce the unrelenting male gaze. Think of the Leisure Suit Larry series and its endless parade of weak frat-boy jokes, or the cheap voyeurism of Night Trap (1992).

Beyond these early examples, when vaguely plausible human-looking polygons did arrive, games instead tried to shock us. From the infamous Hot Coffee scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) to Manhunt 2‘s (2007) porn theater, game studios purposefully used sex to engineer controversy. In pretty much all cases up until this point, commercial gaming had done only one thing with sex: used it as easy leverage to shift merchandise. Everyone knew it and so that same sense of crude, vulgar manipulation seeped into the scenes themselves. The result is the sort of sex you’d expect to find in a dog-eared book of airport erotica, or the obligatory bedroom scene in an ‘80s action flick. Material of the kind that becomes boring through sheer ubiquity once you’re beyond 16 years of age. Yet there are other books and films in which sex seems engaging and real, something that adds to the narrative rather than merely helps to sell it. Something that can, on occasion, feel illicit, even erotic. People have been making books and films like that for decades. Videogames? Not so much.

The focus is necessarily more on actions than on characters

The Witcher 3’s presentation of sex isn’t surprising, then, but it is disappointing as, according to an interview with its creators, things were supposed to change. Its predecessors featured sex, as did the novels that originally spawned the series, and they did so in an unusually naturalistic way. There was foreplay. Characters giggled, clearly enjoying themselves. They even made the occasional misstep, just like real people do when they’re aroused and in a hurry. This sense of authenticity is a crucial component in presenting sex scenes that don’t feel exploitative. By setting intercourse in a believable manner, it helps it to feel like an authentic next step in the narrative, rather than something that’s been slotted in for titillation. It also allows the writer or director to leave out the most intimate details, allowing the most erotic organs of all, our minds, to fill in the gaps with whatever details we desire.

Take Alan Hollinghurst’s celebrated novel The Folding Star (1994). Its many sexual scenes tend to dwell on simple details of anatomy, without particular emphasis on erogenous zones, or on the physical consequences of the act besides the pleasure. One scene, for example, sees the narrator describing the way he and his lover end up covered in one another’s sweat, then lingering on how handsome he finds his lover’s face, shoulder, and hair. It’s a scene between two gay men, yet written so beautifully as to be capable of arousing readers of any sexual orientation.

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This is why, when the creators of The Witcher 3 at CD Projekt Red promised explicit sex scenes constructed from 16 hours of motion capture, my heart sank. Even though the series had the pedigree to suggest its writers understood that portraying good sex is more than just realistic body images, it sounded like their approach would be nothing more than another tawdry sex-as-sales-pitch. In answer to this charge, CD Projekt Red suggested that the sex would, instead, be used to draw the player into the place of Geralt, the main character. Previous games have established him as promiscuous and The Witcher 3 allows you to continue in that vein. But now the proposed idea was that, through the game’s portrayal of sex, we would come to appreciate that his one relationship, with sorceress Yennefer, was particularly special. If that was the intent, then that part of the game failed, utterly.

Read that again. A sexually overactive man who does, really (we’re told), want to promise himself to just one woman… eventually. He only wants to fool around a bit, or perhaps a lot, with whoever takes his fancy first. And we’re supposed to believe that adding even more explicit sex with this one chosen woman will help to establish that this single relationship is somehow different and deeper than the others. If there’s a thinner excuse for repeating the typical scenario of a licentious man managing to trick a particular woman into being a regular partner, I’ve yet to hear it.

Many of the sex scenes in the game are framed similarly. First, there’s a sudden and long digression from the action-packed meat of the game. During the quest “A Matter of Life and Death,” for example, you’ll be involved in a barroom brawl and possibly a card game tournament before suddenly plunging into a lengthy and convoluted series of dialogue options. The jarring change of pace with a love interest in the scene make it clear what’s coming. And when it does come, the actual sex is brief and chopped to pieces. During coitus with Triss Merrigold, there’s a panning shot of her body before and after, interspersed with rapid angle changes to ensure you don’t see too much detail. This is the way sex used to be filmed in blockbuster movies. The camera serving as a leering gaze followed by a fast flicker over body parts that mimics the quickfire spectacle of an action scene. It’s a technique so overused that Hollywood dropped it a decade ago, yet games are still playing catch up.

The result is the sort of sex you’d expect to find in a dog-eared book of airport erotica

Geralt’s romance with Keira Metz demonstrates how weakly the game uses sex as a narrative device. The encounter happens relatively early in the game and is such an easy, obvious path to take, that it puts an immediate lie to the idea that extra sex might encourage role-played dedication to Yennefer. The foreplay during the encounter is littered with excruciating lines like “slip into something more comfortable,” uttered without apparent humor. The eventual coitus is fleeting, and once again chopped into pieces, this time like the stills in a naughty Victorian zoetrope show. The consequences are non-existent. Yennefer never finds out and, naturally, Geralt’s exposure to magical mutagens has usefully rendered him sterile.

Adding consequences to the act is part of the context of a sex scene, and context is perhaps the most important aspect of all to help that scene feel a part of the wider narrative. The story needs to spend time establishing characters and the reasons why they’re choosing to sleep with one another. Then, afterwards, it needs to examine the repercussions of what has happened. Otherwise the story is bookended with sex and it feels purposefully abrupt, out of place, as though it exists only for shock effect. People are merely fucking, without any illustration of why that might be important. Don’t Look Now (1973) contains what is perhaps the most critically-acclaimed sex scene in all of cinema. It’s relatively tame by modern standards, yet its erotic power remains undimmed. The reason is simple: it’s used as an enormously powerful hinge that turns the wider narrative. The couple involved are grieving, and we understand this encounter is a desperate release for them both. The consequences are that the protagonists have begun to divest themselves of some of the terrible emotional baggage they’ve been carrying. It then seems more realistic that they can move on and engage with the rest of the plot.

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The Witcher series is no stranger to depicting the consequences of sex, but the first iteration did so in a disturbingly regressive manner. Successfully concluding each of the many romance options in the story resulted in Geralt receiving a commemorative card. Almost literally it allowed you to collect women through the act of having intercourse with them, turning realistic female characters into notches on the digital bedpost. Its successor, as discussed, represented sex in a more positive and naturalistic manner. But its linear plot with sexual sidelines still allowed Geralt to sleep around as he chose without fear of his peccadilloes impacting his central heroic quest. 

As an open-world game full of character and cutscenes, at first glance The Witcher 3 would seem to have the capacity to do better. To become more like Don’t Look Now in placing sex as an important narrative device that impacts the story and its protagonist. There is time for Geralt to establish relationships with the women in his life. There are many opportunities for the consequences of his choices to make themselves known. Yet, with the notable exception of the multiple endings and a ménage a trois that ends badly for the witcher, little of this is ever explored. On the assumption that the writers knew the importance of context and framing, as evidenced by the brief sex scenes in previous games, the question is why?

I suspect that this issue arises from the nature of gaming itself. Namely, it is an activity in which we participate directly. In this, it is fundamentally different from books and films. Yet this also dictates, to some extent, the subject matter of a game. An active media lends itself well to depicting active subject matter: violence, sport, strategizing. So the play in the Witcher games consists mostly of excuses to keep Geralt killing things. Although the series features more dialog and character depth than usual, there isn’t enough to set up a deeper context in the narrative.

None of this bodes well for the inevitable move into virtual reality sex

A fine illustration of this problem is given by the creative, sex-positive game Luxuria Superbia (2013). Its journey down endless, colourful tunnels that you have to stroke and coax with the controls might be a crassly obvious metaphor but in most other respects it tries hard to offer a more meaningful, more artful representation of sex. It’s clearly feminine, for one thing, and attempts to evoke its theme indirectly, inviting the player into an act of giving to receive consensual pleasure. Yet, as a game, it fails to entertain. Demanding patience rather than action, it quickly becomes repetitive and predictable.

Indeed, it’s a failing that’s common among games that try to plug this yawning abyss in subject matter. How Do You Do It (2014) is a brief game about how children puzzle over the meaning and the intricacies of the forbidden act of sex. Although short, it’s full of thoughtful symbolism that questions the taboo around discussing the subject with children. Yet to absorb this requires no more than one timeboxed play, a couple of minutes jabbing randomly at WASD keys. At the more narrative end of the spectrum, Gone Home (2013) tells a deeply involving story of sexual awakening, yet offers limited exploration and puzzle elements. In realizing the potential of games as art, many titles seem to forget that satisfying play is central to the traditional concept of “game.”

This is the fundamental problem with sex in big commercial games. The focus is necessarily more on actions than on characters. No matter how “realistic” the depictions become, they lack the wider furniture to ever make sex feel like something other than an awkward inclusion. Indeed, it’s part of a wider problem with including adult themes in a suitably mature manner within a medium full of underdeveloped, immature characters.

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None of this bodes well for the inevitable move into virtual reality sex that’s going to be hitting the mainstream in the very near future. Early samples suggest it’ll be little more than a new frontier for the porn industry: instant gratification with a headset and a fleshlight. While games such as Spec Ops: The Line (2012) and This War Of Mine (2014) suggest that the medium is capable of being thoughtful and reflective on the consequences of violence, it still seems to demand consequence-free sex. And so long as players continue to believe in the myth of that possibility, perhaps they always will.