The future of romance games is queer

Human culture exists because of sexual intercourse. From the reign of Cleopatra, to the formation of the Church of England, to the Stonewall riots, human experiences of love and sex make up the fabric of our history. Even if we try to narrow our gaze to media, the bright red handprint of sex is everywhere in the history of almost all mediums. There are cave paintings depicting sexual intercourse, and ancient sculpture frequently represented people with massive pendulous breasts and club-like penises. Some of the first handmade and distributed mini-comics (known as Tijuana Bibles) were porn-parodying popular media. The romance of Helen of Troy was the catalyst to one of the greatest mythological epics in history, the Trojan War. Art emulates life—and life has an awful lot of sex. Videogames are, of course, no exception to this.

The earliest erotic videogame, Softporn Adventure (1981), was a text adventure for the Apple II with far-reaching impact. The first entry in the Leisure Suit Larry series, recently remade in 2013, was said to be a graphic adaptation of Softporn Adventure. Some of videogames’ first controversies came from these early games with sexual content, such as Custer’s Revenge (1982), which depicted General Custer raping a Native American woman. The 1990s saw the rise of eroge (a portmanteau of erotic and game) games in Japan, culminating with Leaf’s To Heart (1997), a game so popular that its music could be found in karaoke bars across the country. Eroge developed into romantic visual novels, a new kind of game altogether. The development of erotic games stirred up controversy, but it also created classics, and whole new genres.

the bright red handprint of sex is everywhere

Sex and romance have continued throughout the years to be twisted up into the fabric of games. The infamous Hot Coffee mod from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004) may come to mind first for sex in games, mostly because of the controversy it induced. But sex and romance flourished before and beyond. From the sex mini-game in God of War (2005), to its place in the simulation of life in The Sims (2000), to the ever-present marriage mechanic in Harvest Moon (1996-2015), and the many explicit porn games across the internet, sex is here to stay. So what is the next step for sex and romance in videogames?

The answer might be found in queer games. As LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) people make gains in civil rights and acceptance, they are increasingly being represented within games, and are creating games to represent themselves. Although there are exceptions, and those exceptions are increasing, the vast majority of sex and romance in games are straight. Many of the games that aren’t exclusively straight turn out like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), wherein you can have a partner of any gender, but the NPCs don’t seem to have preference. It’s as if everyone is queer—but this isn’t really acknowledged or reflected in the fabric of the game outside of the marriage mechanic.

Although being able to marry characters of any gender is a great step forward, that’s not what I mean when I say queer games. I mean games that are explicitly, in full, or in part, about relationships between LGBTQ individuals. It’s an important distinction. Games with characters that break the cultural norms of gender and sexuality are already complicating our ideas of what romance and sex can be, and perhaps because of this they are able to complicate the mechanics of sex and romance further than most. In gender and LGBTQ theory, to queer something is to break it out from the rigid expectations of sex, gender, and sexuality. Queer games, in some ways, queer the mechanics of romance and sex. By virtue of already breaking barriers, they are in a different space; they are able to go further and question traditional mechanics of sexuality.

Mass Effect Liara Shepard

The Mass Effect series can be read as queer simply by its inclusion of the Asari, a mono-gendered race (“male and female have no meaning”) that can have sex with anyone, regardless of gender or race. When played in a culture with strict gender expectations, and when not adhering to the binary often presents serious risks, the Asari race is revolutionary. Not simply because they are mono-gendered, but because they are essentially the strongest beings in the galaxy. They were the first to settle the place where all sentient species now gather and work together. They are viewed as peacekeepers and the wisest of all the species. Some may argue that the Asari are still women—they use ‘she’ pronouns, and call their leaders matriarchs after all. And their sexual characteristics are clearly modeled after human women—isn’t their design just another sexy blue alien lady? These are fair criticisms, as these fictional aliens can’t be separated from the real humans who made them, and their culture. But if we imagine them within the universe of the game, they may be using female terminology because that’s what other species understand. If male and female truly has no meaning to them, ‘she’ could mean the same thing as ‘they’. Matriarch could mean the same as ruler. Alternatively, the pronouns they use in their language may just not be translatable. To understand the Asari in this way is to accept a species that has no gender binary, and their place in the galaxy affirms that this significant break away from our expectations has done their society no harm. By allowing the player to romance and have sex with an Asari, Mass Effect is asking players to completely accept beings outside the gender binary as legitimate and worthy of respect.

a species that has no gender binary

Mass Effect also allows players to enter into straight and queer relationships with other humans, and straight relationships with members of some other alien species. However, the series has received some criticism for not allowing same-sex relationship between human men until its third installment. Some argued that the relationship female Shepard could have with her yeoman Kelly Chambers in the second game was only included to appeal to its straight male players. But, by the third game, there were male and female humans who would only be involved with members of their own gender, as well as humans who could be romanced by female or male Shepard. One of the men that could be romanced by male Shepard was even a character in the first game who could only be romanced by female Shepard, demonstrating fluid sexuality. Mass Effect presents a universe where all sexualities are accepted. Not only that, but the many different options the player has for romances throughout the series can lead to conflicts with old flames, requiring difficult conversations and decisions. The game doesn’t simply allow you to seduce whoever you want. You must address your past and the possibilities of your future. By doing so, the game again complicates expectations of what romance entails in games, and pushes the romance not only further towards a better representation of reality, but also towards healthier ways of expressing love and sexuality than are often depicted.

One queer game that is almost entirely about communication is Hurt Me Plenty (2014) by Robert Yang. The game seems relatively simple—you get a call from a man, you meet the man, you shake the man’s hand, and then you spank the man. But one quickly learns that there’s more to it than that. On my first play, when I realized that I got to spank someone in a game, I excitedly moved my mouse as fast as I could. The man did not appreciate this, and the spanking quickly ended. I gently rubbed his back. This was different from any erotic game I’d seen before. I tried again, this time actually paying attention. The handshaking is a time for discussion and negotiation, establishing how hard the man would like to be spanked, a safe word, and what he would be wearing. After this, I was much more thoughtful about what I was doing, even apologizing out loud when I caused unwanted pain. The post-spanking scenes where I was rubbing the man’s back revealed more positive conversations. As soon as you pay attention, the game is very intuitive and quickly teaches the importance of communication before and after sex.

Hurt me plenty

One of the biggest ways that Hurt Me Plenty reflects real life in its depiction of this kind of sexual encounter is in the waiting mechanic. If you seriously violate the man’s consent, completely ignoring his safewords, he won’t call you when you try to play again. He won’t answer your calls. Then he will text you, expressing in symbols how seriously you violated him, and how hurt he is by this. When I tested this mechanic, I found myself faced with a timer of nearly eight days. Because I had so thoroughly broken the rules in our exchange of power, and completely violated his consent, I would not be allowed to play the game at all for over a week. Hurt Me Plenty is the antithesis to the sex mini-game in God of War, or the Hot Coffee mod. Those games imagine sex as a simple matter of hitting the right buttons, ending in orgasm. Hurt Me Plenty presents the man you are spanking as fully human, and makes it clear that you need to listen to him, or there will be serious consequences. Beyond that, it’s not easy to spank correctly—you can be too hard or too soft, or too fast, and you often need to just stop while your spankee catches his breath. Hurt Me Plenty presents sex as the real, messy, and honest interaction that it is. By focusing on the before and after, and making the interaction finicky, and even blocking your ability to play at all, Hurt Me Plenty removes itself from the traditional mechanics of sex in games. Rather than being about achieving an orgasm, it’s about communication and consent.

When talking about sex and romance in games it’s almost impossible to ignore the genre of visual novels. With their evolution from eroge games in Japan, it makes sense that romance thrives in the visual novel genre. But even in just three visual novels, in which the primary objective is furthering relationships with women, you can see drastic differences in the mechanics of how this objective is met. Take the dating sim HuniePop (2015), which, despite having puzzle elements, falls back on the most basic mechanic of eroge games: complete the objectives and be rewarded with sex. Although you do have the option to play as a woman, your interactions aren’t meaningfully changed to reflect this, leaving the experience more akin to lesbian porn made for straight men, rather than actually queer. Like so many erotic games, HuniePop isn’t really about sex or relationships, it’s about the player getting off.

complete the objectives and be rewarded with sex

More of a pure visual novel and less of an eroge is Analogue: A Hate Story (2012) by Christine Love. Despite some elements that are reminiscent of dating sims, and a relatively simple path to “getting the girl,” the game eschews the expected reward of sex. There isn’t even any nudity. The most explicit the game gets is logs of exchanges between a long-dead lesbian couple. In some ways, reading these logs sets up an expectation for the player that they may encounter a similar scene for themselves by the game’s end. But even if the player is able to end the game with an AI they’ve confessed love to, riding off in their space ship with them, there isn’t any sexual content to be found. Although some players may feel frustrated by this, it’s clear that this is a story about empathy and compassion—and to make the relationship sexual would be a break in tone.

Landing somewhere between those two games is the visual novel Kindred Spirits on the Roof (2012). Although there was hubbub around its release as the first adult game that wouldn’t be censored on Steam, the game is not nearly as explicit as reporting, marketing, or even the game itself would imply. I myself played for 15 hours before I ran into any sexual content. In the game, you play as a young high-schooler trying to help get lesbian couples together at your school, at the behest of two ghosts. The ghosts are a couple, who say they can’t move on until they become one “body and soul.” But they don’t know how, and want it to be perfect, so they need the girls who are secretly in love with other girls to make their feelings known and have sex… so they can watch and figure out how to do it themselves. This may sound silly and imply that there’s a lot of erotic content in store but, as the official translator tweeted, sexy scenes make up less than five percent of the script. The focus is much more on the development of all the individual characters and the natural progression of their relationships.

kindred spirits on the roof

Eventually there is sex, yes, although nothing more than M-rated depictions. Despite the rallying cry of the ghosts to make the school a “yuritopia,” the game is much more interested in ideas of identity and having the girls discover theirs. Sexuality is just a part of that. If anything, the promise of lesbian sex seems used only to hook the player in—by the time anything truly sexual is happening, the reaction it evokes is more akin to endearment than titillation. Kindred Spirits on the Roof may be one of the most honest romantic visual novels out there, ghosts and all. This is on account of the realizations of sexuality being similar to many real stories I’ve heard. The fears of rejection, of homophobia, of being imagined as a sister rather than a lover, of destroying friendships for relationships, all seem as though they could be directly lifted from real high-schoolers’ diaries. Even the sex itself feels honest. Remarkably, the game challenges expectations of romance in games by simply being an incredibly good romance—and it works because it’s about growth.

The rise of LGBTQ games mirrors a similar movement in indie comics. Queer comics, like queer games, have existed for a long time, becoming progressively less buried and niche over the years. For so long, queer was considered a slur; queer meant strange and different. But in many ways queer communities reclaiming this word has also reclaimed that idea. By being unafraid of their difference, queer folks are able to challenge norms, because they already do by existing, and in doing so revolutionize their mediums and genres of choice. Queer games have gone from being traded on underground gay message boards to genre-defining hits like Gone Home (2013). Similarly, queer comics have gone from small self-published issues that were banned from being sold anywhere but head shops to the Eisner nominated TJ and Amal (2015). The independent educational comic series Dr. Rad’s Queer Health Show by Rad Remedy and Isabella Rotman covers important parts of sexual education that are completely ignored in mainstream sex ed, in the same way Hurt Me Plenty does. There’s a reason these stories are reaching these heights now: they’re fundamentally changing culture. Queer artists are done being ignored, and they’re aggressively pursuing better representations of themselves, and as a consequence, better representations of sex and romance. They’re making it about more than the reward and the climax. They’re bringing them inch by inch closer to meaningfully imitating life.