After banging my head against a quest in The Witcher 3 with no solution in sight, I turned in shame to Google and sought directions. Among the results, I found several guides for romancing the game’s various women, boiling their interactions down to specific dialogue choices designed to take the critical path into their beds. After looking at these guides, magician Triss ceased to be a character in the context of the game and became just another quest to be finished with correct and incorrect ways to complete it. External information combined with the fundamental way I interact with the Witcher world essentially turned me into a videogame Pick-Up Artist.
Functionally, sexual partners in the game were not designed to be any different from any other sort of conquest. The same skills and mechanics that allowed me to overcome griffins or navigate through crime family drama are applied in the same way when pursuing romantic relationships. The Witcher 3 is no different from a lot of videogames that view sex through the same lens as the rest of its interactions, an end goal to be achieved and won. A prime component of relationships, when portrayed in videogames, is truncated to a bare experience devoid of human complexities.
Players of Mass Effect 2 might find themselves interested in Miranda, the sex kitten space spy modeled after actress Yvonne Strahovski. After the usual small talk discussing her genetic perfection, her disdain for her father, and evil organizations, she is more than willing to hop into bed with any male protagonist, as long as you have been nice enough not to completely alienate her. The ensuing sex scene rewards the player with both characters undressing down to their underwear before fading to black and emerging post-coitus in a state of satisfaction. Every romanceable character follows the same path, rewarding the player for correct responses that lead them further along their relationship.
This simplification is at the heart of Japanese dating sims, usually visual novels gussied up with courting mechanics as the fundamental means of interacting with the game. These games often thrive on the commodification of partners, offering up harem scenarios for the protagonist to indulge in as he picks and chooses from many partners with the same convenience someone might online shop. This process usually involves ingratiating yourself to women through correct answers to their dialogue, which can be about everything from their personal issues to quizzes about historical Japan. As always, a proper win is coupled with a fade to black to titillate players with its implications.
It is not unreasonable that videogames have to abbreviate the intricacies of sexual relationships if they want to keep them both interactive and tasteful. An extensive courtship with unclear parameters for success might not be what anyone is looking for in terms of relationships in their videogames, but doing the opposite runs the danger of sending the wrong message when it comes to interacting with other people. The mechanics of sexual relationships in videogames, when extrapolated out, creates a commodification of our partners that informs an unhealthy view of societal interaction.
Most attempts reinforce a negative and pervasive view of how courtship and sexual pursuit work in wider society. While it is easy enough to woo your digital childhood friend by raising your charisma stat and being nice, assuming the same works in a more realistic setting robs the other person of their agency. Despite how videogames portray it, flirtation is more than putting kindness coins into a vending machine until sex falls out, but this view is depressingly common today and results in people believing they are entitled to positive consequences. Some people never understand how to humanize potential romantic partners and games sadly facilitate that toxic mentality.
It is not that videogames are actively attempting to coarsen depictions of love and sex, but the medium is largely uninterested in portraying the complexities of sex accurately and limits it to existing ideas. Videogames can only emulate love from the outside looking in, wrapping the idea around its existing mechanics to fit the ideas into its existing molds. This leads many developers to staying within the existing framework that came before them and not offering any alternatives to their romantic designs. Players want to win at relationships as much as they want to save the world, so developers offer them the quickest route toward victory without the frustration.
Sex and flirtation take many forms—there are as many types as there are people. With few exceptions, videogames still take just the one form and present it as normative, providing few speeds beyond extreme and not providing much of a landing pad for everyone else. The back-and-forth dance is wholly supplanted by positive reinforcement and a will to keep hammering away toward a goal. In Mass Effect 3, I found myself careening toward a romantic relationship with James Vega by encouraging him to take an exam, eliciting an eyebrow raise when he solicited my character in an odd turn of tone in the conversation. It is so easy to sleep with a non-playable character in Mass Effect 3 that I nearly ended up engaging in it by accident.
This is not a problem that can be solved by simply demanding better writing, though that would certainly help. While videogames continue to use sex as a facet of its narrative, it inherently has to sidle in between the existing dialogue system and world-saving fairy tale as a feature rather than a centerpiece. Star Maid Games’ Cibele stands as an exception to this and talks about sex in a way most videogames don’t, treating the player as an adult in pursuit of more than just a win-state. Love within the game is messy and unfair and proceeds at a natural pace before it crashes into a wall.
Not all games choose to focus on love and sex in the same way Cibele does, nor should any videogame be obligated to portray it realistically. The problem arises when such an important aspect of romantic interaction is tossed into an already moving machine and expected to simply conform to existing design. Whether it is Mass Effect or Dragon Age or The Witcher, the easiest path to featuring sex is to make it no different than loot at the end of a quest, a prize to be won by applying the game’s mechanics to characters. You are essentially Googling for the key to their chastity belt.
Developers presume that players want to simply fall forward into partners’ beds, creating unrealistic and somewhat warped ideas of how common interactions might proceed. Most people playing games will never face down a demon army or travel through time, but they will meet people with whom they share an attraction. Games shouldn’t shy away from sex in any form – if anything, they should grab onto the subject with both hands and present it maturely. The apprehensive way videogames approach sexual relations now, however, provides for both unsatisfying narratives and poor life lessons.
Imran Khan is a San Francisco-based freelance writer that frequently tweets @imranzomg.