The Year in Sex 2009

A look back at some of 2009's most interesting moments of sex in games.

December 23, 2009 - "Trying to steer a sex act is as ludicrous as ludicrous gets," Chris Dahlen wrote earlier this year. It's a poetic turn of phrase that I glossed over when I first read it. You'll notice "ludicrous" is derived from the same root as ludic theory (a theory of gameplay rules and systems). At a certain point, a word that mean playfulness and joy in absurdity became derisive. We can look back on our own tendency to be swept away in the heat of play with sober dispassion and shake our heads.

But then, sex isn't so different. It can feel transcendent in the moment, but when considered as a passive observer the act becomes a primal embarrassment. Thinking about controlling it in some puppet drama seems ghastly. It validates the horrible truth of the mechanics over the ephemeral beauty that is so much harder to describe. Nowhere can sex be better addressed than in our art and abstract expressions. Of all media, videogames are especially well suited for representing sex, revealing its ludic absurdity, a mingling of physical act with elusive signification. So let's look back at some of 2009's most interesting moments of sex in games.

RapeLay (PC)

No more heroes.

Many in the gaming world felt sideswiped by RapeLay. After a few years of Wii expansion, Grand Theft Auto IV narrative essaying, and the emergence of art game design, few Western gamers expected a rape simulator to steal headlines. But then it did when, after multiple user complaints, Amazon banned the Japanese import title from its Marketplace. RapeLay puts you in control of an office worker who is a subway groper, child molester, and rapist. The gameplay is a literal recreation of rape in which players can use the mouse cursor to select body parts to grope. Hauntingly, many of the games rape scenarios begin in public settings and the passersby are always translucent humanoids that shuffle past in oblivion. The game is a masochistic variation between absurd fantasies (your victims orgasm) and anguished self-loathing (your victims can kill you in revenge, and your character can commit suicide). Many people will find RapeLay offensive to the core. It's a tasteless game in most ways. I think it's tasteless not because of the subject but because it shows its subject with such adolescent egotism. In John Waters' "Female Trouble," Divine rapes herself in a gutter-scraping slapstick. In Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible," Monica Belluci is raped in one long unbroken take that is one of the cruelest scenes in cinema. RapeLay is dwarfed in comparison to those works, but the fact that it merits comparison is worth remembering.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

Talkin' fast on the edge of nothing.

Nathan Drake is a delicate puppy of a man. Like every other hairy scamp cut in the shadow Humphrey Bogart and Don Quixote, he's quick to throw a punch but goes weak around the knees when the leading lady looks at him just so. Where Uncharted 2 is light on sex, it's swollen with gazes and innuendo. Nathan is taken with the brown-hair Chloe who's revenge minded and sexually aggressive. Just when Nathan's gotten comfortable making puns about squeezing in a quickie in the middle of a Nepalese warzone, Elena reappears. Of all the war torn Nepalese villages on the road to Shangri-La, she had to walk into Nathan's. Elena circumvents Nathan's crotch-ial region and hits the weak spot just North of his stomach. Nathan spends the remainder of the game bickering with Elena, acting snippy and defensive in direct proportion to the warm fuzzies he gets whenever he looks at her gentle blue eyes. In true movie fashion, the climax of all this built up tension is released in the form of the supernatural, this time a morality lesson involving a Serb and some blue goo. The end of the world is put off for another two years and Nathan and Elena wind up together in the warm glow of a Himalayan sunset. She asks Nathan how afraid for her death he had been in the height of the goo-quake that destroys Shangri-La, fishing for some outward return of affection. Nathan tells her he was a five out of ten, and says clowns scare him more than the prospect of losing her. Swoon.

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned (Xbox 360)

Full frontal polygon.

Phallic imagery is everywhere in games, but penises have historically been in short supply. A collective round of applause for RockStar North, then, for having ended the drought with The Lost and Damned. You'll join a spunky gang of mustachioed bikers with black leathers and beefcake to spare, then set out on a circuitous journey to retrieve those diamonds from the original game. In one scene, you'll visit a corrupt politician in a massage parlor and listen to him philosophize like the middle-aged alpha male that he is. After filling your ears with his meanderings, he drops his towel and offers an eyeful of his maleness. It's a wonderful anticlimax filled with biting sarcasm. The Lost and Damned is a perfect reminder of the difference between the phallus and the penis. The former is an eternal well-spring of force and capability, while the latter is always doomed to stand in the shadows. No matter the dimensions, the penis is always the downward looking dog that only a deluded thug woozy on his own self-importance could think of as anything more meaningful than a dangling bit of anatomy. Sometimes a penis is just a penis.

iPartment (PC)

Online dating 2.0.

iPartment was originally released in 2003, but this year the lifestyle sim passed 20 million users in Taiwan and China. The game operates on the familiar structure of decorating and maintaining a virtual space. You can water flowers, buy sofas, and go shopping for virtual luxury goods from sponsors like L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, Lancome, and more. The game began with a strategy of building a large female userbase that would in turn become incentive for men to join the ranks of digital drapes shoppers. The game has become a dating phenomenon with a man and woman able to partner in a communal space, distributing chores like cleaning and gardening while jointly settling on the virtual décor. Men who demonstrate enough aesthetic flair and domestic diligence can eventually win a real life meeting with their iPartment roomie. Think of it as a romantic Rorschach test in which you can evaluate a potential mate. Like all those stories about couples having met in MMO's, iPartment is a reminder that the language of rules and interactions can be used for so much more than fun and escapism. Start your timers now and see how long it takes for a similar bit of technology to hit the robust online dating market in the West.

Dragon Age: Origins (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)

A cutscene of one's own; or Zevran is a rider.

Homophobia and videogames have been happy bedfellows for years. Gay-aiming pejoratives fly with abandon during online matches and were recently immortalized in an externally produced video for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 that ends with a certain twiggy slur. In Dragon Age: Origins BioWare has built massive role-playing game in which the theme of player choice is extended to sexuality. If you're in the mood for some battlefield love, you can guide you player into a private exchange with an elf called Zevran. After navigating a soft porn dialogue tree ("I bet you're good at a lot of things."), players are rewarded with a cutscene in which the protagonist has sex with Zefran. The scene is a coy Hollywood montage intercut with snippets of skin and ecstatic faces. Sex still doesn't take up much space in the sprawling Medieval fantasy in which horses will be ridden, magic will be cast, and dragons will be slain. But BioWare is one of a small handful of developers willing to acknowledge that sex at least has a place in game worlds. And if sex has a place in a game, sex between two men has every right to a cutscene of its own.

Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles (Wii)

Kiss me deadly.

When it does appear in games, sex is most frequently a third-person experience of pupeteering. Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles takes the plunge into first person and gives players a brief but wonderful kiss in the middle of a campaign to kill zombies. During the Resident Evil 2 scenario players will head into the sewers and run into Ada Wong. After Leon takes a bullet for her, they share a brief moment of mutual attraction. When Ada leans in to plant a wet one of Leon's chaste lips, the cutscene shifts into first person. Ada's face draws closer, sliding out of focus the closer she comes. She closes her eyes, parts her lips, and shares a moment of softness in the middle of the haunted house roller coaster ride. The scene lasts only a split second and doesn't lead to anything, but it immediately won my affections. In a game in which movement is constricted and timed to maximize shock and anxiety, I felt grateful to have a sweet moment of respite. Games are often praised for their pacing when they mix up the kinds and intensities of shooting required of you. I'll take Darkside Chronicles' version of pacing, breaking up the zombie conveyor belt with a moment of real human affection. Would there was more of it.

Love Plus (DS)

Kissing a screen.

It's an oft-used euphemism but I have literally thrown a controller into the ground on more than one occasion. Before Love Plus I had never kissed one, but now I have. Love Plus is a Japanese dating sim that builds on the traditional structure of wooing women with the addition of actual relationship maintenance once' you've successfully courted one of the game's three women. You'll be able to plan dates, share quality time, and listen to whatever happens to be on your anime girlfriend's mind. The game keeps track of each day's events in real time, and some wild reports of men identifying with their Love Plus partner have made headlines. One lovestruck man in Guam is purported to have had an actual wedding ceremony with his DS. You can actually speak to her using the DS's voice recognition and you can literally kiss the touchscreen to make her feel loved. During work hours you can call her or send emails, but if she's not happy with your dotage she might blow you off. Love Plus is a game for all those curmudgeons who think you need violence or combat to make a game fun.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Wii)

I'm silently judging you.

I played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the first time at an E3 demo booth with a line of men waiting their turn behind me. The demo opened, like the full game, in a psychiatrist's office. The game builds a psychological profile of you and the first step is filling out a questionnaire in which you'll be asked if you like to roleplay during sex. I immediately wanted to answer "yes," then I thought of the men waiting behind me. I felt my stomach tighten with anxiety. Would they think I was a pervert? Why did I have the impulse to answer yes in the first place? What would the consequences of this confession be in the game? In most forms of entertainment, explicit sex is used as kind of titillating payoff, but in Shattered Memories, it's linked to player neuroses and insecurity. You'll have to play through multiple times to catch on to the effects of confessing to a hearty interest in sex. Women appear in more seductive apparel, the enemies appear vaguely more vaginal with drooping folds of flesh, while conversations can have a fetishistic charge. It's a challenging experience that teases you with a Freudian connection of sex, guilt, inadequacy, and prurience, themes that are a perfect match for the exploratory gameplay. It's also one of the very best and most challenging uses of sexuality I've experienced in a game.

Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony (Xbox 360)

Dance me into the bathroom, mi amour.

The Ballad of Gay Tony has, what I think, is one of the best uses of dancing in a game. If you get tired of driving, shooting, and being a pack-mule for anarchic Neanderthals you can take Luis to Gay Tony's disco and dance with a woman. You'll move the right analog stick left and right in time with the beat, slowly filling up a rhythm meter. To perform a flashy move you can hold the analog stick in one direction while still keeping time with the left and right triggers. Stay with the beat and you'll move closer to your partner. Once you get close enough to grind with her Luis's hands drape over her posterior. Then it's time to move into the bathroom for the big finish. The dancing game is pretty simple, but the connection of rhythm, body movement, throbbing disco music, and seduction is an irresistible combination to me. Listening to the women talk afterwards, in surprisingly nasally and crass voices, is the coup de grace. Sex can be about deep and immediate connection, but it can also be about mutual delusion that can evaporate once you've reached the mythical climax and realize you're stuck in a bathroom with someone who suddenly looks much less appealing under the halogen lights.

The Best Years of My Life (PC)

If you wake first, wake me.

I've never been in a relationship that lasted. The Best Years of My Life is a two player game about a failing relationship using the classic elements of 2D platforming and coin collection. The game is for two players, one controlling the woman with W, A, S, D keys and the man using the arrow keys. In each level you'll start on the opposite end from your partner and each of you will have to negotiate platforms and spiky pits to get to the exit door. You'll have to collect all the coin icons in each level before the Exit door will activate. Each level has its own small bit of imbalance, the discovery of which forms part of the experience. As you progress the player collecting more coins eventually takes precedent and the second character has to sit and watch. Levels are broken up with spiteful dialogue like, "You're so selfish. You don't give a damn about anyone but yourself." In the last level, control has been given over completely to one person, and once they move to the Exit door they guide their mate into a suicidal jump into spikes to collect the last few coins. The Best Years of My Life was made in 48 hours by designer Terry Cavanagh for the Mini Ludum Dare #10. It's a perfectly simple mirror of the power dynamics in a relationship. Figuring out the game's opaque mechanics with your partner is a perfect match for the emotional fumblings of the in-game characters. It's a testament to the eternal difficulty of forging something lasting out of the brief glimpses of ecstasy when you've just started to fall in love.

It can be scary to be honest about sexuality. Its most basic functions are universal but the meanings of individual encounters are deeply personal. Videogames have traditionally been about winning and mechanical proficiency. It's easy to see how the introduction of an experience so simple and indefinable would make people uncomfortable. This says just as much about us as it does the medium. 2009 was a remarkable year for demonstrating how much sexuality inhabits videogames, if only from the fringes. Lenin wrote that sex should be no more important than a glass of water, which is to say it's both essential and completely mundane. It's the junction point between the tired trappings of daily routine and the barely perceptible fantasies about what we might become one day. While we might snicker at the thought of polygon puppets dry humping each other, this year's variety of sexual themes makes a strong case for the possibility of using interaction to grapple with our never-ending fixation of sex, that one thing we can't stop chasing but which we can never hold on to.


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