Despite being a pioneering and innovative way of telling stories, video games have historically struggled with portraying sex and relationships.There have been valiant efforts; BioWare, for example, has been pioneering in putting these aspects front and centre with its Dragon Age and Mass Effect series.
But even the way relationships are handled in these titles leaves a lot to be desired. Christine Love – the developer of ‘kinky lesbian sex’ visual novel, Ladykiller in a Bind – believes there is another way of handling these aspects.
“The biggest difference in our approach is that want this to feel like it’s all about the romance, just in terms of the way we write,” she explains.
“A really common thing in games is for romance to be the result of you saying the right thing to a person, giving them the correct gift and at the end is culminates in you getting together. Then you go fuck. That's the very traditional structure; getting together is the endpoint and everything up to that is you trying to impress them. That feels weird. It’s about relationship as a reward.
“The way we approach is that the characters start off having sex. The relationship starts with a hook-up and then it continues from there and you have to deal with being in a relationship, which is much more interesting space to be in. It turns out the challenges don’t stop the moment two people get together. There's actually the relationship part, and that's interesting, too, and it's super under-explored."
The games industry hasn't had to interrogate this very much
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Love’s Ladykiller in a Bind came out in October on Humble, but it wasn’t until January that the BDSM-themed visual novel would make it to Steam. Back in October, it was presumed by some that the title had been denied sale due to its explicit content, something that prompted The Mary Sue to write an article talking about ‘Valve’s erotica problem’.
There was precedent for this occurring, too, with erotic audio-visual experience La Petite Mort from Danish developer Lovable Hat Cult being removed from the App Store for its sexual and explicit content earlier that year. In the case of Ladykiller in a Bind, however, the real reason was far more banal.
“It was a case of us wanting to make sure it was totally safe to sell,” Love explains. “We didn’t want there to be any concerns. It just took a while to get through to a human being at Valve. With small developers and big companies, this is often just how it is. It takes some time. But once we did get through, they were very understanding. They didn’t want us to censor it all."
Censorship was something Love was concerned about before talking to Valve. “It was a worry, but it wasn’t something I was willing to do. The sex is really important; this is a game that’s about sex. If you can censor that from your game, it probably wasn’t a core part of it and, in that case, why was it there at all to begin with?”
Ultimately, the issue wasn’t with the game itself, or with Valve and Steam. In fact, it’s an industry problem – that in many ways, proper portrayal of sex and relationships is uncharted territory. “In general, the games industry hasn’t had to interrogate this very much,” Love says.
“It just doesn’t think about it. There aren’t enough games that are bringing up the question so people just assume that big companies won’t be okay with them, but in reality they’ve never had to consider it. With Valve, the question had never been broached, but once it was they immediately understood it.”
The games industry’s inexperience with sex, relationships and romance is something that will need to be addressed as developers like Love continue to explore these relatively untouched themes in games.