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Interpersonal relationships in the Mass Effect games and The Witcher 2 reveal that sex doesn't have to be a juvenile punch line in video games.
The first girl I ever saw naked was in Strip Poker on the Commodore 64. Don't discount the wonders of pixel breasts to a 10-year-old; this was a transformative event in my life. A couple of years later, as I was entering puberty, I became obsessed with hooking up the lecherous Leisure Suit Larry with a babe--any babe. If a loser like Larry could get lucky, then there was hope for a squeaky-voiced pimple-neck like me. I was horny, immature, and focused on all the wrong things. So was the games industry.
Though games still pander at times to the lascivious male with remnants of this heyday of horniness (Dead or Alive, anyone?), there are signs that the industry has greatly matured in the past few years. Sex is very much a part of our culture and should not be ignored by anyone hoping to tell a complex narrative. Two games have removed the cheesecake and made sex a powerful element that speaks to the core of their fictional societies. The Mass Effect series and The Witcher 2 don't skimp on sex, but they make it matter.
It's easy to dismiss Mass Effect as just another game using sex as a reward for players willing to jump through a few hoops. After all, each of the three games in the series culminates in a sexual encounter if you've managed to woo a crew member. Sex isn't the endgame of a Mass Effect relationship, but a natural progression of two crazy kids falling in love amid the potential extinction of the galaxy.
Most physical encounters in the Mass Effect series are the culmination of a deep emotional connection. Only by learning about other characters in detail, by offering them some missing piece of themselves and earning their affection, do you merit an overnight stay. It's a romantic's view of love--that sex comes after emotional intimacy has been established.
You can see the real value of this quite poignantly with the female renegade, Jack, in Mass Effect 2. When you first meet Jack--a woman who has been mishandled, abused, and violated both physically and emotionally--you can earn a rare early tryst. Just be mean to her. As you first talk in the bowels of the Normandy, you have to be aggressive, almost abusive, in how you deal with Jack. The result is a very tawdry scene--the kind of scenario you'd expect in a late-night Cinemax skin flick. The remainder of your relationship with Jack in Mass Effect 2 reverberates with the impact of your decision to get lucky as quickly as possible. You can't romance her once you've treated her like a slut. You lose her, and you can never get her back.
For most characters, sex is the final barrier of trust.Those who show Jack kindness and patience, who earn her trust and her love, get something far more potent leading into the crew's suicide run against the Collectors. Instead of sex, you curl up on the bed with Jack and spoon. It's a surprising, soft touch that showcases the purpose behind all of Mass Effect's romantic scenes. For most characters, sex is the final barrier of trust. In a galaxy at war, there's little room for vulnerability. Those final scenes, even though they are sexual, are about characters allowing themselves to be vulnerable for one night with the person they love.
If Mass Effect were strictly concerned with using sex as a carrot to lead you through conversations with characters, then you'd finish your romance with Jack with a steamy love scene. But BioWare crafted a narrative that had an emotional truth and a level of maturity that simply didn't exist in games from previous generations.
The Witcher doesn't tie much emotional connection with sex, but it does something equally sophisticated. In the world of The Witcher, sex is a commodity used to barter for money (in the case of whores), for power, and for loyalty. It's not a pretty world, and it certainly doesn't offer an optimistic view of sex. It doesn't simplify sex either.
There's a clear delineation between the roles of men and women in The Witcher's society. Geralt, covered in scars, beds women who are pristine. And when you see a woman dirtied, bruised, or bloodied, it's often a result of a man asserting himself over her. A woman's role in this world is tenuous. Sorceresses have immense power and influence over kingdoms, but are greeted with suspicion by most men. It's a world built on traditional sexism, where men have been in power for generations and have built a society designed to keep that power.
It's ugly at times, but also honest. While The Witcher 2 may take to some extreme examples, it speaks very clearly to long-running gender issues in our own world. We may be fortunate enough to live in a time when women are on more equal ground with men, but there are still numerous issues that bubble beneath the surface of our own society. The Witcher brings some of these to light, while still keeping the cruelty within the walls of its own world.
At one point in The Witcher 2, Geralt is given a chance to profess his love to Triss Merigold. Pushing forward on this path leads to a sex scene, yes, but it further complicates the impact of plot developments later on in the game. Earlier encounters with Triss make a potential betrayal all the more painful. As Geralt questions her honesty and loyalty, lingering in the subtext is the concern that she used him--blinded his judgment with a physical relationship. This level of social and interpersonal depth when it comes to sex and gender simply doesn't exist in the majority of games.
Mass Effect and The Witcher 2 show that the games industry has begun to treat love and sex in more complex ways. There are still plenty of examples where female characters are exploited for their sexuality, and that will likely always be the case. Still, having some of the most critically lauded stories of this generation tackle sex in a mature way gives hope for the future of game narrative.