I had an unexpected amount of video game time to fill, this past weekend. After an hour of Bastion and an hour of Chrono Cross I cast about for something new, feeling at odds. What I really wanted to play was Mass Effect 3, and that's physically impossible for another six months. I tried other games as a distraction but none of them actually satisfied my craving, no more than a bag full of carrot sticks actually satisfies a craving for a bag of chips.
Everyone on Twitter gave helpful, thoughtful suggestions for what I should try, and in the end I ignored every last one of them and got sucked into a marathon six-hour session of Fable III.
Fable III isn't exactly challenging, as far as game play, story, or game design go. And yet, it has challenged me in a most unexpected way. I knew, offhandedly, before I started playing that this was considered a "mature RPG." And yet I was surprised (pleasantly so, but still taken aback for a moment) to find that among the character attributes for nearly every adult NPC in the game, there is a sexual preference qualifier.
The game was telling me, bluntly, in no euphemistic or uncertain terms, which of the characters I was interacting with were straight or gay—and, by extension, letting me know up front which men and women were considered to be in the dating pool for my character.
Knowing all of this, and knowing how the Fable franchise prides itself on a choices-and-consequences approach, I was still surprised further to discover that the bed in a player's house can be interacted with—and on interacting, the options are "sleep" and "sex." Sleep has essentially an alarm clock option, and sex can be chosen in the protected or unprotected varieties.
I am in my thirties and have been playing video games since the middle of the 1980s, and this is the first time I've ever seen the existence of sex, as an event unto itself, so explicitly and practically addressed in my pixels.
To be sure, I have played my fair number of games that contain romantic interludes, or the plain ol' bumpin' of uglies. Divine Divinity contains an unmarked quest for finding the main city's brothel, and rewards a large amount of XP for employing services therein. (The brothel in question has both male and female staff, and the player character can pick either, without comment and with equal experience awarded.) Then of course there are the just-barely-offscreen quicktime event shenanigans in God of War (I, II, and III), in which Kratos turns his ragey gusto toward anyone with boobs for a time.
Fallout: New Vegas does not tread the BioWare-style path of party member romances, but sex workers (both voluntary and involuntary) feature fairly prominently in quests and on the Strip, and there are indeed some questionable fade-to-black moments the player character can select if so inclined. And then of course, there are the BioWare games, with their array of party member romance options, based on conversation and consummated in a carefully choreographed fade to black.
Indeed, the fade to black is what I'm used to seeing in games (with "suggestive offscreen noise" its crass and less-often seen cousin). We all know how this goes: provided you've said the right things throughout Mass Effect 2, someone comes up to Shepard's quarters during the last quiet moment on the Normandy, they exchange a few more words, there's some suggestive motion, press "F" to continue, and it's the next morning. (Relatively speaking, since they're in space...) The romance option with Liara in the first game was much more explicit, but even so, probably less tawdry than many R-rated movies I've seen.
It's actually just as well that Mass Effect 2 fades to black; if, later, you choose to call your special someone back up to Shepard's quarters, the "couch" and "bed" animations might actually be the most awkward, least natural, most static, least romantic, and least sexy interactions on Earth. Even as PG rated cuddle sessions, they fail.
Still, the real surprise for me with sex in Fable III is not that it exists; sex is implied in plenty of games. The surprise is that its existence is announced independently. By adding "sex" to the bed options, and indicating NPC sexual orientation (and flirtatiousness levels) in info boxes, the game is putting out there the idea that sex is a thing your PC might do for any combination of fun, profit, and love, depending on any number of whims, emotions, and circumstances.
Almost like the real world, there. How novel!
Now, I know I'm late to the discussion, and I haven't played Fable or Fable II. (I was interested in Fable II but there's no PC port and likely never to be.) I knew going in that a wide array of player choices existed in the game, but "vague understanding they exist" and "actually having a choice in front of you to make" are two different things.
For what it's worth, my Princess hasn't shacked up with anyone yet, mainly because she hasn't met a soul worth her time. Most of the NPCs she's encountered and interacted with are neither attractive nor interesting, so "friend" is more than enough work there. (Also I can't actually find the way back to my house, which was free DLC content and doesn't appear on the world map that I can find. I may need to buy an apartment in town.) I certainly have no moral objection to my character having (safe, consenting) sex.
Once again, though, I've been surprised by the baggage that I the player bring into this world with me. Although its wardrobe cues are drawn from the 16th-19th centuries, Fable III takes place in a version of the 1820s that never existed, where most fantasy RPGs take place in a version of the 13th or 14th centuries that never existed. Its "Albion" is yet another false Britain, and so I find myself instinctively guarding against the roles reserved for women in the Georgian and Victorian eras. In that environment, I feel that marriage is not actually an option for my female character. In order to remain a successful, independent, respected agent, my gut says she needs to stay single.
These are totally assumptions I the player bring to the world, and really I only notice and question them because I take the time to write here. I mean, as mentioned, I have no problem pairing off my Shepard. Yes, I felt that not only did she have the burden of representing humanity to the galaxy, but also of representing women. But when forced to examine it, I find that in a sci-fi, future-based environment, I feel that a woman can be partnered and yet also successful and respected. Plus, the Commander was a renowned, accomplished hero in her own right before a partnership option entered her life. She has a strong identity and can keep being herself, and the world in which she lives will support that.
Intellectually, I'm keenly aware that this Albion is not actually England in the dawn of the Industrial Age. I know that it's a game in which I can make any choice the mechanics allow, and still reach one metric of success as a player. I'll be able to complete the story regardless of the side-choices my Princess makes. But in my gut, I still feel the pressure of a few centuries' worth of feminist issues.
Realistically, I don't actually think the mechanics of the game will enforce any kind of social penalties for marriage. Based on what I've seen so far, the biggest impact on the overall story arc I can imagine is NPC gossip and chatter around me in towns. But this unnamed Princess is right now forging her place in the world. She's trying, very hard, to become a leader and to earn the loyalty of an entire kingdom through hard work and hard fighting. She's aiming to place herself at the very head of a nation-wide rebellion to oust her lousy brother, who's a terrible king. That's no small task!
And yet while I feel that a permanent partner (even with divorce easily available in-game) would hold this nameless lady back, I'm not at all averse to her having some sexual interludes for fun, if the right NPCs show up. Somehow I don't feel that the Princess openly having gentlemen or lady visitors will set off any actual consequences with her people (though they may gossip); we'll consider this the "never existed" half of the culture.
Sex in games (and everywhere else) has a way of falling into a certain trap, though. Alex Raymond wrote a really interesting piece a while back on how video games perpetuate the commodity model of sex:
To give an example: a guy I know once received a call from a couple of his friends, who asked if he wanted to go to a strip club. He said something like, "Why would I want to go to a shady bar and pay a random stranger to show me her boobs when I can have sex with my girlfriend?" And his oh-so-clever friends informed him that Hey! When you think about it, you are still just paying to see boobs! Except the payment is in dinners and dates and compliments, rather than dollar bills.
Ha. Ha. Get it? Because all women are prostitutes.
So what does this have to do with video games? Well, some video games allow the player character to have sex with NPCs; even more allow the player to have romantic relationships with NPCs. What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence—you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.
This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex—the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are "rewarded" with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result—the reward—of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, "'Keep talking to me and eventually we'll have sex'". The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC's thoughts and desires aren't relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behavior in real life.
Fable III is most certainly and emphatically guilty of what Alex describes; the mechanic of all relationships in the game is purely an item-exchange, level-up sort of thing. And yet it actually feels more like a free choice than in most other games I've seen. Although mysteriously my assumptions about marriage in-game are framed by a historical understanding of the 19th century, my assumptions about sex remain grounded firmly in the 21st: any number of adults can do whatever they all willingly and openly consent to, and should do so as safely as possible.
In pretty much every other game I've ever played, sex for a player character exists in one of two contexts: (1) within a romance arc (not necessarily leading to marriage), or (2) as a literal commodity, traded for money or information. The avatars I've controlled have encountered a number of sex workers in their times and likewise my player characters have on occasion used seduction as a tool to advance. But sex as a choice, with a willing partner, just because we're both there and it seems like fun? Not so much.
This, then, is the paradox I find. While sex in Fable III is to every pixel a tradeable, level-able commodity, it's also a free and open choice, presented without judgement. If there is a "doing it right" to be found, I'm certain this game isn't it—but it's also, in a strange way, closer.
With the recent release of Catherine, "how does game design approach actual sex and actual relationships?" is a question flying around criticism circles at the speed of the Internet. In almost all cases, I think that answer is still, "badly," with a chaser of "inadequately." Ultimately, all of our games still rely on sets of numerical mechanics and rules. They're a series of unbreakable "if, then" statements and our heroes (and villains) can't decide to take a left turn to the established rules of reality the way a flesh-and-blood human can.
In this one small way, though, in this one tiny instance, my Princess can break the rules. Maybe the next time I see "sex" as an in-game choice, it will be in a game where the NPCs are actually designed to be characters, rather than a half-dozen fixed sound bites and gestures. Society's head might explode.
* If you hear Salt-N-Pepa singing in your head, congratulations: you, too, are an old. Now dance!