Why are games so terrified of sex?

For the most part, we like to think of sex as a positive thing: fun, romantic, often a bit silly. If that side gets little real attention in games, it's hardly surprising that the darker elements are almost unheard of, outside of the occasional character background story in an RPG, or as another threat for the hero to step in and prevent, such as the classic damsel in distress routine, whatever the specifics or maturity level of the situation.

Dragon Age is one of the few to take it further. The City Elf origin story, taking place on the day of the player character's arranged marriage, is all about a local lord showing up and kidnapping the women from the ceremony (including the player, potentially) for a very specific kind of party.

Your job involves saving the day, as usual, and the player is never in the position of being a rape victim themselves, but it's still a very dark opening, even for a game that's not afraid of being nasty. As long as everyone keeps their pants on.

There have been others however, to various degrees, that have taken the next step. Most famously, Phantasmagoria features a scene of husband-on-wife assault, in a game where the player controls the wife. It's actually very tame by any non-gaming standard, lovemaking turned violent rather than an outright rape (not that we're defending him!), and like most games end up resorting to, clothed dry-humping rather than actual sex.

Japanese ero games

THE DARK SIDE: Japanese eroge games bounce bizarrely from sexy slapstick to incredibly horrible scenes of rape

The fact that it was one of the earliest mainstream full motion video games added much of the impact, especially as the player character, Adrienne, slumps to the ground in tears afterwards, but it's still very tame compared to any TV show or movie covering the same kind of subject matter.

Cyberdreams' I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, based on the short story by Harlan Ellison, featured a more psychological example. With the world turned into a radioactive hellhole, an evil supercomputer called AM is passing the centuries by torturing the last five members of the human race.

The only woman of the group, Ellen, is a rape victim whose experience has left her traumatised by enclosed spaces and the colour yellow, so, of course, her challenge in the game is to explore a cramped yellow pyramid, with AM adding insult to injury by bringing her rapist back from the dead.

As with the other stages of the game, the way to win is to make each character in turn defeat their personal demons and fatal flaws, and it's saying something that Ellen's isn't the darkest of the set; that prize goes to Nimdok, the former Nazi concentration camp scientist who AM feels an unsurprising kinship with. Oddly, he wasn't in the German release of the game…

Do it yourself

But back to lighter stuff! If developers are often petrified of nudity, modders aren't. The humble 'nude skin' has been a regular fixture in games ever since they went 3D. A switched texture here, a new body mesh there and ding! Instant fan-service!

Obviously, this is pretty tragic stuff, but it's an almost inevitable part of popular games now with vaguely attractive female characters. The first Dragon Age mod was a transparent bra to try and get round the main game's prudishness.

There are patches for everything from Quake 3 Arena to Half-Life 2, with players even now gawking at World of Warcraft Night Elves who have no idea they're now dancing au naturel, and in a zombie apocalypse not far away, a Zoey trying to work out why Francis' clothes never seem to get ripped to shreds by Left 4 Dead's zombies.

The nude skinning gets especially strange with story-based games. By now, you'd think Valve would have prepared for it enough to slip in a "Sweetie, you forget something?" from Eli when Alyx Vance shows up wearing nothing but a belt, but no.

In other games, it really gets ridiculous: such as in Oblivion, where there aren't just competing groups of anatomically correct figures, but people modding them with new outfits to wear. Just occasionally though, it can make sense, like the Fallout 3 Sin City mod, which adds back some of the seediness that old-school Fallout players missed in Bethesda's largely innocuous wasteland, or giving the Grand Theft Auto gangsters an actual strip club to visit.

Mostly though, it's as grown-up as Power Rangers. Nude mods have largely taken over from the classic practical joke, claiming that a particular game has a nude code in it. Unsurprisingly, Tomb Raider was the most commonly cited one, with one cheating device actually using a picture of her clothes flying off along with the words 'GET THE CODE' in an advert.

XXX game 3

HIDE AND SEEK: Even games that are comfortable with sex scenes like a bit of the old peek-a-boo

The traditional gag was to see just how much people would do for a glimpse of polygon flesh, like finishing a level on the hardest difficulty in under 30 seconds, or some ludicrous 'turn around 30 times counter-clockwise, then fifteen clockwise and press all buttons' nonsense that would make the victim merely think they'd just done it wrong.

In practice, one of the few games that let you do anything even close was Max Payne 2, which offered a code that let you replace Max with any character in the game, including the naked version of Mona Sax that was only used for a cut-scene where he sees her in the shower.

Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude also offered an 'Everybody Naked' option for finishing the game, which, again, got taken out of the original US release (but got put back in again for a separate Uncut version later). Not really a cheat though, even if many did just download a savegame to access it without finishing the game.

The next generation

Can we expect games of the near future to cast off their childish roots and embrace sexuality in a smarter, more mature way? No.

As nice as that thought might be, right now the games industry, as a whole, remains petrified of the idea, ensuring the same split between the companies desperate to avoid potential controversy and those actively courting it for promotion's sake.

There are individual titles trying new and interesting ideas, including Heavy Rain on the PS3 (one scene involves a player character having to do a striptease for a criminal, with the idea being more to pass the feelings of degradation over to the player rather than arouse them) and Dragon Age, which offers everything from a genuinely tender romance to a casual off-screen foursome, but for the most part, this is going to be terra controversial for as long as the mass-media continues to have gaming in its crosshairs.

This will, of course, change in time. Just as the breaking of the Hays Code let films enter a world where couples didn't have to be married to enjoy a Scene Of Passion, and comics escaped the dreaded Comics Code Authority, games will reach a point where any arguments can be with individual titles, and a Grand Theft Auto or Call Of Duty isn't treated as a representative of all games.

For the moment though, expect more the same naughty bikinis and peek-a-boo immaturity, because they're certainly not going anywhere.


First published in PCFormat Issue 236

Liked this? Then check out John Carmack, Alexey Pajitnov, Sid Meier and Nolan Bushnell interviewed

Sign up for TechRadar's free Weird Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register

Follow TechRadar on Twitter