Imitating Intimacy in Video Games

Sexuality abounds in video games, but authentic intimacy? Not so much.

One can’t exactly criticize the gaming industry for a lack of tact in presenting physically intimate moments, though. It isn’t as if Hollywood and the filmmaking industry as a whole has done a lot better than flash some skin and call it a day, mistaking titillation for an actual representation of a mature sexuality.

A few notable exceptions in cinema do exist. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez manage to establish a smoldering intimacy through the close confines of a car trunk and an all too pertinent discussion of Faye Dunaway films in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998). Likewise Jean-Luc Godard establishes sexual chemistry in Breathless (1960) in a long and complicated scene in an apartment bedroom that is brimming with an erotic tension between that film’s protagonists, Michel and Patricia. What works in both scenes is the complex physical dance orchestrated between man and woman that accompanies seemingly unrelated conversation and activity. Brief touches, various states of dress and undress, movement closer followed by an effort to create distance between the would be lovers, all of these signals speak quiet volumes about the lure of the opposite sex.

God of War features a three way between its protagonist, Kratos and two tittering nameless bimbos. Not the most complicated understanding of sexual intimacy.

Of course, God of War’s approach to sexuality is a prime example of one of the problems with the way that the sexual act has been treated by games. Quite simply put, sex is very often just a game.

The infamous God of War three way is a brief interlude in an action game, and while it would be silly to think that God of War is interested in exploring the vagaries of love and romance (God of War’s aesthetic is dominated by little other than over the top sex and violence after all, presenting the most ridiculously overblown experience possible is the point of the game), nevertheless, its decision to render sex in a most mechanical way is indicative of a number of games’ ways of making sex into a program. Performing the sex act is reduced to matching onscreen button prompts, as if sex could be reduced to something like a rhythm game. This same concept drives the “ho-ing” diversion in Saint’s Row 2, in which customers are serviced likewise via matching onscreen prompts. Very mechanical, not very intimate.

Of course, simulated ho-ing and mythological three ways are not the most serious context for a discussion of intimacy. Dating simulation is the more common alternative as represented (less seriously) by games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or (more seriously) by games like Persona 3 and 4. The sex act itself is not featured as a game in these simulations of intimacy, instead they are the goal of a mechanical process. Extended courting ritual becomes the means of achieving intimacy as CJ Johnson has to take his would be lovers on dates and the protagonists of the Persona series must foster friendships with their potential girlfriends. This is sexual conquest as a mini-game “reward”.

The common factor between sex mini-games and courting simulation is the “gamey” and mechanical aspects of these interactions but also their one-sidedness. The emphasis in both kinds of “sex games” is on performance. The protagonist (and player) have to perform well (hit the “right buttons” or choose the right options to please their dates) in order to achieve “successful” intimacy. If the player blows the right moves or says the wrong thing or chooses the wrong place to eat, intimacy is a no go. “Intimacy” becomes an activity in which a potential lover is acted upon, not a complex system of mutual interaction. It is also seemingly antagonistic. The paramour is competing with him- or herself or the desires of their intended lover in order to engage with them intimately. Failure means that the lover is displeased, transforming them into something more of a threat or obstacle to be overcome than a potential partner.

The exceptions to this sort of representation of intimacy do exist, though, and they take a notably more co-operative form. The relationship between the Prince and Elika in the 2008 reboot of the Prince of Persia fails to reach sexual consummation within the confines of the story that the player participates in, but what the player does participate in is a very, very physical intimacy between two virtual characters.

The Prince and Elika touch one another constantly. Because of the mechanics of the game, with the Prince performing the bulk of the acrobatics and Elika literally “along for the ride”, the two are in constant physical contact. The Prince hoists up Elika. The two join hands. When he falls, she catches him. These two use one another’s bodies to propel each other through combat.

They need each other, must work together in order to achieve a common goal. In tandem with their frequent squabbling and occasionally more substantive conversation, the two become utterly dependent on one another. This dependency fosters an intimacy between the characters. In part, this is why the game’s ending works for me. That the Prince chooses Elika over saving the world seems completely sensible. He has come to depend on her, need her (which is represented by the gameplay). Thus, “the world” is abandoned in favor of their partnership.

Similarly, Max Payne 2 offers a partnership as its central means of crafting an intimate relationship between the haunted Max Payne and the enigmatic Mona Sax. Players of the first game are well aware of Max’s situation as a loner. Having witnessed the murder of his wife and child, Max spends the first Max Payne hunting for and haunted by their killers. There is little loving about this one man army who seems made up of little else than brutality and pain.

That its sequel features the story of “Max Payne in love” might on the face of it seem absurd and even a betrayal of Max’s mission, his commitment to seeking vengeance for the sake of those he was formerly intimate with. However, Max’s independence as a widower is an insufficient way to live and even to stage his one man war. The middle chapters of Max Payne 2 put Max in contact with the ambiguously motivated, Mona Sax. Chapters in which Max and Mona “connect” by watching one another’s backs, as they initially do when Max infiltrates a high rise and Mona warns him of incoming and upcoming trouble via a head set and security monitors, establish a real need for a new partnership with a woman in order for Max to survive. This relationship is not one sided, as later missions allow the player to aid Mona as Max and vice versa as they infiltrate other mob holdings.

Thus, when Max finally gives in to what he “wants” after Mona asks, “What are you so afraid of? What do you want from me?”, the player understands that Max has grown dependent on this woman by working with her, by becoming dependent on her. The player has experienced this need for Mona. Thus, it doesn’t feel like betrayal; it feels like Max finally has achieved intimacy with someone again.

Dependency and co-operation, acting with (not on) someone else seems to define these more authentically intimate moments in video games. These moments become ones of performance not for someone else but with someone else, which makes them feel legitimate and legitimately mature.