Imitating Intimacy in Video Games

Sex is very often (and very unfortunately) just a game.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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