The prostitute is, of course, a common enough character in storytelling. In literature, novels like James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man or Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood both feature rather pivotal scenes in which these novels’ protagonists visit prostitutes and are “educated” by them. In cinema, we have been treated to images of the most romanticized forms of the prostitute, as in the almost Cinderella-like story of Pretty Woman, to the grimmer and grittier version of the underage prostitute featured in Taxi Driver.
It isn’t surprising that the prostitute appears across fiction. She has a unique and unusual job, which is, of course, criminal in nature and questionable to many in moral terms. She is associated with sex. She might be a victim of circumstance. She might be blamed for her circumstances. The image of the prostitute cries out for evaluation, for moral judgment, for salvation, or for damnation, a kind of fascinating figure to pose interesting questions about in narrative.
Of late, it has struck me that there is a great many prostitutes populating the virtual worlds of video games.
Off the top of my head, I can recall prostitutes being featured in the Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption, the Fable series, The Witcher series, the Mass Effect series (though one might argue the definition of a consort), the Mafia series, Gun, the Godfather series, the Assassin’s Creed series, the True Crime series, the Saints Row series, the Fallout series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Sleeping Dogs, Dishonored and, most likely there are many more.
The purpose of these characters in these games, though, seems largely different than other uses of this figure in storytelling media, though. Rather than serve as an important figure to show a transformation in the life of the protagonist (as the two aforementioned novels use the figure of the prostitute for) or to tell the stories of (or at least part of the stories of) women whose occupation is prostitution (as the two films I mentioned do), prostitutes in games seem more to serve the purpose of creating a tone in a game world. In other words, they seem more like props within a setting.
Prostitutes from Fable II (Microsoft Game Studios, 2008)
Many of the games that I mentioned, for instance, are open world crime games, that feature the ability to explore an urban environment’s seamier elements from a seamier perspective, that of a criminal. Crime fiction as a genre is frankly an unsurprising one to see the prostitute crop up in. After all, crime stories are about crime and frequently feature a variety of criminals. Hard Boiled fiction of the ’40s and ’50s is quite overflowing with prostitutes, pornographers, homosexuals, and anyone else deemed of a dubious moral quality during the period. The other narrative genres represented here, though, may have more or less interest in creating worlds that need this kind of “seamy window dressing” to make them feel authentic. The Western, perhaps, in some cases, might include prostitutes as part of their back drop, but neither sci fi, nor fantasy are genres that are especially prone to frequent appearances of prostitutes.
Instead, while prostitutes in these games often do exist to in part to shape a perspective on a part of a game’s world by letting us know that this is “the bad part of town”, they seem equally to simply exist in these stories to add an element of sex and salaciousness to the overall narrative. These moments seem less like fiction that considers the story of a prostitute or the role of the prostitute in relation to an individual or a society and more like the classic R-rated horror standby of making sure there is at least one scene in which the audience gets to see some bare breasts before the feature ends.
In other words, while prostitutes in games are not necessarily nude (though they are in some of these games), they in part seem to purely serve something like the voyeuristic role of female flesh throughout the history of visual narrative. That being said, one might wonder why one doesn’t simply see a number of topless scenes in M rated games to serve that purpose. Why, instead, are we constantly treated to prostitutes as the more common slices of salaciousness necessary to get a game rated M?
I think that the answer may relate to the nature of the medium. In film, the salacious is something to see. In video games, then, the salacious needs to be something to do.
Rather than be reduced to the object of the gaze, as a prostitute might be in a brief topless scene in a movie like Porky’s, the prostitute in a video game is more often reduced to an activity, a power up, a mini-game, a side quest. Again, something not to be seen, but something to be done or accomplished.
The most infamous appearance of prostitutes in games is, of course, their appearance in the Grand Theft Auto series. While media pundits might believe prostitutes exist in Grand Theft Auto solely to be beaten up, their general use function is different. Having sex with a prostitute in Vice City, for example, grants protagonist Tommy Vercetti a temporary health boost. Now, the honest truth is that most players probably don’t use this benefit often, as the process of acquiring this boost is complicated and time consuming. The player must find a prostitute while in a car, slow down and honk for her, wait for her to get in, find a remote spot for her to do her work, and then wait through some animations before the boost Is granted. One might do this before an especially tough mission, but given the short term benefit of the boost and the length of time that it takes to restart missions, this activity is more something that one is likely to see what it is all about, get that taste of salaciousness that it proffers, and then move on to playing the “real” game.
That being said, this use of the prostitute as a kind of power up has continued to be used as recently as in this year’s Sleeping Dogs, in which the protagonist, a denizen of Hong Kong, can visit massage parlors in order to receive temporary bonuses to his “face” meter. Now, I don’t know what exactly paying for sex has to do with improving your “face” in East Asian culture (while other actions like this, drinking energy drinks to give you an adrenaline-type boost to your melee skills or wearing ghetto-inspired styles gives you a boost to your Triad reputation, make some sense), but I do know that this activity is nearly as onerous as it was in GTA.
In order to get the “face” bonus, you need to find a massage parlor, pay a prostitute, and then watch a slightly cringe inducing set of animations as Wei Shen puts his arm around the woman and walks slowly inside the massage parlor, while she spouts rather stereotypical lines of the “me love you long time” variety. While, perhaps, initially salacious and seemingly illicit, the repetition and seeming necessity of getting this bonus to play well and advance your character properly is sufficiently annoying enough as to make anything that seems mildly ribald about the exchange seem exhaustingly dull and irritating.
Other games, though, turn encounters and interactions with prostitutes into something else entirely, activities and mini-games. Saints Row, for instance, features criminal activities that can be undertaken as some kind of “side job” to earn extra money in the open world. Driving around escorts and stealing street walkers from local pimps become activities of an illicit sort that are more a seamy enhancement of familiar game mechanics than anything else. These are a series of mini-games with a grimy gloss smeared across them, seemingly, again, in order to make the world feel authentically sleazy, while still maintaining its ludic quality and enhancing its overall interactivity.
Two prostitutes and an aristocrat in Dishonored (Bethesda Softworks, 2012)
In the Assassin’s Creed series, prostitutes serve as vehicles to accomplish broader ludic goals. A group of prostitutes can be hired at any time that they are in the vicinity to distract attention away from an assassin like Ezio, or they can be used to lure away guards from areas that Ezio wishes to enter. The prostitute adds, of course, to the darker undertones of the life of the assassin, but even moreso becomes a tactical option in a stealth game.
Stories of “prostitutes in trouble” become optional side quests in games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and in Fallout: New Vegas. One might hope that these sub plots might put flesh on these virtual women, as they are the central concern in something more like a story. However, the thinness of these sub plots just reveal the thin veneer of game narrative when it is used only as an excuse for creating additional content. Again, this is more a salacious gloss on a narrative premise that serves to introduce additional game goals, additional things to do before wrapping up the main quest. More or less these moments in these two games are simply the equivalent of saying something like, “I’m sorry, Mario, but our prostitute is another castle,” in order to move along the game, not a real plot, with real characters.
Prostitutes in The Witcher games do feature in something like an effort at character development, as the monster hunter Geralt is a rather instinctive and feral creature, driven more by id than superego. Thus, in the first game, the player playing as Geralt can initiate numerous side quests that result in sexual conquests (among these are encounters with prostitutes). When Geralt successfully beds a woman (prostitute or not), the player receives a mildly pornographic card in their inventory depicting that woman. Essentially, these sexual acts become something like earning an achievement in a console game by calling a bunch of coins or stars or other whatchamahoosits. Sex acts, paid and otherwise, are measured in a ludic way, as a kind of gaining of points, a measure of accomplishment of the salacious.
This, then, may be the primary use of the prostitute in game worlds, a means of adding salacious qualities to a game space, to a game narrative. This salaciousness is not meant to be witnessed by an audience of voyeurs, though, but is a salaciousness meant to be accomplished by actors distantly dirtying themselves through a simulation of the seamy and the dirty that can easily be washed away by simply flipping off a power button.