While it may seem that the pictures are the draw, what drives Playboy: The Mansion is largely related to content and an ironic narrative that seems less about sex and more about simulation.
That a game based on a pornographic empire is a simulation, though, should come as no surprise. After all, isn’t the nature of pornography itself to simulate sex? It is the way that the game becomes this strange simulation of a simulation that may be its chief curiosity.
More specifically, the game simulates Hugh Hefner’s history (with the player taking on the role of Hef) and his rise to wealth and celebrity on the backs of (figuratively and sometimes literally) his Bunnies. As such, the chief narrative of the game concerns Hef’s efforts to build his empire, stem the forces of conservatism, and ultimately to become the catalyst for the sexual revolution.
Curiously, though, as “sexually revolutionary” as Playboy the magazine is suggested to be by this narrative, the game does retain a modicum of modesty and, perhaps, less than… progressive representations of sexuality. While Playmates and other women that you encounter, seduce and utilize in your rise to the top are willing to go topless throughout the mansion and during the game’s photo sessions, there is no nudity below the waist — female or male.
Also, curiously, while the game includes quotes from Hefner himself suggesting that one should be free to practice their sexuality in any way they desire and while there are three ways possible to communicate in the game (casual chat between characters, professional discourse and romantic cooing), male characters can only communicate casually and professionally, however, female characters can communicate to one another romantically as well. Apparently, free love extends only to heterosexuals and lesbians in this representation of Hef’s so-called revolution. Or perhaps it is only a male oriented and voyeuristic sexual revolution that the game advocates.
While the game’s format and interface will generally be familiar to those who have played The Sims — a top down viewpoint is the dominant play environment as you move about and interact with players and objects, interacting with them and watching various HUDs to see their basic needs and desires (the three aforementioned communication types as well as rest, fun and intellectual stimulation) — nevertheless, Playboy really only borrows the basic components of that game. If the Sims is a “life simulator” (maybe more appropriately — a simulation of white, middle class suburban American life) by making you focus on managing the minutiae of daily life, Playboy: the Mansion is much more an economic simulation, a schmoozing simulation and a photography simulation.
If The Sims is interested in making you manage and balance your most mundane needs from social interaction, to your mental state, to even the most banal of physical needs — using the bathroom — Playboy: the Mansion is, well, much more… pornographic. There are no toilets necessary in the mansion, nor any need to eat or sleep. A quick martini at the dry bar in the main mansion, a dip in the hot tub near the grotto, and a quickie on the pinball machine at the clubhouse will satisfy your less than basic needs as a wealthy man of leisure, rather than a common working stiff.
To be honest, Hef himself has no real needs. He can build some basic skills (physique, intellect, charm) by using the various equipment, toys and people in the mansion, but it isn’t his needs that you have to worry about as you would in The Sims. As I said, the game is chiefly an economic simulator, watching the empire rise alongside the revolution, and in the magazine publication game, economics are apparently exclusively about networking.
You need to hire staff, keep their needs and urges satiated and hold parties on a regular basis with a revolving cast who have similar urges and needs. There are mission goals that drive the plotline, but these goals are chiefly met by putting together content for each issue — both articles and photo spreads.
Which brings me to the other and, perhaps, more significant part of the gameplay — the centerfold shoots. Your viewpoint changes to that of the camera’s lens in order to shoot Playmates and celebrities in various states of undress. I am embarrassed to admit it, but, for me this was the most engaging part of the game.
The quality of your shots are really only determined by how well the model and staff photographer that you’ve sent on the shoot get along. Nevertheless, I found a profound satisfaction in getting a really great shot. While the machine can’t evaluate the aesthetics of a Playboy spread, I felt compelled to satisfy my aesthetic sense from shoot to shoot.
Frankly, the game has given me a newfound appreciation for photography — in particular for those who photograph models. Waiting for the right moment when the hip is thrust out thusly and the model is just gazing out from under her bangs requires patience and some skill. Lighting in particular becomes fairly important if you want the shot to look good and playing around with backlighting and whatnot became my personal obsession. Making the shot as sexy as possible is fascinatingly enjoyable. I was a bit disappointed, though, with the lack of objects that my models could interact with (they can writhe on a bed or a couch, but won’t pose in a hot tub or shower), and the somewhat limited amount of environments and backdrops that I could place them in.
As noted before, the stronger the relationships between your staff, girlfriends, and friends and their interview subjects and models, the better the quality of the content of the magazine, which drives you through the main bulk of the gameplay and leads you into the very mechanical process of treating these sim people as objects — pimping them out to increase your bankroll. A glorious revolution!