Sep 202007
The disclosure that Bioware’s upcoming XBox 360 game Mass Effect will feature nudity in a sex scene has actually dulled my interest in the game, which is sad because that interest was substantial. Although Bioware wasn’t promising to do anything deeply revolutionary, Mass Effect promised to be an important step towards the maturation of video games as a interactive storytelling format, as well as a key iteration in the continuing fusion of the FPS and RPG genres. In both these respects it was similar to presumptive Game of the Year favorite Bioshock, though Mass Effect promises to come down more towards the RPG side of this fusion genre. It’s discouraging that a game that has the potential to advance the artistic level of the medium has also set itself up to be a key exhibit in the conservative case against video games.

My concern is not that the scene will be especially gratuitous or exploitive. For one thing, Bioware itself has not attempted to draw significant attention to the scene’s existence or use it as a selling point. Contrast this with BMX XXX, which had no other selling points, or even the God of War games, which had robust gameplay and graphics but included nudity and sexual content for additional shock value. Although the news about Mass Effect’s content has made some waves in the internet community, it did not to my knowledge originate from Bioware, nor has it been talked up by anyone associated with the company. Based on their reputation and the quality of their previous work, I fully expect that the scene will fit into the game as a plot event, and that those who object to it will be those who object to sexual content per se, with a little bit of extra offense due to the possibility of having a lesbian encounter. Nor am I particularly troubled by the fact that a male/male encounter is not apparently possible, except to the extent that it reveals the reasons the scene was included at all.

Not being especially gratuitous does not mean the scene won’t be gratuitous, which sex scenes almost always are. This is not a complaint unique to video games — it is rare to find a sex scene in any medium that serves a narrative end that would not be as well or perhaps even better served with a mere indication that intercourse took place. The actual depiction of sexual intercourse mostly just titillates and rarely contributes to plot or characterization, though it may fit in with them.

I acknowledge that there are exceptions to this generalization; a very unromantic sex scene in Gohatto comes to mind. And a sex scene can serve some other purpose, as in Hot Shots! where Top Gun was parodied almost viciously. For the most part, though, a sex scene in a movie ends up more like the case of Highlander, where we learn less from the sex we see between MacLeod and Brenda than from what is implied by the ominous exchange between the Kurgan (Clancy Brown) and a prostitute (“I’m Candy”/”[chuckle] Of course you are”). Perhaps it is too much to expect high-minded content from a movie about immortal men lopping each others’ heads off with swords, but the same can be said of sex scenes in almost any movie or book.

The problem with a sex scene is that the audience expects to be titillated by it, and this tends to distract from any narrative purpose it could serve. Graphic depictions also suffer from the fact that not everyone is aroused or even interested by the same things as the scene’s creator. Those who aren’t titillated will view the scene as something to be suffered through, rather than appreciated. This puts the creator in a double bind: nothing of value to the narrative can be depicted in a sex scene if it titillates the audience, but the audience is likely to be bored or repulsed if the scene is not arousing. At least in the latter case the story can be developed or advanced, but at the cost of making some viewers turn away or lose interest.

For Bioware, the answer to this latter problem is, as always, choice. Bioware has produced several games that are the epitome of the western RPG — you get to decide almost everything about your character, down to the gender, and you are given considerable control over outcomes in the game, often including whether the main character is good or evil. As a result the participants in the scene will be decided by the player, within limits.

It is somewhat curious that a male/male encounter is apparently impossible, though I could not say with certainty whether this reflects the biases or preferences of the programmers or intended audience. I’m inclined to believe either that the developers (keeping in mind that the industry skews strongly male) included only options that turned them on, and that if a gay option was suggested that it was rejected due to a perceived lack of interest or perceived negative outcomes. Bioware must be sensitive to, if not directly partaking of, a double standard in society which is more accepting of female than male homosexuality, especially among the male demographic that dominates videogame purchases.

Regardless of the reasons for the possible exclusion of male homosexuality, the very mutability of the scenario makes it difficult to believe that the scene has a strong narrative purpose. One of the characters in the scene cannot produce any honest revelations, because in this style of RPG the main character is a direct player avatar. The fact that the other character can be selected in some way by the player suggests that the intention of the scene is to arouse. That the selections all feature humanoids supports this view. If the scene is intended to titillate, then not only would it be more difficult for the developers to use the scene to advance the plot, it is less likely that they would even try. I would have been more intrigued to learn that the intercourse scene involved something utterly alien, that wouldn’t be arousing (or at least not arousing to most).

I doubt most people will share my reaction (after all, what normal person boos boobies?), but the difficulties of incorporating such a scene into a solid narrative make me almost certain that Bioware didn’t succeed at it. Yes, the primary features that sell Mass Effect will be the gameplay, graphics, and perhaps the overarching story, and yes, I’ve always had doubts about its western RPG narrative method. Still, what I hoped for from Mass Effect was a high-minded, interesting story (and yes, a game can have one), and it’s disappointing to learn that something detrimental to such an experience has been built in.

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