Yes, that was entirely a cheap trick to get your attention, but it’s also the subject of today’s column. I’ve been pondering exactly how best to broach this topic for a while now — incidental mentions of it in previous columns aside — and have decided that today I will give my own personal take on it, then at some point in the future when I can convince relevant people to talk to me, I’ll get some opinions from developers, publishers and publicists, as I have a feeling there are some interesting and varied thoughts out there.
So let’s talk about sex, specifically with regard to visual novels.
Sex is one of the great taboos in video games. Violence is pretty passé these days — though recent political showboating around the issue may soon cause it to become a bigger issue than it has been for a while — but any sort of sexual content is almost always met with raised eyebrows and, sometimes, misleading Fox News reports. More often than not, though, Western triple-A developers shy away from getting too explicit with the sex scenes simply in an attempt to try not to run afoul of the censors and/or ratings boards. You’ve probably heard it mentioned before; netting an “AO/Adults Only” rating from the ESRB is a sure-fire way to ensure your retail product is not going to sell particularly well… largely because a lot of brick-and-mortar stores will refuse to stock it altogether.
That’s a fair point, but one which is becoming increasingly irrelevant in this increasingly-connected age. Because these days we get so many of our games either by online mail order from sites like Amazon, or from digital download services like Xbox Live Arcade, PSN and Steam, we theoretically get around the whole “retailers refusing to stock it” thing and also around the “buyer’s shame” thing that often accompanies purchasing anything suggestive or overtly sexual, too. Of course, in the case of all three of the download services mentioned above (along with other equivalents), they have strict guidelines in place to prevent anything considered “pornographic” getting through — just as the console manufacturers do with physical releases — and thus it’s unlikely you’ll see any games featuring anything more than a bit of suggestive underwear-clad wriggling on them.
This is a bit of a shame, really, not because I have any particular urge to download outright pornographic games, but because it helps maintain the stigma surrounding games which do feature sexual content, but which do so as part of their story rather than purely for titillation. By specifically excluding games like this from these services, they are ghettoized along with the people who enjoy them, and certain assumptions about said audience are never challenged. It’s not as if it has to be an “anything goes” approach, either. One, these titles can still be reviewed thoroughly by Sony, Microsoft, Valve et al and anything truly objectionable or illegal stopped in its tracks rather than simply treating the presence of explicit sex as an immediate red flag; and two, most online services these days have at least some means of ensuring that only people of legal age have access to the option to purchase these titles.
The truth of the matter is that the strong focus those less familiar with the medium place on the sexual content of visual novels is very often misplaced. Adults-only visual novels are stories first and foremost, sexually-explicit media second. And while the sexual content is often highlighted in promotional material for the games (and even in the games themselves in some cases — many include the facility to replay just the sex scenes once they have been seen once) the fact is that considering these games “porn” is, in most cases anyway, doing the titles themselves, their creators and their audience an enormous disservice.
I vividly recall one of the first H-games I played way back in the early ’00s — Parsley’s True Love, which was localized by a very young JAST USA (now one of the biggest names in bringing Japanese VNs to the West) and which is now, sadly, no longer available. Although the translation was a bit dodgy in places, the dating sim gameplay was interesting to me — I’d never played anything like it prior to that point — and the rather mundane “slice of life” character-based stories were compelling and intriguing. I found myself playing it through time after time to try and see what all the different girls were like as people, and how their individual arcs panned out.
I remember a thought I had shortly after I discovered this game and a couple of others at the time: “Gosh, the Japanese sure make an effort with the story for their porn.” I immediately felt that wasn’t quite correct, though; the word “porn” didn’t feel like it did the experience justice.
In the West, of course, it’s a running gag that porn movies are either nothing more than completely unrelated shots of people banging or feature the most flimsy of premises to justify people getting together and banging, but I could tell there was something different about True Love. Although it had sex scenes in it, it felt wrong to describe it as “porn” — because it wasn’t. The reason for True Love’s existence was not to provide sexual gratification; instead, it was telling a story that just happened to include sex as a part of it. It was a game for adults, in other words.
This isn’t to diminish the importance of the sex scenes in many VNs. While there are some out there that seem to include erotic scenes rather gratuitously, there are many more in which the sexual content turns out to be a surprisingly important part of the experience as a whole. Take Alcot’s hilarious My Girlfriend is the President, for example, which appears at first glance to be a wacky comedy tale about aliens, robots and all manner of other silliness. At its core, though, it’s a tale about the initially rather immature protagonist learning how to rein in his self-professed perverted impulses enough to be able to engage in a mature, romantic, intimate relationship with someone he really cares about. The sex scenes in this are enormously important in building this feeling of intimacy and trust between the characters in question — and it’s also a chance for the audience to see them in a very vulnerable position and how they respond to both the situation and each other. Okay, there’s more than a touch of fanservice in there too — Irina’s maid outfit and Ell’s cat ears scenes spring immediately to mind (Nyan~… sorry, drifted off for a moment, there) — but, to be honest, more than feeling titillated by these erotic scenes, I found they actually made me care more about the characters rather than consider them as just sex objects. (There’s a whole other can of worms waiting to be opened here on the subject of why the vast majority of Japanese-developed VNs are seemingly aimed at a male audience, but we’ll have to leave that for another day, I’m afraid.)
One thing I find particularly interesting as a Westerner with an interest in visual novels is how great the cultural penetration (no pun intended) of popular, sexually-explicit Japanese visual novels in their native territory often ends up being. Look at something like Deus Machina Demonbane, which we covered in this very column a while back, or the popular (but yet to be officially localized) Fate/Stay Night. Both of these, along with numerous others, became genuine cultural phenomena in Japan, spawning official anime adaptations, “all-ages” (i.e. sex-free) ports to other platforms (particularly PS2 and PSP) and diverse ranges of merchandise. The characters became recognizable in popular culture and, in many cases, this high visibility of the games in question helped push the studios on to greater and greater things… and yet their original incarnations were in sexually-explicit titles that certainly an awful lot of the Westerners in my circle of friends (and perhaps yours too) would be embarrassed to be caught playing.
Of course, in the above cases it’s difficult to know how much of the various titles’ popularity is due to the original “adults-only” version and how much is due to later, more teen-friendly incarnations that didn’t feature explicit sex scenes, but I still find it an interesting phenomenon that something with its roots in something that popular media appears to consider somehow “shameful” or “deviant” can attain such widespread cultural recognition.
Sex is nothing to be ashamed of — it’s a natural part of life and love, after all — so why is it still seemingly such a taboo in the games industry today in 2013?
READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.