A recent video game for the x-box 360 contains sex. I know. I’m shocked, too. But if you’re wondering why the sky hasn’t fallen and dogs and cats aren’t living together, take a closer look. Mass Effect demonstrates that advancements in game development are allowing the medium a maturity that was never before possible.
Mass Effect is a sci-fi role-playing game where you design your own super-agent to investigate a threat to all known civilization. “Mass” could stand for “massive”; there is literally a galaxy for you to explore, where you decide which planets and missions to uncover. And piece by piece you assemble an epic story with the scope of the best long-form television dramas.
One aspect of the game that has gotten a lot of attention lately, specifically a negative spot on Fox News, is hinted at in the tiny ratings box on the cover. Rated M for Mature. 17+. Flip it over and you’ll read that the games contains “partial nudity” and “sexual themes.” Promising.
The sex is an optional element you can find by courting a paramour from amongst your teammates through the game’s unique interface: a “conversation wheel” that allows you to quickly cycle through dialogue options.
If you have a female commander, this might mean talking up your sensitive psychic soldier. Or you can pursue a sensual blue-skinned alien scientist. For me, after 31 hours of play, it came down to hot, tough-as-nails, incongruously poetry-spouting Sergeant Ashley Williams sneaking into my quarters the night before the big battle.
But what began as soft-focus sexy talk led into exposition as Williams revealed the reasons behind her hard exterior, the complicated family relations that drove her into the military. Oh yeah, and she kept calling me Skipper. But enough backstory; it was time to get tough. With a few clicks, I found the selection: “Get into my bunk!”
Cue the ambient music. Fade into furtive uniform groping. Cut to a computer-generated ass shot. Pan across a lithe body. There was a breast... I think, but it went by really fast. Thirty seconds later, my character is back in full dress, getting ready for the final showdown.
It’s tasteful. It fits the romantic subplot. And it’s short as hell, a minute portion of an enormous game. The only thing it’s guilty of is some slightly cheesy dialogue. (“You still sassing me, soldier? I think you need more physical training!”) But the most important fact is that it’s entirely believable. Let me tell you why.
Graphics have so evolved that sex in video games is possible in ways they weren’t equal to before. It’s no longer a mesh of pixilated cartoons that can only be played for humour, like the old Leisure-Suit Larry from Sierra.
Instead, you’re looking at “real” people, or in some cases aliens, with a full range of emotions.
These digital actors are matched by technical innovations in the “filming” of scenes, and camera direction that heightens the emotional impact.
A variety of techniques – varied framing of shots, shifting focus between background and foreground, a film grain look – give the entire game a cinematic sheen.
But it’s not just the graphics that make these situations convincing. The storytelling has matured to a degree that allows an actual emotional investment in the characters. Mass Effect is at least as compelling as anything produced by Hollywood.
Let’s not forget that the primary audience for games has aged and is watching R-rated movies or television series with heaps more booty, not to mention filthy fucking language and violence.
The Fox News segment trotted out glib experts who referred to Mass Effect as pornography and argued that because it’s a game, it is by definition marketed to kids and teens.
BioWare, the developer of Mass Effect, and its parent company, Electronic Arts, were quick to demand a retraction that has yet to come.
While it might be obvious, it’s still worth noting the Fox’s hypocrisy in dwelling on a flash of ass while using it to create a titillating news item.
Naturally, fans of Mass Effect are up in arms. We’ll see what impact knee-jerk reporting has on the future of a mature games medium. Somehow I think Mass Effect will be fine, since it’s been showered with accolades from established heavies like the New York Times, which recently gave it the nod for game of the year.
Who knows? This might be the start of a critical push. I only want to write this once, but mark my words, you’ll be hearing a lot of this in the future: “Zap! Pow! Smash! Video games have grown up!” And once we get that over with, we can find out what they can really do.