Sex in games: why we can't talk about it enough

A tale of souls and sauciness

How will we know videogames have "made it" as a medium, entering the hallowed, elderly company of film, music and literature? A question with many answers, traveller. In the past I'd have said "when the Tate Gallery giftshop sells El Shaddai 2 alongside the Goya-branded lunchboxes". Or "when every stand-up comic has a Tekken routine".

But under the kindly influence of man-flu and Rice Krispy Squares, I've formulated some new victory criteria: unchallenged prevalence of boobs, willies and bottoms. When games are able to depict or allude to the beast with two backs without incurring the wrath of glossy anchormen and crackpot MPs - then, we'll know we're no longer culture's red-headed stepchildren, but fully paid-up members of the Establishment. At which point, we'll probably want to drown ourselves in gin.

Few art-forms deal as avidly with the concept of interspecies sex.

There are many things videogames shouldn't do, in the eyes of reactionary pundits - show both sides of a war, stop aliens demolishing Manchester Cathedral, save young women from vampires - but close encounters of the sexy kind undoubtedly raise hackles the most. Just ask Mass Effect - the first in BioWare's epic series was slammed for its lewdness and "objectification" on the illustrious Fox News. The offending sequence? A nipple-free sideways shot of Dr Liara T'soni's chest, visible for a handful of seconds towards the end (yes, I could have written "climax") of a 30 hour role-playing game which lets you play as either gender.

Aware that they're the latest in a long line of scapegoats, destined to be paddled vigorously whenever the intransigent Right decides that Something Must Be Done, developers often tip-toe around the subject of in-game naughtiness. Witness, for instance, Ken Levine's caution on the subject of Bioshock Infinite's push-up bras. He began by telling us that he "hadn't really thought about it", added he'd "much rather talk about what she's going through as a person", toyed with the idea that "people like looking at attractive people", and concluded, marvellously, by suggesting that "exaggerated" features make female characters easier to distinguish at a distance. Speaking to VG247, BioWare's David Silverman hedged similarly that "some characters are defined by their attractiveness" in reference to Mass Effect 2's fearsomely buff Jacob and Miranda.

Catherine's boss monsters are like screwed-up gobbets of pornography.

Given this elusiveness, the arrival of Atlus novelty Catherine on UK shores this month was refreshing however you score it out of 10. Here, at long last, is a game that doesn't merely deploy sex for publicity's sake, crowbar it into a QTE or reduce it to the status of an unlockable cutscene, but actively examines it. You know - as if it were just another fact of human life, as deserving of artistic interrogation as villainy, the nature of truth and giant explosions.

Catherine can be looked at a couple of ways. On the one hand, the game could be a saucy burlesque, dangling a pair of voluptuous ladies before the player's eyes, then juxtaposing the red-faced gawp of a chronically inadequate twenty-something man. The discourse of male objectification is mocked throughout - let your gaze be sucked in by the cleavage on the PS3 boxart, gents, and you'll encounter a tiny, terrified-looking version of yourself struggling for air. On the other, you might call it a surreal yet serious portrayal of how people actually enact and picture sex in the darkness of their own heads. The game's Silent-Hill-meets-Tetris block-climbing sequences make a certain sense either way: they're a mind-bending parody of getting an erection, or somebody's wet dream gone horribly wrong.

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