For one to become a fan of the visual novel genre, one has to be willing to deal with one of gaming’s great taboos: the sex scene. You have to be willing to play games specifically marked as “adults only” and warning of explicit sexual content on the box; you have to be willing to explain that no, you’re not actually playing a “porn game” (in most cases, anyway) — you’re playing a game that just happens to have sex scenes in it, because there’s a difference. You also have to be able to say that latter bit without coming across as defensive, which is very difficult.
A good few years back, I played several of what I then knew as “H-games” — specifically, True Love, Ring Out, Paradise Heights and Three Sisters’ Story.
Of these games, two were pretty much out-and-out porn – Ring Out centred around a young girl who had been sold into effective slavery to repay her parents’ debts and who was forced to compete in an all-lesbian sex-wrestling tournament for the entertainment of pervy, disgusting men; Paradise Heights centred around a guy who both lived and worked at the titular apartment complex and seemed to spend most of his time either spying on or having sex with the residents. Interestingly, though, despite the clear focus of these titles being the sex scenes, they still bothered to put clearly-defined characters and an actual sense of narrative in there – Ring Out in particular, despite its eminently silly premise, was clearly designed to be an uncomfortable experience as much as an arousing one.
Three Sisters’ Story, meanwhile, was a title I actually can’t remember a great deal about, save that it was a character-heavy visual novel in which you automatically attained a bad ending at the conclusion if you gave in to base desires and slept with everyone who proffered themselves to you.
True Love was perhaps the most interesting, though, being an actual dating sim rather than a straight visual novel. You had a limited number of in-game days to find your “true love” (from among the wide variety of potential lovers at school, of course) and had to choose how you spent your time each day — studying, training, doing art, going shopping, that sort of thing. How you chose to spend your time affected various statistics, and the levels of these statistics affected your relationships with the girls. It was actually a surprisingly complex game that had a surprising amount in common with Persona 3 and 4. I really enjoyed it — and my past enjoyment of True Love is perhaps a big part of the reason why I enjoy the Persona games so much now.
Here’s the thing, though — at the time, I didn’t really feel comfortable talking about the fact I’d played these games to anyone. The popularity of the Internet was still in its relative infancy at the time, thanks partly to the fact that broadband hadn’t taken hold in this country yet, and I didn’t really feel that comfortable discussing them with my real-life friends at the time. (True Love was an exception — several of us ended up playing this through concurrently while we were at university.)
The sex was the reason. There was an air of “shame” about playing these games, and not in a Squadron of Shame sense. Because there was sex in all of them to varying degrees, I felt uneasy about revealing my association with them lest I end up thought of as some sort of weird pervert. (In the case of Ring Out, I probably would be thought of as some sort of weird pervert — there was some messed-up kinky shit in that game. Except now I’ve revealed the fact I’ve played it to all of you. Yay! I’m a weird pervert! AND PROUD.)
Yet now I feel perfectly comfortable talking about these games, and even promoting them through a regular column over on Games Are Evil. So what’s changed?
Several factors, I think. First up, my own attitudes towards sex have, naturally, changed over the years. Secondly, the rise of the Internet means that it’s much easier to find like-minded people to discuss these things with, even if they’re outside of your normal friendship groups. Thirdly, societal attitudes towards sex in gaming are changing.
We’re not living in a completely sexually liberated age, of course — there’s still a fuss any time a high-profile game such as Mass Effect or Dragon Age features bonking, and said games tend to skimp on the titillation by having characters writhing around in their underwear — but we’re in a place now where people are at least a little more willing to consider the possibility that games might have some sex in them.
Part of this is the fact that the general demographic of “gamers” has grown up somewhat and is demanding more “mature” experiences for their money. Mostly, “mature” tends to be interpreted as “more violent, more swear words and more women in suggestive outfits”. Sex is still seemingly considered somewhat taboo, so we end up with the underwear-writhing just described.
In 18+, adults-only visual novels, there’s none of that. In these titles, sex scenes are explicit, sometimes quite protracted and, in the words of their manuals, “not always exhibiting the level of sensitivity required for a healthy relationship”. They’re often highly erotic and titillating, and more often than not obviously aimed at a male audience — or at least presented from the perspective of a male protagonist.
Are they necessary? Probably not. Having played through two paths of My Girlfriend is the President now, I feel that game’s stories could probably have been told just as effectively without the flurry of shagging that occurs in the game’s third act of four. Some visual novels even allow players to turn off H-scenes altogether, and console or smartphone ports remove said content altogether, thereby proving that no, it’s probably not necessary.
They may not be necessary, but they’re actually pretty effective in many cases — at least from my perspective. Staying with My Girlfriend is the President, I found the erotic scenes to be incredibly powerful — largely because the writers had taken such great pains to build up a massive amount of sexual tension between the characters before anything truly perverted started happening. As the erotic scenes unfolded, a very “private” side of these characters revealed themselves. What were their attitudes towards sex and physical intimacy in general? How did they define their relationship with each other? Did they see sex as an important part of a relationship, or just something fun to do?
There’s also the fact that visual novels tend to take place with the player “riding along” inside the protagonist’s brain. The player is privy to the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, feelings and desires, however shameful they might be, It’s a uniquely intimate relationship between player and visual novel protagonist — not the same as playing a game where you feel completely “in control” of the characters, but one where the player feels “trusted” to find out things that, in some cases, other characters in the game world don’t know. Next to that, seeing Our Hero putting his penis into someone is a relatively small matter.
And with all that, there’s the fact that being turned on by something erotic is really just another form of emotional engagement. I’ll stay with My Girlfriend is the President for now, but it applies to many other VN titles, too — if feeling happy, sad, amused, upset or angry is a valid emotional response to the things you’re seeing unfolding on screen, why not feeling aroused or excited — or even just pleased for the characters?
There’s a distinction between these incredibly explicit sex scenes and straight-up porn, I’ve found. Seeing, say, Yukino and protagonist Jun getting it on is hot, sure, and the amount of panting, groaning and screaming on the game’s voice track (coupled with some truly stunning subtitles) makes it clear that these are scenes that are supposed to be hot. But they’re not hot in the way that makes me want to, well, not to put too fine a point on it, fap.
They’re part of a story; they’re something that is happening with these characters. Sure, they’re generally not saying anything meaningful to one another (“Mmmm… tch… slurp… aaaaaah”) but they are demonstrating part of their relationship to one another. The meaning of that outweighs any desire to flop it out and go to town — and the fact that I’m not treated as an idiot or a prude is also actually quite refreshing. Let’s also not forget that many VNs feature sex scenes that are not designed to be titillating at all – Hanako and Rin’s scenes in Katawa Shoujo spring immediately to mind — and instead are there to provoke some sort of emotional reaction, or afford a deeper understanding of the characters. Sex is, after all, part of life, like it or not.
Doubtless there are people out there who fap to sex scenes, and the fact that many VNs offer the option to replay just the sex scenes would certainly back this theory up. But, y’know, you want cheap thrills, there are certainly easier ways to go about getting them.
I am, of course, coming at all this from a male perspective and I do not apologise for this in the slightest. I find these experiences engaging, compelling and, on occasion, erotic. And anyway, if we’re being practical about this, what difference is there really between someone playing an eroge and the millions of people around the world who have read the Fifty Shades of Grey series? Think about that.
I’m off for a cold shower.