From the Archives: Embracing the “H”

Sex.

Yes, that was entirely a cheap trick to get your attention, but it’s also the subject of today’s column.

There are some interesting and varied thoughts about sex in games out there, but it’s a subject that still remains largely taboo for many developers, publishers and even critics. It’s also a subject in which Eastern and Western approaches and philosophies differ greatly, and it makes for some fascinating discussions.

So let’s talk about sex, specifically with regard to visual novels.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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Deus Machina Demonbane, PC

Violence in video games is pretty passé these days — though occasional political showboating around the issue sometimes looks like it may cause it to become a bigger issue — but any sort of sexual content is almost always met with raised eyebrows or judgemental news articles from people who think they know What Is Best For Everyone.

More often than not — though this situation has changed a little in the last few years thanks to titles such as The Witcher — 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 more and more irrelevant in this increasingly connected age.

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School of Talent: Suzu Route, PC

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, PlayStation Network and Steam, we theoretically get around the whole “individual retailers in your hometown refusing to stock it” thing — and the accompanying “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), there are 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. Steam is probably the most progressive platform in this regard, with a big increase in games and visual novels featuring softcore sexuality over the last couple of years, but there are still limits to what developers and publishers are allowed to show.

All this is a bit of a shame, really, not because I have any particular urge to download outright pornographic games — there are plenty of places to do that already — but because it helps maintain the stigma surrounding games which do feature sexual content.

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The Labyrinth of Grisaia, PC

This is particularly disappointing when you consider titles such as the Grisaia series, which feature sexual content as an integral part of their story rather than purely for titillation; versions of these games that end up on platforms such as Steam tend to be heavily edited.

By specifically excluding games like this from these services, they are ghettoized along with the people who enjoy them, and certain, often unpleasant assumptions about said audience are never challenged by people with voices and platforms that can make a real impact. We often see this happen with Japanese games in general, not just sexually explicit ones.

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 (theoretically) ensuring that only people of legal age have access to the option to purchase these titles, such as requiring purchases of 18+ material to use a credit card or suchlike.

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Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto, PC

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, in many cases, stories first and foremost, sexually-explicit media second. There are exceptions to this — visual novels that primarily exist as pornography are known as nukige, and there’s very much a place for them in culture — but in the case of eroge, which make up a significant proportion of the more high-profile Japanese visual novel titles, and particularly those that get localised into English, the inclusion of sexual content is often incidental or complementary to the main narrative.

There’s also a cultural difference at play: the idea of “skinship” — being naked together as a means of developing friendships and intimacy that isn’t necessarily sexual — is a distinctly Japanese concept that doesn’t really have a direct analogue in Western culture. (We just get uncomfortable with that one person in the gym locker room who is far too happy to towel-dry their genitals while everyone else does their best not to look.) And it’s the possibility of this concept being misconstrued by Westerners (and/or ratings boards) that leads some localisation teams to feel like they need to make significant edits to games like Fire Emblem: Fates, Mugen Souls and a number of other localised Japanese games over the last few years.

But I digress; while the sexual content even in eroge 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.

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True Love, PC

I vividly recall one of the first H-games I played way back in the early ’00s — Parsley’s True Love, which was localized and published by Otaku Publishing and a very young JAST USA (now one of the bigger names in bringing Japanese VNs to the West) and which is now, sadly, no longer available. (Edit: kind soul “Kain Yusanagi” on Twitter helpfully pointed out that you can play True Love on the Web here.)

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 narrative arcs panned out.

I remember a thought I had shortly after I discovered this game and the joys it contained: “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 (“gonzo” porn) 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.

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My Girlfriend is the President, PC

None of this is to diminish the importance of the sex scenes in many VNs, mind you. While there are some out there that may 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 My Girlfriend is the President 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.

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My Girlfriend is the President, PC

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~) – but, to be honest, more than feeling titillated by these erotic scenes, I found they actually made me care more about the characters (including the protagonist) as people rather than considering them purely as desirable sex objects. My thoughts were more complex than “wow, that’s hot”, in other words; they were more along the lines of “wow, Ell-chan sure made an effort, and I really hope Jun makes sure she knows how much he appreciates it. WITH HIS PENIS.” (Sorry.)

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 a while back, or the popular (but still 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 Sony consoles and handhelds), spinoff games and diverse ranges of merchandise.

The characters became recognizable in Japanese popular culture and, in many cases, the 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 Westerners still claim they would be embarrassed to be “caught” playing. (I am, as I’m sure you know by now, not one of them.)

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Negligee, PC

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 2017? (And why, four years after I originally published this article, hasn’t the situation improved all that much? – Pete)


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

Header image from “Demi-chan wa Kataritai” / “Interviews with Monster Girls”, Kodansha Ltd., 2017

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4 thoughts on “From the Archives: Embracing the “H””

  1. While I never got into True Love itself (I never had a real idea what to do and, unlike Princess Maker, I never found it fun to just experiment), I sure now the described feelings well. Due to a friend, I got some old eroge, a long time ago, first Three Sisters Story (which already showed that those could be quite story-heavy), next Paradise Heights 2 (more a nukige) and then… a whole bunch of stuff.

    Of those, it was Season of Sakura, that really impressed me. First, there was the structure. Three Sisters Story had frequent sex scenes, several rather casual, so it still felt like a “porn game”. But Seasons of Sakura most just had them at the end, when one of the girls becomes your girlfriend, with only a few naughty scenes peppered throughout the game.

    And I really didn’t mind, because I mostly cared about the story and. most importantly, the characters (awfully derivative as they might be). I didn’t even really care about that in Three Sisters Story (in hindsight, I think that’s because of the relatively bleak tone it had, I very much preferred the light-hearted slice of life of Seasons of Sakura). As a result, it really didn’t feel like a porn game at all, in spite of having pornographic scene.

    Another early translated VN, I liked a lot, was Nocturnal Illusions. It’s rather darker fare, but unlike Three Sisters Story or Fatal Relations it wasn’t overly bleak or sadistic. It’s more somber and mystical. Again, I really cared about the characters and their individual stories and kinda wished it were possible to really save all of them (but then, it’s probably better that it isn’t). It’s also really enhanced by it’s soundtrack, particularly the “main theme”, that plays when you wander around the house, and one theme that plays a few times when you “save” a side character.

    With those two, I first saw how good eroge and VNs can be. While Seasons of Sakura properly introduced me to them and showed me how fun slice of life VNs can be (like a prelude to light-hearted fare like Sono Hanabira or Nekopara), Nocturnal Illusions made me feel for characters’ fates and a bit emotional at times (foreshadowing how I would really get into stuff like some of Tsukihime’s routes and Clannad’s… everything). And both showed how the presence of pornographic scenes don’t have to drag them down (and possibly enhance them in some respects).

    Even if they don’t hold a candle to some eroge/VNs I played since, I still have a lot of fondness for them.

    Like

    1. Ah… rattling through a list of old eroge that I played back in my university days! Some great titles there. Never played Season of the Sakura but always wanted to.

      I did play Three Sisters Story, though; I remember being surprised that the game actually punished you for taking the pervy option and “accepting” the sex scenes whenever they cropped up! Playas never prosper; pick a waifu for laifu!

      It was actually relatively recently that I played Nocturnal Illusion for the first time and, despite the incredibly ragged translation, I really enjoyed it. I wrote about it here: https://moegamer.net/tag/nocturnal-illusion/

      Having played Nocturnal Illusion relatively recently it’s quite interesting to observe how many subsequent VNs have gone with a similar idea of the protagonist not as a magical cure-all for the heroines’ problems, but as a “wind of change”. Whether or not this is deliberately drawing influence from Nocturnal Illusion is a matter of opinion, but it’s certainly something that crops up rather a lot in titles like Grisaia.

      Thanks for your post, always a pleasure to find someone in the comments keen to share their own experiences 🙂

      Like

  2. “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.”
    “None of this is to diminish the importance of the sex scenes in many VNs, mind you. While there are some out there that may 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.”
    You are falling into a trap of your own making here, I believe the best way to describe it is as seen below:
    “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 2017?”
    Because even where you can deem the “sex scenes” to not be “gratuitous”, to say that they don’t provide “sexual gratification” and that providing sexual gratification in itself supposedly makes the experience matter less sounds a lot like the same argument you’re trying to debunk (it’s the same, it’s just on another level).
    Sex is indeed nothing to be ashamed of, I’m not sure why you’re not trying harder to be consistent.
    The article is good overall though, good job.

    Like

    1. There are two real arguments here rather than just one. The first is whether we “need” sex in games, which is what the mainstream press tends to focus on in a negative light with their articles that shame Japanese games for having even lightly provocative content.

      While we don’t necessarily “need” it — certainly not in every game — when it does show up, it’s not something that grown adults should be covering their faces and shying away from. They should be engaging with it and considering why it’s there.

      The second, then, is that reason the sex, when it is present, is there. The blanket assumption people outside the eroge/VN enthusiast community tends to make is that visual novels are all porn for porn’s sake — nukige. And while nukige exists (and isn’t to everyone’s taste), it’s just one part of the overall picture; the eroge angle, where sex is integrated into the narrative rather than the work’s primary reason for existence, tends to get downplayed by people less familiar with the medium.

      I’m not saying people don’t or shouldn’t get sexual gratification from True Love of Grisaia’s H-scenes by any means! They’re damn hot. 🙂 The distinction I’m making, though, is that the main reason for them being there is not to get the reader off, but to advance the narrative or deepen characterisation. Getting off to them is just a happy bonus.

      This distinction is one that doesn’t get made often enough, although people do at least discuss it a lot more openly today than they used to.

      Like

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