Sex is great and all, but have you tried talking about it?
This is something that the games industry in general appears to struggle greatly with, since adult gaming is still in a weird niche where it’s commonly understood to exist and is appreciated by its core audiences, but at the same time it’s still not particularly accepted by mainstream outlets, who will take every opportunity to deride and downplay it.
The latest of many examples at the time of writing was presented by Nathan Grayson of Kotaku, who derisively pointed out that “two of Steam’s top games last month were anime sex games” before going on to complain about creators catering to “straight men’s sexual fantasies”. But really this is a broader issue that has been worth talking about for some time. And now’s as good a time as any.
I’m gonna share some behind-the-scenes insights with you, dear reader: looking at the popularity of various articles on this site, the most popular by a significant margin are those that explore games with sexual content of some description — be they explicit, or simply using unashamed sex appeal as part of their core aesthetic.
Top of the heap by far are my articles on Illusion’s Honey Select Unlimited, an erotic game that is mostly known for its detailed character creation feature and excellent photo studio mode; this game brings in steady traffic to MoeGamer every single day, and has done ever since I published the first of these pieces back in March of 2018.
More recently, my detailed writeup on Neko Work H’s visual novel LOVE³ -Love Cube-, which features the distinctive artwork of well-established and beloved doujinshi artist Ishikei, has drawn in a noticeably larger than average influx of daily readers.
These are far from isolated examples, either; running down my list of most popular articles of all time, I continuously find titles like Custom Order Maid 3D 2, Deep Space Waifu, Dungeon Travelers 2, Senran Kagura, Rance, Grisaia and Negligee all occupying spots high up in the table.
The conclusion we can draw from this is pretty simple: people want to know about these games. And those people are emphatically not being served by mainstream video game sites such as Kotaku, which in turn brings them to places like MoeGamer. I’m not going to complain about the latter aspect of things, but what does concern me a bit is why those people are not being adequately served by commercial outlets.
Let’s ponder what I mean by that before we delve into the possible reasons — and why I think this is an important discussion to have.
For approaching a decade now, commercial games journalism’s approach to games that feature anything from mildly provocative content to explicit sexual scenes has been to deride it in one way or another — often taking the time to insult the audience along the way. The word “embarrassing” often crops up, as does “pandering”, and the games are often accused of being “pornographic” — or, in the very worst cases, “child pornography” or “paedophilia”.
Need some examples? Okay. Here’s just a handful from my own casual observations over the last few years; there are plenty more.
Here’s Chris Rooke from the now-defunct UK Official Nintendo Magazine claiming that Senran Kagura is “damaging the industry” and is an “insultingly degrading and misogynistic atrocity”.
Here’s Phil Kollar from Polygon declaring Dungeon Travelers 2 a “creepy, porn-lite dungeon crawler”.
Here’s Jed Whitaker from Destructoid outright calling players of Valkyrie Drive: Bhikkuni “paedophiles”.
Here’s Jim Sterling writing on his own site and completely failing to engage with Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson on any level beyond “tits”.
And here’s Mike Diver from VICE doing exactly the same thing, as well as suggesting those interested in Senran Kagura would be sexually assaulting strangers on public transport if they didn’t have this game to occupy themselves. (Senran Kagura, as a fairly high-profile Japanese series at this point, is a regrettably easy target.)
These articles all have one thing in common: no attempt to actually explore, engage with and analyse the works in question. They make assumptions, they don’t bother to check if those assumptions are correct, and they spend more time making grand, sweeping moral statements than actually trying to have a conversation, offer any helpful advice or get to the bottom of why these games have become popular.
Actually, they have two things in common, the second being that they’re all written by men. But let’s concentrate on the actual content itself for now, otherwise we’ll be here all day.
When I say these articles don’t bother to engage with the games they’re deriding, I really mean it; Diver’s article, for example, proudly boasts of spending a grand total of an hour with Senran Kagura 2 over the course of five or six sessions (so no more than ten minutes at a time, then) during which he had no idea what was going on in the story (unsurprising, since he also talks about deliberately not paying any attention to it); Kollar’s article on Dungeon Travelers 2 was written well before the game had been released and was based entirely on pre-release promotional materials; Rooke hadn’t played Senran Kagura Burst at all when he decided to let rip and inadvertently made a lot more people aware of this series he irrationally hated so much.
Many of these games have good reason for their content being the way it is, whether it’s subversive (as in the case of the early Senran Kagura games in particular, where the cheeky fanservice content was designed to be dramatically juxtaposed with the rather dark and tragic narrative aspect) or symbolic (as in the case of Dungeon Travelers 2, which makes use of a common Japanese trope where nudity represents vulnerability or exposing your “soul” to someone else) — but you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t actually play the games.
This applies to “sex games”, as Grayson refers to them, too; he describes LOVE³ -Love Cube- thus:
LOVE³ is a visual novel about a down-on-his-luck comics artist living with three women. Naturally, he sleeps with all of them. The game touts animations that “come to life and bounce up and down” and specifically notes that “all characters depicted are over the age of 18.”
This is a gross oversimplification of LOVE³ -Love Cube-, as I’ve explained in detail elsewhere. While LOVE³ does feature a lot of explicit sexual content in its latter half and it’s not inaccurate to say that protagonist Ichinari sleeps with the three heroines, what Grayson’s description misses out completely is the context of that. This isn’t some gonzo porn where you hit “Play” and the fucking starts within a matter of seconds; this is a visual novel where sex is depicted as a natural part of a relationship — and, to make things more interesting and different from societal “norms”, a mutually consensual polyamorous relationship, at that. But again, you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t play it.
At this point, I’d like to share a few tweets from Meru, the translator for LOVE³ -Love Cube-, because she provides an interesting perspective on things — both as someone who isn’t me, and as a woman.
Something the Kotaku article got me thinking about: while I acknowledge that most eroge are indeed aimed at men, what attracted me, as a woman, to them was the fact that you get to experience a relationship with the characters, making the sex scenes more intimate.
Sure, those scenes tend to be from a male perspective, and there are many things I dislike about the average eroge scene, but they offer something way more emotional than your average Western porn movie, and that’s the connection I was looking for.
Women are just as sexual as men, but (and this is a very broad generalisation) we often tend to enjoy porn with an emotional depth to it. It’s why bodice-ripper “romance” novels and fanfic are so popular.
Now I have no idea if this is something that’s innate or socialised (probably socialised, I mean most things are), but it is what it is. And there are female eroge fans out there who find a lot of joy in these games.
I’m not trying to destroy a narrative here or anything, as I’m not denying the audience for eroge is primarily male, but instead of ALWAYS looking for the negatives, it would be nice to see bigger outlets also look at some of the positives of these “anime sex games”.
Meru makes a great point here about emotional engagement. Even in nukige that emphasises sex over narrative, developers and writers make an effort to construct characters in such a way that make us care about them: they provide them with personality, backstory, character traits, tics and habits… all the things that come together to make that character feel more like “a person” and less like just some text, graphics and sounds.
And her preference for seeing sexual scenes in the context of a healthy relationship is by no means exclusive to women, either; speaking for myself, I certainly struggle to engage with straight-up context-free porn (unless I happen to have what can euphemistically be described as “the raging horn”; it happens to the best of us!), whereas if there’s a significant attempt to invest me in the characters involved before anything even remotely sexual happens, I feel extremely emotionally fulfilled when things do proceed to another level. By extension, those erotic scenes, when they happen, feel much more powerful and meaningful (both emotionally and outright physically) as a result.
This is a particular strength of LOVE³ -Love Cube-, which takes plenty of time to introduce its main heroines and develop their relationships with the protagonist before anything lewd happens, but it’s something that Japanese visual novel writers in general have become extraordinarily proficient at as the medium has developed; the Grisaia series’ use of sex scenes as an integral part of character development is particularly noteworthy in this regard, but there are countless other great examples.
Meru speaking up about Grayson’s article also raises another important point: these games are made by people. They don’t just appear from the aether, ready and waiting to fulfil every fantasy of heterosexual straight men without question. They’re the creation of substantial teams consisting of real people: real people who designed the characters; real people who wrote the prose and dialogue; real people who localised that dialogue to bring the work to a broader audience; real people who composed the music to complement the characters and the events that unfold; real people who drew 2D artwork and constructed 3D models; real people who animated characters and cutscenes; real people who provided their voices to play the roles of the various characters. And plenty more besides.
With this in mind, it feels fundamentally disrespectful to write off the work of so many real people as just an “anime sex game” — or to discard it based on its target audience. In the case of something like LOVE³ -Love Cube-, it’s not hard to imagine it being a particularly meaningful creation for its artist Ishikei, for example, since it’s a highly polished, quality product that features their artwork: something they can (and should) be proud to say they contributed to the creation of. On top of that, Neko Work artist Sayori’s contributions to the Live2D side of things also provides a rare opportunity for Ishikei’s work to be seen in motion; characters well and truly coming to life rather than being confined to the printed page. And not just during erotic scenes, either.
Everything we’ve talked about so far is true for non-explicit games, too; speak to any Senran Kagura fan and they’ll happily talk your ear off about their favourite girl, with how much they want to fuck them being pretty low down the list of priorities in most instances. Senran Kagura has endured and developed as it has done over the course of the last eight years because of this fact; most of the more recent Senran Kagura games go as far as de-emphasising the original plot in favour of in-depth character explorations and developing the relationships between the gradually expanding cast.
But even if the Senran Kagura series were ever to develop in an 18+ direction — unlikely, given that it is primarily developed as a console series, but let’s ponder hypotheticals for a moment — it would be absolutely fine, because these characters and their relationships are so well-established at this point that it would actually be rather heartwarming and emotional to see some of the more obvious “ships” get an opportunity to finally spend some on-screen intimate time together.
Emotional engagement is extremely important for a healthy relationship. And the most memorable relationships in games acknowledge both this and the fact that emotional intimacy often brings with it the desire to be physically intimate, too. And, I can’t emphasise this enough, that is very much OKAY!
I made a specific effort to talk about this side of things when I wrote about LOVE³ -Love Cube-. I wanted to be completely honest about it, so I went so far as to describe my reaction to both the emotional and the erotic scenes in detail. While I was nervous about being quite so honest about the latter side of things in particular as it’s something that it’s easy to dance around without really saying anything, my honesty in that regard ended up being very well-received. (I will happily say that I was heavily inspired here by my good friend Infernal Monkey, whose extremely NSFW onahole review blog is one of the most admirably honest — and entertaining — places on the Internet.)
It’s popular in progressive circles these days to criticise heterosexual men for being unable or unwilling to open up and talk about their feelings and emotions. However, were a man to admit that they found themselves emotionally attracted to a particular character to such a degree that they harboured a desire to be physically intimate with them, you can bet that the emotional aspect would be quickly discarded in favour of branding the man in question a pervert (or worse) — or perhaps just pathetic for finding a fictional character attractive.
This seems somewhat self-defeating; if you want men to start talking about how they’re feeling, you need to then accept those feelings, whatever they might be, and then you can move on from there. (Go play Blue Reflection if this concept is difficult to grasp; that game is literally about understanding and accepting feelings that might be alien to you, and as such is a title I strongly recommend to anyone interested in developing their empathy… or just playing a gorgeous, emotional game.)
It doesn’t stop there, however; all of the above goes out of the window if we’re talking about LGBTQ+ content. LGBTQ+ audiences are encouraged to be open about this sort of thing, and LGBTQ+ content is typically highlighted in publications that are often noticeably negative towards heterosexual content.
But that shouldn’t be it. Everyone should be encouraged to be open and honest about this sort of thing. No-one should be shamed for their preferences and the things they enjoy. No-one should be excluded or made to feel invalid based on such an important part of their overall identity. And at the moment, articles like Grayson’s in particular make a specific point to suggest that content intended for heterosexual males is somehow a problem because of a perceived lack of content for other audiences.
It’s important to remember that just because a piece of media was developed with a heterosexual male audience in mind, that doesn’t mean it will end up with an exclusively heterosexual male audience. This personal account, written by martial arts instructor “Atma Weapon”, describes how Senran Kagura’s Katsuragi helped her come to terms with her painful past and her identity as a lesbian, and remains an incredibly powerful piece of writing. It’s been one of my favourite examples of what we’re talking about here ever since I first read it a couple of years back, but I’m sure it’s not the only one out there like it.
And, on top of that, Grayson’s implication that LGBTQ+ content is lacking on storefronts such as Steam is simply inaccurate; just here on MoeGamer we’ve seen titles such as Ne no Kami and The Expression: Amrilato (both of which are available on Steam), which feature FxF relationships; popular localisers MangaGamer and JAST both have several explicit MxM eroge in their portfolios; and companies like Aksys specialise in otome games, which are specifically designed to primarily appeal to heterosexual women. These games exist, but as we’ve seen, the commercial press in particular is bad at talking about them. And especially bad at researching them before shooting their mouth off.
We need to get better at talking about sex. Sex is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a healthy, natural part of human existence, whether you are a heterosexual male who gets off on squishy, curvy mamas with big boobies or a genderfluid pansexual whose preferences change by the hour. Everyone should be able to enjoy themselves without judgement — so long as they’re not hurting anyone or breaking any laws, obviously. No-one should be excluded. And no-one should be shamed for enjoying one of the most pleasurable things life has to offer.
Two of Steam’s top games last month were anime sex games? I say great; let’s make it a regular occurrence!
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