CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses games with sexual content. This includes a lot of kink, including nonconsensual sex, mind control, milk-drinking, lolicon/shotacon, drugs, bestiality, and incest. You have been warned!
As we discussed in the last article, adult-only games have mostly been led by the Japanese development scene, and this has only recently begun to change. This, combined with the usual trend following that exists in game development, and a lack of critical examination, has led to an… Interesting landscape. A critical minefield. In this article, I’m going to be laying out some core issues. Starting with a trap that it’s all too easy to fall into when critiquing adult-only games…
The Thermian Issue
In a good video on the subject of literalism, rather than critical examination of authorial choices, Dan Olson coined the phrase “Thermian Argument”, based on the aliens of Galaxy Quest (Who do not understand fiction.) And, in the case of adult-only games, it’s all too easy to fall into that trap: It is a fiction, minotaurs have addictive semen and so dependency is introduced, no abusive behaviour or writing here!
Adult-only games often have this issue, where one character or another do not consent to the sexual behaviours core to the game, and so it is, by any sensible measure, nonconsensual sex. But some of these games are aware enough of it to either attempt to explain it, or attempt to set the narrative up in such a way that the character has some latent weakness (or attraction) toward it, or the protagonist has some power that removes it.
So keep this in mind as we continue, because it has an effect throughout, and is very hard to disentangle from other things.
Some of this is Kink, Decontextualised
It would come as little surprise that very few adult-only games deal with vanilla sex. There are science-fiction games, urban fantasy games, horror games… To deal with vanilla sex in those situations is a limitation. However, overall, this is very much a case of “can” versus “should.”
An easy example would be mind control, and it’s a very common one. Whether that’s from magical mcguffins, spells, the abilities of various creatures, drugs (itself a content-warning), or plain old hypnosis, mind control is common. And, outside of these fictional settings, it’s a kink, specifically a roleplay situation enjoyed by some dom(me)s and subs. The major difference is that, in these fictions, that last bit no longer applies, because said mind control is, in the context of the setting, very real. But it’s an easy example because, taken on its own, it’s a roleplay transposed to fiction.
Monsters is, equally, taken on its own, a kink some folks have. Cowgirls, as an example of a common species in adult-only games, has its roots in a variant of petplay, combined with milk-drinking fetishes. Okay, fine, we want to fuck the fish. I got that.
Other fetishes, however, are illegal to perform in reality (Incest, lolicon, shotacon, gore, and vore are all under this category, for example), and some are stigmatised despite the acknowledgement by kinksters that they would not, and should not be a reality. I mention this, because it’s a good segue into…
Everything But, Specifically, the Kitchen Sink. Specifically That.
Another area where adult-only games is a critical minefield is that it’s rarely just one kink. Pairings, situations, kinks, number of partners… While the majority of games stick to certain kinks, this is no guarantee, and even navigating the forums where adult-only games have traditionally made their home isn’t always helpful, despite their diligence in tagging content appropriately. Due to pairings alone, it’s somewhat difficult to find games that are solely M/M (Yaoi) or F/F (Yuri), let alone M/F, and whether a game has the ability to turn off pairings or kink scenes is entirely up to whim and chance. Most commonly, it’s gore, vore, and openly abusive behaviours that players get warned about entering, but this is by no means a guarantee. Meanwhile, in terms of pairings, the two most common pairings to get an off-switch in the options are… M/M, and Transgender content.
Gee, thanks, but, honestly, I was more worried about all the scat. I didn’t particularly want to visit that magical realm, asshole.
(More) Gendered Presentation
It’s kind of obvious, at this point, that a lot of these games are made by dudes. It doesn’t take a whole lot to see that, considering the sheer number of visual novels, with DAZ 3D models, that has the protagonist be a Musician/PHP Coder/Salesman/Young Man/NEET given magical seduction or mind control powers. But this bleeds into other areas as well, such as relative character agency.
When the protagonist is a woman, they are often the acted-upon. Not always, and not consistently, but more often. When the protagonist is a man, it’s a little more fluid. When the protagonist is transgender in some respect, again, it becomes a little more fluid… But less so, overall, than a transgender antagonist. And, equally, less so than even a boy.
Equally, there is gendered presentation. Very rarely have I encountered a woman in these games who is not sexualised in some fashion, even the monsters. Part of that is this whole gendered agency thing, yes, but it’s not all. Men, meanwhile, can run the gamut, although the male protag is most often either a young boy (that whole shotacon thing) or strapping (Although less often muscular than other highly gendered media.) Transgender protagonists are most often trans women.
Now, this is where it gets a little more complicated. As mentioned, a lot of this comes from BDSM related kinks, and a part of that is degradation. Dirty talk is a lesser version of this, where the excitement comes from the taboo. A sexualised character who owns their sexuality is more pleasing than a sexualised character who is written to be naive of this. I don’t believe, funnily enough, that the majority of games are actively misognystic or hateful, nor do I believe a writer’s going to be bad because they’re a dude (there’s certainly counter-examples to that argument), although, as mentioned, it’s hard sometimes to disentangle what’s what. As games about sex, it’s obvious that appeal is a core requirement… But I do think we could stand to think a little more about this.
That Thing That Could Be A Positive, But Might Not Be
While we’re on that subject, another extremely common feature of adult games is “futanari” content (Women either possessing both primary genitalia, or male genitalia, presented as femme or nonbinary), and… This is where I, personally, would have to step back and let more qualified folks talk about this, because I am cis, and it doesn’t matter how much or little I listen to trans folks, that doesn’t give me any sort of authority when it comes to saying what is good representation for trans folk, what is trans-fetishism (Turning the concept of trans folk into an objectified concept), or what is transmisia (Hateful, derogatory, or otherwise bigoted presentation of trans folk.)
Okay, maybe that last one’s easier to spot, but the point is, there’s a lot of folk that could be considered trans or nonbinary in adult games, and while that is representation, bad representation is often more harmful than no presentation. For a better grip on that, you’ve much better odds with trans folk who enjoy adult games.
As we’ve already mentioned, a lot of content in these games is male gaze, male focused. So when there’s a male protag, everyone wants, or is dominated into, fucking the dude, and when it’s not a dude, there is a heavy element of either getting fucked, having gay sex with other women, or both. I am also not qualified to say how the lesbian community feels about that, for obvious reasons.
One interesting note I did find, however, was that the question becomes a whole lot more interesting due to these fictional worlds and their explorations. One discussion of Fenoxo’s work (often involving transformation themes, including gender changes) notes that trans specifically refers to transitioning, or having transitioned. But this doesn’t, strictly speaking, cover beings engineered (or naturally) having genitalia of both genders, or the ability to swap freely. It comes closer to nonbinary or genderqueer, but I do find it interesting that our fiction, in a way, is far ahead of our current capabilities (once again) when it comes to exploring gender. And that can definitely be a positive.
Now, let’s talk about how they play as games, and, straight off, we hit a problem.
A Lot Of This Is Gamified In Exactly The Wrong Way
Okay, that’s probably a little strong, in some cases. Gamified in a counter-intuitive or conflicting manner, or gamified in a manner that adds to the objectification/creepiness is probably a better fit. Let’s take two common adult game concepts as our examples here: The Corruption/Lewdness Meter, and Bad Ends/Loss Sex. We’ll start with the latter.
Essentially, in many an adult game, performing non-survival actions results in sex. Sometimes, this is because the big bad monster has grabbed you. Sometimes, it’s because you lost a fight. Sometimes, it’s because you met the conditions (bullshit or otherwise) for a “Bad” Ending. Except… It’s presented more as a transgressive titillation that just happens to reduce your health the more it goes on, or a new CG (Computer Graphic) to unlock for the Gallery. In a lot of other places, gallery items, titillation, or any kind of spectacle reward happens after good things. So it’s easy to see why it’s counter-intuitive, as, in its own way, it rewards failure using mechanics you would normally see for rewarding success. Sometimes, this is kludged around by making the gallery only unlock upon successful completion, be that of the game, or of a portion of it. That presents its own awkwardness, because those “rewards” are usually decontextualised to a specialised gallery. It’s not just a bit weird (an understatement) to be rewarded with the character being acted upon (sexually or otherwise), it doesn’t even really work that well in terms of gameplay flow.
Corruption/Lewdness ties somewhat into this. In many games, it serves the dual purpose of negative health meter (the higher it goes, the worse off or more susceptible you are), and event criteria (You must be this corrupt or sexualised to enter.) Even setting aside that, as noted, the bad things are considered a reward in these games, or part of a completion percentage (if you will), there is an inherent stigmatisation here, as, in most of these, any sexual act raises this meter (Although, depending on its role as a susceptibility gauge, itself an icky concept, masturbation may lower or raise this.)
Even accounting for that first point I made (Where a lot of this comes from kink, most often BDSM or BDSM adjacent practices, where being a “good” submissive is the goal, and deviations from this ideal are punished), this is… Topsy turvy at best, ill thought out most commonly, and just plain creepy or slutshaming in the nastier works.
Porn Has, Like, Five Plots and Seven Sets, Right?
Some things crop up, time and time again, in adult games. The princess or knight who goes out and finds sex and “corruption” instead. The young man whose family and close friends suddenly get into them because… Well, often, it’s some magic or hypnosis. Horror scenarios where the monsters are fuck-happy. While sex is often at the core of sex games (Surprise!), just like the rest of games, there’s a lot of basic scenarios being plotted. How many games in the past year, for example, do you remember being heavily soulslike, even down to plot beats? More than would seem sensible, is the answer.
There are creative adult games out there, from the simpler creativity of realising “Oh hey, wait, this is a Monster Hunter pastiche”, to something like Sanguine Rose, where the situation is “Sexually active characters who have their own desires and goals are pitted up against a seductive general they’ve captured, who is using their own knowledge, diplomatic skills, and sexuality in order to escape or turn their captors.” In that last one, everyone is a character, no main character seems one note, and as such, it works.
None of this changes that the basic goal of an adult game is to portray sex, but when it’s clear thought has gone into contextualising the scenario, grounding characters, it’s…
…Well, it’s the same as when other games put in that work which is considered basic to a lot of other stuff. It elevates a bar lowered by “Eh, it’s just games, yo, don’t think about it too hard.”
Everything That Applies To Other Games Doesn’t Stop Applying When There’s Sex
Finally, on our whistlestop tour of things to critique, yes, having a too steep difficulty curve is a turn-off. Having an aesthetic seen as low effort or copy pasting is not only a turn-off, but also shines a spotlight on any other lacks of creativity shown (The “young man whose family and friends yada yada” type games are, most often, visual novels using static poses and DAZ 3D/Poser models, for example.) Writing can still be dull as dishwater, you can still have poorly explained mechanics, or inconsistent aesthetics, bad UI, bad accessibility options. Basically, developing an adult game is like developing any other game, except now you have added questions like “Is my sex being presented well? Does it feel shoehorned? How does it interact with the core game loop?”
I’ve mentioned, here and there among the critique, some adult games I somewhat liked (and others I didn’t), and, funnily enough, all the ones I particularly liked have engaged on some level with the questions raised in this article. Like it or not, Steam’s move (and others) has dragged adult games from their dark and stigmatised corners, and people are going to be engaging more with adult content simply because they’re more visible now. And, funnily enough, while I agree a lot of adult only games are shitty for some reason or another, I’m okay with that critique happening, because there’s been a lot of shitty games overall, too. But there have been games that listened to critique, asked themselves questions about the subject they want to portray (Sometimes dealing with some equally charged subjects, like transmisogyny, racial hatred, political discussion, and others), and they often stand head and shoulders above the rest.