Why western sex games miss the point

In the last week at the time of writing, two more western-developed “sex games” have been added to Steam, adding to a long list of games that, to my eyes, kind of miss the point a bit.

I mean, if you buy, play and enjoy sex games like BoneTown and Sex with the Devil (both emphatically NSFW, obviously), more power to you and all that. They have their place; BoneTown is a deliberately offensive humorous adventure that has been around in one form or another for a long time at this point, while Sex with the Devil is very obviously in it for the shocking, horror side of things. There are people who enjoy both of those sorts of experiences — and that’s fine.

Sex games: BoneTown

But neither of them provide what I’m looking for from a sexually explicit video game — and I suspect I’m not the only one, considering the continued popularity of Japanese eroge and what they offer.

There are a few perspectives to consider here. Firstly, let’s consider the angle of these games as interactive pornography — or something to get sexually aroused by. For me, both BoneTown and Sex with the Devil (along with numerous other examples from recent months) fail in this regard because of their respective degrees of grotesqueness. BoneTown isn’t hot because its characters look deliberately, exaggeratedly cartoonish and the game as a whole is infused with way too much chaotic absurdity to be arousing; Sex with the Devil, meanwhile, isn’t hot because most of it is just relentlessly grim.

Indeed, some Steam reviews criticise the latter for placing a misleadingly disproportionate amount of emphasis on a distinctly human-looking succubus character in its promotional material, when in fact the majority of its sexual content is violent and horrific.

Sex games: Sex with the Devil

Compare and contrast with some Japanese “sex games” that place a strong emphasis on interactive sexual action — titles like KISS’ Custom Order Maid 3D 2 and Illusion’s Honey Select Unlimited and Koikatsu. All three of these games recognise that while they each have an interactive, “gamey” aspect to them to one degree or another, many players will be coming to them for the sole purpose of enjoying interactive pornography with custom characters. And they most certainly deliver on that front, with attractive characters, a variety of situations in which to be intimate, and an array of sexual activities to engage with.

Yes, it’s possible to create ridiculous, outlandish characters in all three of those games with a bit of effort — but the important thing is that you have to go looking for the absurd or darker angles rather than them being thrust in your face right from the outset. All three of those games work on the basic assumption that they’re going to be played by someone who is open-minded enough to enjoy their content; someone who wants to be able to enjoy that content without feeling like the creators of the game are laughing at them.

That, I think, is a key thing worth acknowledging — and something often glossed over by many online commentators. Critics of ecchi and erotic Japanese games often mock fans of those games by saying that they derive sexual gratification from them. And you know what? Who cares if they do?

There’s actually nothing wrong with that — particularly in the case of games such as Custom Order Maid 3D 2, Honey Select Unlimited and Koikatsu, which are specifically designed to be “sex games”. People who want to enjoy those games in private should feel happy to do so; games like BoneTown in particular, meanwhile, treat all things sexual as one big joke, and the game’s very existence feels like it’s mocking people who are interested in enjoying erotic content in a purely sexual rather than ironic, comedic manner.

This isn’t even getting into the creative angles of Custom Order Maid 3D 2, Honey Select Unlimited and Koikatsu, which is a whole other subject completely separate from what we’re talking about here — and, to be honest, the main reason a lot of people get involved with these games even over and above the “sex games” angle. But I digress.

Sex games: BoneTown

The second angle I’d like to consider is something we’ve talked about here on Rice Digital before: the fact that a significant proportion of the audience for ecchi and erotic games enjoy these titles for more than just the sex. I count myself in this category.

The trouble with western sex games like BoneTown and Sex with the Devil — among numerous other similar examples — is that the sex is gratuitous. It’s just there. It doesn’t feel like it means anything; the player isn’t invited to develop any sort of personal connection with the characters before bumping uglies with them, and what narrative content does exist is so drenched in layers of ironic humour or outright unpleasantness that it’s actively offputting.

Compare and contrast with something like Neko Work H’s Love Cube, meanwhile, one of the most spectacularly erotic visual novels I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying. This is a game that, up-front, makes it clear that it is going to be an erotic visual novel on the subject of polygamy, and that it features three female characters (drawn by prolific erotic artist Ishikei) with exaggerated, highly sexualised proportions who will be getting into some seriously saucy situations with you. Very much what most people would probably consider a “sex game”.

Sex games: Love Cube

But here’s the thing: that’s not all it is. It’s quite a while in Love Cube before anything remotely sexual happens, and by the time it does you’re so invested in the characters and their relationships that the sexual content has real meaning to it. It’s a thousand times hotter due to the additional context provided by the narrative that led up to it, and this feeling persists throughout the game. The whole thing is a thoroughly feel-good story that you’ll step away from with a big smile on your face — and not just because of the erotic content.

It’s just… nice, you know? The sex doesn’t feel like a “reward”, it doesn’t feel like a “game mechanic” and it doesn’t feel like you have to “work” for it; it simply feels like a natural part of the world that the game has created, and a natural progression of the relationship between the protagonist and the three heroines. It works in context; it’s not just there for the sake of it.

This side of things is what a lot of western developers are missing: an understanding that what many people are looking for from a virtual sexual encounter — whether it’s in an outright “sex game” or not — is some sort of meaning, or a sense of connection with a character.

Sex games: Love Cube

As noted above, there’s a time and a place for gratuitous sex games for those who are interested in that sort of thing — and none of this is to say that titles like BoneTown and Sex with the Devil have no place existing in the modern marketplace. It’s also worth saying that there are some western developers who absolutely do understand what I’m talking about here and demonstrate that rather ably — but perhaps rather tellingly, they tend to already be heavily inspired or influenced by Japanese games.

But personally speaking, when I see titles like BoneTown and Sex with the Devil come up in my “New Releases” list on Steam, I don’t feel excitement at the fact adults-only sex games like this are now available on the world’s biggest digital storefront for PC games. Instead, I feel a bit frustrated that those with the guts to make this kind of content aren’t taking things a little more “seriously”, for want of a better word. And it makes me concerned, in turn, that potential audiences and the media won’t take the possibility of sexually expressive video games seriously in the future.

Sex is fun, and sex games can be fun. But that doesn’t mean sex has to be presented in a way that deliberately distances the audience from the action — be it through absurd humour, self-referential irony or horrific imagery. Sometimes it really is just about “when two people love each other very much” — it’s okay to depict just that, too. And the sooner we recognise that, the more productive and interesting conversations we’ll be able to have about it.

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Pete Davison
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