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Sex in Games: An Analysis

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  • Sex in Games: An Analysis

    Sex, and its multitude of off-shooting thematic branches, is a profoundly complex subject which, despite its often perplexing ability to astonish, is immensely intimate. As such, it should come as no surprise that sex, and its various thematic tributaries, is one of the most common subjects in art; be it film, novels, games, etc. Our ability to grasp the insight contained in its exploration via these media can directly correlate with our ability to comprehend the meaning of this nebulous subject in life itself. It is due to this fact that I have decided to embark on an (possibly multi-part -- depending upon how warm the water is) analysis on the topic.

    It is perhaps important to note that my aim in this analysis is to elucidate some examples of rich use of sexual symbolism in games. Furthermore, I aim to not only reveal, but to analyze why these examples are excellent uses of sexual symbolism. In my conclusion I will aim to explain what other storytellers in gaming can do to tap into this well of potential. Finally, a note of WARNING - if you have not beaten Bioshock: Infinite OR Tomb Raider (2013) OR The Last of Us please proceed at your own risk; spoilers will be woven into the analysis for point illumination purposes.

    The first theme which I have elected to explore is womanhood. Despite gaming's stereotypically male-centric focus there are three stellar examples of the subject in games. Surprisingly, these examples are birthed from the action genre in spite of the typically rich psychosexual foundation of horror. Nevertheless, all three examples are well implemented and rich in detail.

    Two years ago the reboot of classic heroine and, up to this iteration, sex symbol Tomb Raider was released. Apart from the game's decently round characterization of a previously vapid sexual fantasy of a character (and an immensely satisfying bow) the reboot was entirely unremarkable in storytelling. It's symbolism, however, was by far the richest aspect of the game. . Up to this point in the game, Lara has been a relatively incompetent survivor, making mistakes, getting injured in horrendously brutal manners and generally stumbling her way from plot point to plot point (save those shooting gallery gameplay sequences where apparently Lara undergoes some unseen military bow training and becomes proficient with all various manner of firearm - but of course the gameplay has to be fun). However, her baptismal transformation by way of the river of blood represents the oft-used trope in fiction of a path to womanhood symbolized by bathing in blood. This blood is meant to evoke the menarche (the first menstruation of young female's life) signaling the onset of puberty. This event is considered, nearly universally, to be the transition of a girl into womanhood. Thus, it is no surprise that Crystal Dynamics (the developers of Tomb Raider) used this pool of blood to symbolize this baptismal event. Perhaps even more interestingly, this body of blood is a pool, not a more linear body like a river. The reason I note this is a pool acts as a singular point, not a continual flow. As such, it mirrors the temporally limited nature of a point in time. A woman only has one menarche, as such, it is fitting that the body of blood is a pool, not a river.

    As interesting as this episode was, I can't help but feel incredibly disappointed at the limited scope of the theme's presence. It is a potent and atmospheric moment which is soon quelled by bombastic prompts to blow up geothermal vents with flame-tipped arrows. Had Crystal Dynamics decided to go further with the theme and engulf the entire narrative in this level of symbolic storytelling, they, perhaps, may have been able to construct a masterpiece. For example, had the character model of Lara altered to reflect this momentous shift, the episode may have had a more potently lasting impact. This alteration would not have to be inordinately overt, rather it could be as simple as a shift in attire. My next example understands this distinction and constructs its one of its principal themes about it.

    Arriving in the same year as the Tomb Raider reboot, Ken Levine's long-awaited follow up to his (in my opinion Citizen Kane-like in its praise) 2007 game - Bioshock - Bioshock: Infinite burst onto the scene. Despite the original's brilliance, I (shockingly) prefer Infinite for its decision to expand its themes beyond free will (though it annoyingly clings onto this vestigial symbolic appendage as though its identity depends upon it) and into the sexual symbolism of womanhood. Elizabeth is purposefully constructed and animated to resemble Disney princesses of old ( Her visage and body proportions are meant to evoke the now near intrinsic nostalgia of Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." Even her animation is meant to evoke such images: . This is all meant (and I use the term 'meant' sparingly as it can create a God-like image of designers and directors who apparently know exactly how to psychoanalyze and tap into every player/viewer's mind to produce the exact right response - hardly the case in actuality) to tap into our collective cultural conscious and impose certain pre-existing notions onto the character of Elizabeth. In this case it is a tool used to surprise us later- to the benefit of Elizabeth's depth as a character. Yet in other cases it can be simply used to relay what would otherwise be expositional text/dialogue which only bogs the writers down. In any case, in a pivotal story moment Elizabeth punctures Daisy Fitzroy's abdomen to save the hostage that Daisy has taken. We see a visibly shaken Elizabeth (all the more noticeable due to the emotive nature of the Disney-like facial animation) express horror at her newly found ability to take a life ( More interestingly, immediately after this altercation Elizabeth and Booker board the airship and Elizabeth adorns herself in her Mother's clothes. They are noticeably more revealing, particularly of her breasts. Once again the womanhood theme emerges. Not only is she wearing the clothes of her (perhaps even more interestingly 'a') mother, but it reveals more cleavage. The symbolism here is twofold. One, the significance of changing into the mother's clothes shows a concrete transition from daughterhood to motherhood (at least in vestments). Two, the breasts are obviously a sign of motherhood as they are used not only for sexual pleasure, but to feed their young. Another interesting detail that Ken Levine and co. included in the game to build this theme is the board tracing Elizabeth's levels of power ( Note that the peak of her power came at her menarche (at roughly age 14). Here, as in Tomb Raider, womanhood is associated with power.

    Ken Levine and co.'s implementation of the theme of womanhood I find far more difficult to criticize as its development and revelation is so well done. The only possible criticism which I could possibly level (and this is with regards to the game as a whole work, not simply the theme of womanhood as implemented) is that the game becomes bogged down in the aspects of the metaphysical and spiritual instead of focusing on this incredibly rich theme. Though those metaphysical and spiritual aspects are well done - to varying degrees - I can't help but feel that the game as a whole suffered from overstuffing. If it had solely focused on this potent and deep topic of sexuality and womanhood, the work could have remained more pointed and therefore more potent. It also would have had the potential to plunge far deeper into a theme which is far more expansive than the political game it played in Bioshock's narrative or even the extent to which the free will theme was threaded through that game's narrative.

    Finally we arrive at The Last of Us. This is perhaps the darkest of the three examples as it seems to suggest that there must come a traumatic event in the young woman’s life to propel her into womanhood.Up to this point in the game we have seen a competent Ellie utilize all of the survival skills which Joel has taught her. She even goes so far as to mutter "just like you taught me" multiple times throughout the duration of the chapter. Ellie begins the chapter on the precipice of womanhood/maturity. After she is pinned down by David, the cannibalistic survivor who had imprisoned her, she manages to reach his fallen machete and ferociously bludgeon him to death. The streams of crimson blood that trail off the machete as she bashes him spatter her frontside with speckles of red. As I have explored prior, blood is a symbol of transition to womanhood. It is meant to evoke imagery of the menarche and speaks a universal language of biology which is relatively simple to comprehend, though admittedly immensely difficult to fully grasp and plumb its depths. The reason I find this scene so impactful in spite of its relative lack of supporting details (when compared to TR and Bioshock Infinite) is that neither of the other two truly tap into the emotional trauma of the situation. The transition into puberty for both women and men is a time of suffocating confusion and, due to this, pervading fear. These changes are perplexing to say the least and often young adults know not where to search for information regarding these changes. Beyond that, the female process of menstruation can be incredibly painful with intense cramp-like symptoms accompanying these uterine bleedings. It is after this scene, as we transition to Spring, that we see Ellie take the reigns for the first time in her journey, this time even with a healthy Joel at her side. In the pivotal moment of the chapter Joel and Ellie stand on a rooftop gazing lazily at the herd of giraffes. Joel asks if she wants to return to Tommy's and, "be done with this whole damn thing." Ellie makes the decision to continue to tread their course toward the hospital, . Ellie is now in the driver's seat.

    I find the example in The Last of Us to not only be the most understated, but also the most interesting to analyze. Though the game is littered with symbolism from the Christian hospital (invoking the martyr qualities of Ellie's journey) to the vampiric like need that Joel has for Ellie, I find the womanhood themes to be the most understated, yet most potent. It is this restraint, which is truly present in every aspect of the game, that makes the womanhood themes in The Last of Us so powerful. The reason the themes work so well is that they are present from the very first scene (we see a vulnerable and very child-like Sarah) to the final scene in the game a mature Ellie making decisions on her own.

    It seems, then, that the pervading criticism which I have leveled at womanhood symbolism in games is that it does not feel like a cohesive piece of the larger puzzle or it feels ancillary to topics which could have been sloughed off. Therefore, it seems reasonable that, if a developer should want to penetrate this incredibly dense topic that they: a) make the subject the sole muse in their creation - do not add ancillary thematic fluff as it will cause overspreading; like scraping too little butter over too much toast. And b) provide supporting details for the character's transformation which feel natural and enhance, rather than detract, from the greater work as a whole. I am keenly aware that this feat is easier said than done, however, with due diligence and proper restraint, works of incredible depth can be achieved. Most obviously the challenges of game mechanics should come first. The game must be engaging from a gameplay perspective - however equal attention must be paid to the narrative and thematic depth if one should attempt to achieve this goal. I would also suggest tapping into the mother of all womanhood pieces - Ridley Scott's 1979 classic, Alien. It is a masterful piece of fiction that explores themes of motherhood, sexual fear, birth trauma and the like by way of Freud and H.R. Giger. If you are interested in further exploring these themes via Alien, I am including a number of links to articles which I find have explored the theme in Alien to a satisfactory depth:

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    Re: Sex in Games: An Analysis

    Please do feel free to respond with any feedback or thoughts that you may have on the subject