Toronto developer pushes boundaries of video game erotica with Ladykiller in a Bind
Visual novel appears on nudity-averse Steam, world’s top PC digital market
Video games can drop a player into an infinite variety of worlds and situations, from an explosive sci-fi space opera to the life of a truck driver.
What the medium hasn't done very well, though, is explore sexuality.
"I feel like in general, video games don't treat sexuality very seriously," says Christine Love, an independent game developer based in Toronto.
"Video games as a whole are very embarrassed by the concept of sex, so you can have all kinds of horrifically bloody neck stabbings but the moment you show a bit of titty, that's way too much."
Love is trying to shift the conversation with her newest game, Ladykiller in a Bind, which aims to treat sex with the seriousness she says it deserves.
The game launched in October on PC to largely favourable reviews, which lauded its sharp writing and unflinching, often tender discussions of BDSM, sexual diversity and consent. Love describes it as "an erotic visual novel that's about crossdressing, social manipulation and lots of kinky lesbian sex."
The quality of the game is such that it's now being distributed on Steam, a digital store that usually shies away from sexually explicit content.
Beyond the 'unrelenting male gaze'
Up until recently, sexual content in games has largely been derided as puerile or misogynistic.
"There's a big difference between having a sense of humour about sex and saying 'ha ha, there's a penis.' I feel like one is being really juvenile, and the other is simply being honest," explains Love.
One infamous example of the former is the God of War series, which established a tradition in which its musclebound anti-hero, Kratos, ravishes two or more women at least once per game. With heaving bosoms and salacious moans, these scenes are little more than a pornographic diversion.
"When it has oozed and slithered its way into games, sex has, by and large, done nothing but reinforce the unrelenting male gaze," wrote Killscreen's Matt Thrower.
Even when sex and romance are written with a little more gravitas, such as in Mass Effect or The Witcher, the scenes are usually kept short and resemble a 30-second tryst in a Hollywood action film.
This is where Ladykiller in a Bind is different. Here, sex is at the centre of every love story, rather than the reward at the end of a romantic quest.
"The relationships are built up over a series of sex scenes so all of the character development, all of the relationship development, everything ... is all entirely contained within sex scenes," says Love.
'How relationships actually work'
You play as the Beast, a boyish lesbian teen who switches places with her narcissistic twin brother, the Prince, for a week.
She asks him to write her exams lest she flunk out of high school. As payment, she has to dress up as him and attend a graduation cruise with his sexually charged, high-society classmates.
The Prince thinks it's win-win for him because he doesn't want to spend a week with his self-absorbed peers, and the Beast has no qualms about chasing romance, even if her would-be partners think they're dealing with her brother.
The ensuing adventure is full of high school politics, flirting and blackmail. It's like Degrassi, but with more jerks and more sex.
Love's exhaustive script gives voice to believable characters of multiple genders and sexual orientations.
"Ultimately, Ladykiller in a Bind is a romance story. It's about romances that start up through a series of hook-ups and turn into relationships from there. And I feel like that's often how relationships actually work," says Love.
"So our sex scenes embrace that. They're a little bit awkward. They're funny. They require communication."
Visual novel games
The visual novel — which is kind of like a digital choose-your-own-adventure, with more emphasis on writing than action — is familiar turf for Love. She built a cult following with her two previous games, Digital: A Love Story and Analogue: A Hate Story, which were also largely text-based.
This focus on good writing and storytelling earned Ladykiller in a Bind a nomination from this year's Independent Games Festival awards for Excellence in Narrative.
With its unabashed take on sex, however, came the risk that it would be relegated to the online equivalent of the back room of movie rental shops.
As an independent developer, Love doesn't have the marketing power of a big-name publisher such as Electronic Arts or Activision. She initially sold Ladykiller on her personal website and through small outlets such as the Humble Store.
For a title to succeed, an indie developer really needs to get their game on Steam, which Love estimates can account for up to 90 per cent of their sales.
Approved for Steam in January
There's one major problem, though: While Steam sells games with racy content, actual nudity rarely gets through.
Creators of erotic games often slip under the adults-only banner by editing out the most sexually charged content — by introducing a nipple-obscuring cloud of steam, for example, or by removing a sex scene entirely. Ladykiller is all about sex, however, so Love remained adamant that she wouldn't tone down the content just to get it on the storefront.
In October, she tweeted she didn't expect Ladykiller to ever be approved for Steam.
<a href="https://twitter.com/AMindHalfFull">@AMindHalfFull</a> It won’t be available on Steam, unfortunately, at least not in the near future. Maybe they’ll change their minds? WHO KNOWS—@christinelove
It came as a surprise to her fans, then, when she announced in January that it would appear on Steam — completely uncensored.
Valve, the company that runs Steam, rarely speaks with the media, so it's unclear what precisely changed their mind. Love says that when she finally got "an actual human being" on the phone and explained the concept, "they were really understanding."
"They totally got it and agreed that it wouldn't be appropriate to censor anything."
(CBC reached out to Valve for comment, but did not hear back.)
That said, Love recently removed and rewrote one gritty BDSM scene after some players online expressed concern, saying it crossed the line of consent.
Players could choose skip it if they wanted, but "even after multiple revisions, clearly a lot of players were extremely uncomfortable with its presence," Love wrote on her blog. "I think I failed to account for the player's context, and I'd rather the scene be gone than make anyone else uncomfortable."
'Sex is definitely funny'
The breadth of sexual content in games has widened in tone and scope in recent years — and unsurprisingly, it's mostly come from the independent scene.
Nina Freeman channeled her personal sexual experiences to create Cibele, while One Night Stand centres on the awkward experience of waking up next to a stranger.
That said, Love wants to make sure not to take sex too seriously.
"Sex is definitely funny, and I think if you're trying to portray it in a realistic light, in a way that's genuine and honest, you have to be able to laugh," she says.
"So when I say 'serious,' I mean genuine and sincere. But definitely not straight-faced. Or straight in any way, really."