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Computer games are sheer pornography. Whether it's the gratifying splat of a gory headshot, or the cold, clinical satisfaction of levelling up your mage, games get you off, providing needed release from the pent-up stresses of daily life. But for all their visual lustre and autoerotic value, computer games are yet to engage with what really gets people hot and heavy: Romance, seduction and sex.
On its surface, Seduce Me by No Reply Games is a masturbatory aid. You play as a young photographer, who's been invited to stay at the Mediterranean villa of a rich socialite called Pietra. She likes to surround herself with beautiful, nubile young women who are all, as it happens, desperate for sex, so it's your prerogative to roam the house, chat up the girls and score with as many of them as you can.
But rather than some cheap, passive piece of interactive porno, Seduce Me is a cerebral and difficult strategy game that makes you work for your smut. Designed by the two person team of illustrator Andres Skuja and writer Miriam Bellard, it's a more complex erotic fiction than first impressions would suggest. Bellard, who used to work with Guerilla Games on the Killzone series, wanted the sex in Seduce Me to feel like it meant something:
"There's a tension in the game between what you get, which is the visual titillation, and how you get it, how you have to work for it," explains Bellard. "It's something we could never explain before people played the game, but that's what I wanted.
"There were lots of opportunities to make seducing the women easier, but I intentionally left them difficult because I want you to feel like you've achieved something when you get to those things.
"What I've noticed on our forums is that some of the people who found it hard have now figured it out and they're so proud of themselves, so I don't want to make it easier because I would never want to take that away from them. That proudness is related to getting with a woman."
Eschewing the pick-a-path structure that's typical of erotic games, No Reply has created a more organic and flowing type of interactive flirting, using a picture-based card game instead of dialogue options. If you're making small talk with a girl in Seduce Me and she plays a card with an aeroplane on it, you respond by playing your aeroplane card, thus continuing the 'conversation' about travel.
When you're flirting, things get trickier, and you have to string platitudes together using sets and runs of cards while still giving your 'opponent' the chance to talk back. It's a difficult system that rewards lateral thought, and invites conjecture:
"I didn't find the whole pick a path, dialogue option genre very exciting," says Bellard. "I'm not against it - there are some beautiful games done like that - but in terms of what I personally wanted to make, I found it more exciting to have the gameplay tell the story, in the way that gameplay tells the story in a strategy game, except this story is about relationships rather than war.
"I took a piece of advice often given to writers, which is to think of one person who you'd like to be able to play this game and to just make it for them," she continues. "So, the guy I had in mind was educated, he had skills of his own. And since he's smart he could fill in some of the gaps by himself and would probably appreciate doing that.
"We saw one guy on our forums who played the aeroplane card, and he said 'yeah I was talking to her about how much I like to travel' and the girl replied with the food and drink card, and he said it was like she was saying how she enjoys an evening in. 'Evening in' is not what I imagined when I made the food and drink card - I was thinking of it as going out and restaurants and things like that. But what I love about the pictures is that people can turn that conversation into what they want it to be."
Seduce Me's card games have a fascinating effect. If you can consistently play them well, you become a swaggering pick-up artist, methodically bedding one woman after another. But generally, if you roam from girl to girl, you routinely mess the conversation up, rambling on about food and drink while the lady wants to talk about travel.
Contrary to its reputation, the best approach in Seduce Me is to find a woman you like and devote your time to her. The various nymphs all have different styles when it comes to playing cards, and if you put the effort into learning one person's nuances, you're far more likely to have a "successful" game than if you jog around the villa trying to have sex with anything that moves.
The fastest way to the porn scenes - the best way to "win" the game - is to talk and pay attention to the women; Bellard did this intentionally:
"I designed the game to trick people into talking to every single girl, instead of just one. A lot of the reactions are designed to distract you from whoever you're trying to chase," says Bellard. "We made a conscious decision that there would be someone for everyone in the game, not just physically but also personality wise. We both [Andre and I] enjoy variety in people.
"In that debate of how pornography objectifies women," she continues "you just see the object of a woman without any personality. I was really trying to use the gameplay to give these women personality."
"Women with personality" is something games have struggled with for a long time. Aside from a few functional archetypes (the sexy one, the helpless one; the one with the attitude) female characters in games barely get a look in. With the overly-celebrated exceptions of Alyx Vance, Elena Fisher and the new Lara Croft, women in games are essentially props to either give momentum to the plot or give adolescents something to fantasise about.
At best, game women are vaguely traumatised pretty things that need rescuing; at worst, they're big-boobed, round-bummed eye-candy for you to get off on. As far as the publicists and marketers that run this industry are concerned, computer games are the preserve of teenage boys, and teenage boys don't want women - they want sex objects.
Stereotypical gamers will resist a female character that can turn them down - thanks to years of being the hero and getting the girl by default, the prospect of having to work for sexual gratification is bewildering to people who play videogames.
But Seduce Me wrong-foots people with that attitude. Luring you in with its steamy, pre-launch screenshots, it steadily adapts your thinking to the idea that women in games can resist your urges. It's still sexy as hell, but in the way that Spec Ops: The Line uses violence to condemn violence, Seduce Me's foxy ladies spark a discussion on the game industry's sexism.
It's not about covering women up, explains Bellard; it's about letting them own their sexuality:
"What bothers me about sex in videogames is not how sexualised the women are, but how scared everybody seems to be of making them act on that. You get these women who are ridiculously sexualised with huge breasts and small outfits but because sex is such a taboo in games, these women aren't allowed to act sexual and so these women just become passive. Their sexuality is there to be viewed, but they can't take ownership or do anything with it. That's what I find disturbing.
"I've got no problem with women being made super sexy in games; I just want them to be able to act on it."
So, for all this high-brow posturing, it's important to remember that Seduce Me is still a game about women having sex, be it with the player, each other or the villa's stocky pool boy, Hamed. Andres Skuja's art is all colours and curves, gorgeous drawing that captures the details on jiggling flesh and O-faces; when asked about No Reply's research, Bellard insists that "you couldn't make this kind of game without watching pornography."
Seduce Me's pornographic qualities speak for themselves, be it in the game's top shelf artwork, the breathy reaction from internet forums or several publisher's refusal to distribute it. Removed from Steam's Greenlight platform due to explicit content, Seduce Me is yet to find a publishing deal:
"Because there haven't been any quality erotic games out there, distributors have just expected us to be a better painted version of what's already out there. We almost had a deal with one of the big ones and it went all the way through to actually signing the contracts, but we asked them to take the word 'pornography' out of the contract - although it's probably legally called pornography, we prefer to call the game 'erotica'.
"And we just never heard back from them. Even though it seemed the guy who picks the games wanted to do it, the lawyers obviously came down and said "no, you can't risk that." We've had people fighting for violence, saying it's allowed and it's not offensive, and that side of games has had some real advocates. But we've never had advocates for the sexual side of games. Apart from now with some of the sex in The Witcher and Mass Effect, there hasn't been stuff for them to rally behind, either."
Seduce Me's set-up is as wonderfully implausible - and sexy - as good erotica should be. But beneath its curving hips, plunging cleavage and suggestive smirks is a bona fide game of its time. Hot on the heels of 2012's #1reasonwhy hashtag, when female developers exposed sexism across the entire industry, Seduce Me is a response to the institutional problems perceived by Bellard:
"My feminism has softened since my university years but I didn't want to go against my own principles. So, it was in my mind when we were making the game to make sure that the women had different personalities and that they looked different. They are all fit and healthy, but they don't have the same bodies, the same breast size and leg length. I think that idea of only one body type being attractive is much more of a problem in women's magazines than it is in guy's porn."
It's publishers' pursuit of a nebulous market of boys that has kept violence in games and intelligent sex out. Ostensibly the favourite pastime of nerdy, virginal young men, computer games have been consistently built around power fantasies and disposable female sex objects. But Seduce Me, in all its complex and explicit glory, is an urgent rebuttal; a smart and confident videogame that urges players to communicate with women and earn, rather than be given, their affections.
Computer games ARE sheer pornography, and Seduce Me takes great pride in its sexiness. But arriving at a time when bums, nipples and women who can think for themselves are still a taboo for the industry, it marks a significant step forward in computer games' sexual revolution.
You can buy Seduce Me from No Reply's official website, here.