Content warning: this review discusses a rape scene.
Sex in games is a (t)horny issue. Games are predominantly made for and marketed at men, and thus most games that attempt to cause a panic in your battlestations are normally pointing their hormone missiles at your throbbing periscope and not the, uh, hang on, there aren’t any vagina analogues in this terrible, tortured metaphor.
Look, Ladykiller in a Bind [official site] is set on a boat. A cruise, in fact – from Halifax, Canada to Southampton, England. For some reason, a bunch of incredibly wealthy, privileged teens are on this cruise. To Southampton. Obviously, the thought of going shopping in Southampton’s glittering WestQuay mall (there’s a Swarovski!) is enough to get these teens all riled up in their unwhisperables, and that’s where you come in: a handsome, charming, absolute bastard of a boy ready and willing to do whatever it takes (sex) to get what you want (more sex).
But there’s a twist: you’re not actually a boy! You’re a girl – a lesbian, in fact – who’s been forced to cross-dress as your identical-ish male twin for some nefarious reason (…sex???). The story is told from a flashback perspective as you narrate, in graphic detail, your various sexcapades to your brother, who has kidnapped you after the events of the story.
There’s a lot going on in the plot, but the general aim of the game is to bed the various characters on board. There are two main squeezes – you can actually choose their names yourself, but the defaults are “The Beauty” and “The Stalker”, so we’ll go with those. The Beauty is a dom; The Stalker is a sub. If you’re not into either of those powerplay roles, you might not find that it tickles your pickle/pickle jar (seriously, there aren’t any good vagina euphemisms) in quite the way you wanted it to.
Still, the writing is… surprisingly tantalising, in a way that 50 Shades never managed, although there are, let’s say, narrative roadbumps that might interrupt your reverie. In particular, I wasn’t totally sold on the use of “groping” and “molesting” as sexy sex time words – they made me think of unpleasant things, and that’s just not all that hot.
You can also schmooze with the other cuties on board, although they’re all a bit samey – mostly skinny, white, generic-looking anime girls with no body hair below the chin. Still, their personalities make them stand out, even if everyone is way more sexually forward than I remember 18-year-olds being. There’s the flirty, manipulative Flame, the shy, insecure Boy, your (brother’s) ex-girlfriend The Swimmer, and more. You’ll choose which scenes to play out based on several factors: one, who do you like; two, how many votes will they give you; three, how much potential suspicion will you gain?
Votes and suspicion are the narrative mechanics that drive on the sexy happenings, and they work well – you’re constantly trying to balance them, so the story has something to lean on. The votes are for “The Game”, in which the person with the most votes at the end of the week wins $4 million, and these are gained through making people like you or doing things for them. Suspicion is gained by not acting enough like your dickhead brother, and measures how likely the other students are to find out that you’re not packing sausage in your basement. If you get my meaning. I’m not sure I do any more.
Unfortunately, there are some really unpleasant sides to the story and how the game works. The first is the assumption that not only do you like sex, but you like all sex, and occasionally your character is prompted to say they enjoy something even if you don’t. The second is that the idea of “consent” is touched on a lot, and in some really powerful and important ways, but the whole idea that you are lying about your gender and your identity to your partners undermines that consensuality.
The most uncomfortable sex scenes are the “transactional” ones – there’s one that you partake in if you want to clear your suspicion metre, which is fine in terms of being an interesting and thoughtfully-written BDSM sex scene, but a little creepy when you know you’re only doing it to rid yourself of suspicion.
There are also transactional sex scenes late on in the game which are more akin to rape. There is the option to skip them, and there are content warnings, which are both important, but I think I’d rather not have a rape scene at all – especially not one in which the character, who is a lesbian being forced into unwanted heterosexual sex acts, says that she enjoys it. There is a difference between BDSM, which is caring, two-way and consensual, and being forced into something. To blur the lines is irresponsible and damaging.
There are a lot of positive things about Ladykiller in a Bind – its treatment of consent is, for the most part, a wonderful thing to see in sex games, which are traditionally very black-and-white. It’s also incredibly refreshing to see a game that’s not aimed by default at guys and straight people, and one that depicts lesbian sex in different forms. However, it’s hard to get away from the level of unpleasantness and discomfort in this game.
The fact that your brother loves hearing about your sexual stories feels weird. The blurred lines of consent make it difficult to feel good about all the other progressive stuff in the game. The cast being so predominantly white (there is one woman of colour, and she’s the Maid) is a huge shame. Ladykiller does a lot of good, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook what it gets wrong.