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A Panel Shaped Screen: porn with plot in comics and games

Let's be adult(s)

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WARNING: basically every single link in this article is NSFW. Duh.

Remember being fifteen and desperately looking for porn on the internet? Perhaps you googled basic terms like “boobs”, like the protagonist of You Must Be 18 Or Older To Enter. Or perhaps you held on to familiar characters, and searched for “Naruto hentai” on Newgrounds to play wonky flash games.

Some were convoluted dating sims where seeing a naked tit involved selecting baffling dialog choices in a rigid order, like a summoning ritual chanted in a long-lost language. Other games were simpler, more virtual dioramas than games. Mash the keys, fill a bar, see virtual jizz sprout from a disembodied cock.

There are plenty of smutty games featuring characters from popular comics, and plenty of comics about video game characters as well. Many are drawn by Japanese artists, because their country’s copyright laws allow them to sell fan works without getting sued. Entire conventions, like the Comiket, are dedicated to the sale of fan zines (doujinshi). In 2017, the Comiket was dominated by series about videogames, like Kantai Collection, a browser game about war ships, and the long-running bullet hell series Touhou.

We usually laugh at the notion of “porn with a plot”, but all the smutty fan content is popular exactly because it builds upon a pre-existing plot. In fan works, relationships just implied in the original opera can finally bloom. Rivals become lovers, crushes confess their love, and that character you really like gets naked for a person with an obscured face — a person who, you like to imagine, looks a bit like you.

And yet, as I open Steam, I only see boobs. Jiggling boobs. A barricade of flesh hiding only card games, raising sims, and a countless amount of puzzles. The only adult games that dare to feature a plot, like Coming Out On Top, are visual novels made by small indie developers.
If porn with a plot can be popular, why are so few studios making story-rich porn games?

Before Steam unveiled its new content warning system last year, the store had a tumultuous relationship with adult content. The aforementioned You Must Be 18 Or Older To Enter was deemed too hot to handle by Steam, and earlier last year visual novel developers found their products removed from the store with no clear explanation. To save their games from oblivion, developers used to post censored versions of their games on Steam, allowing players to download an NSFW patch from the external site.

Developers have to think about console ports as well, and console games need to get an age rating before being sold. Put a single sex scene in your game, and your product will get an R18+ classification, and thus a smaller audience and the risk of getting banned in some countries.
This status quo contributed to a sharp divide between adult and non-adult games. Sex scenes are often treated as rewards, eye candy ready to get switched off by the flick of a button. What happens during intercourse can’t also have any narrative significance, or else the censored version of the game wouldn’t be playable. When it comes to videogames, sex doesn’t always sell.

It would be simplistic and unfair to directly compare the games market with the comics market. They’re different mediums, on different platforms, with different amounts of money involved. But an important difference to highlight, I think, is the fact that comics don’t have a rating system (well, Americans had the Comics Code, but it’s long gone). This means there’s more space for artists to create works in between: stories that feature adult elements, but aren’t classifiable as purely titillating material, especially with webcomics. You can have both the plot and the porn, and draw stories like Alfie, a comic where everyone fucks all the time, and yet every sex scene manages to move the plot forward.

Comics are also made of pictures and don’t have “games” in their name, and can therefore be considered, occasionally, art (there is not and has never been any debate about whether games are art, do not send any emails). Look at comics like Chester 5000 XYV, a story about a busy inventor who creates a sex bot to please his neglected wife. It’s made with watercolors, and it’s entirely silent! This the kind of comic you can proudly recommend to friends, because you see, it’s not smut. This is highbrow erotism.

Adult games publishers like Nutaku can organize art exhibitions all they want, but R18+ games are still largely considered juvenile at best and offensive at worst. And it’s a shame, because we have plenty of wonderful developers out there making innovative sex games! Cara Ellison’s S.EXE column was all about them. But I feel we are still missing our videogame version of 50 Shades of Grey — a book that, for all its ills, helped countless housewives talk about sex without feeling ashamed. We’re missing the big mainstream hit that will make sex in videogames be more accepted. Though we did get games that more accurately portray BDSM relationships than 50 Shades, at least.

Ladykiller In A Bind is one of the few games I’ve played that features dialogue choices during sex scenes. The game lets you play a variety of situations in a passive or a dominant role, and in both cases, communicating with your partner is key to having a good time. Ladykiller also de-idealizes BDSM situations, highlighting all the work involved to make a sexy scenario actually sexy and safe. How to tie up a person without hurting them? If you gag your partner, how to replace your safeword with a physical signal?

It’s a delightful mix of sexiness and realism I had only witnessed in Sunstone, a romantic comedy by Stjepan Šejić about two BDSM enthusiasts and their kinky friends. Sunstone often depicts how ridiculous BDSM activities can be, but doesn’t shy away from heavier topics. In one of the most dramatic scenes, a character decides to tie herself to a bed to make surprise her boyfriend. But she doesn’t tie herself up correctly, and he doesn’t come home when she expects him too. As time passes, her hands start to swell and lose feeling. She nearly loses her hands.

Now imagine a game that lets you actually tie up a person with your mouse, and explains to you basic safety measures like a horny version of Zen Bound. Imagine having a story where the way you tie up a person can unlock different story branches.

Videogames give us the unique opportunity of interacting with a virtual partner. We could do so much with this mechanically, narratively, educationally. Because visual novels are good, but sex isn’t only made of dialogue choices. Intimacy is also about moans and smiles and the way an eye twitch or fingers curls around yours, and we have so many tools we could use to better portray all this, and so many talented creators with good ideas and not enough resources to give life to their smutty dreams. If only we could stop feeling so ashamed.

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