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Being Adult is Not Momentous

Can video games be grown up without being sensationalized or sanitized?

By Cassandra Khaw. Published 8 months ago

Putting aside the fact that it looks like a resort for fork-tongued, red-faced imp babies, DC Universe Online's upcoming DLC Sons of Trigon is, if nothing else, a cool-looking place. Familiar infrastructure sucked into a landscape made of burning mercuric sulphocyanate, cathedrals you could film the next Exorcist in and questionably titled amusement rides; Sons of Trigon has them all. An attractive excuse to see what Gotham City would look like under the reign of the Seven Sins and beat up a panoply of cultists, demons and super-people, Sons of Trigon is, more importantly, a reminder that video games still can be a little nudge nudge, wink wink about the things that happen behind closed doors.

In DC Universe Online's defense, the MMO is framed within an per-existing vernacular. Spandex, clear-cut attitudes towards good and evil, dramatic speech and other such hallmarks are essential to intellectual property. Yet, when the presentation migrated to Lust's dominion (and salacious, I assure you, it was was not), I couldn't help but wonder if it could have been just a bit more clever and a little less buried in the conventional. The re-purposed Amusement Mile, the theme park in Gotham City where Lust has set up shop, is bafflingly innocent with its overabundance of pink, deformed roller coasters and faces that vomit flamingo-colored liquids. The most scandalous thing here? The name 'Tunnel of Lust'. The actual contents of the aforementioned passage were quite tame and would, at most, inspire an indolently-raised raised eyebrow from the nearest conservative. Sure, there were the requisite succubi and a veritable entourage of cultists to boot but these too felt like 'safe' expressions of naughtiness, the kind your parents wouldn't be too incensed over.

Which is weird because this IS the Sin of Lust we're talking about and even if we're not going to go at it full throttle, we should, at the very least, have something racier than just two skeletons seated on a derelict couch, damn it.

Darn hoodlums. (Get it? Hood-wearing cultists. Hoodlums. Er.)

"It's like they're trying to discuss the death penalty on a Saturday morning cartoon." A colleague remarks, as I try to put words into why the new expansion vexed me so.

Again, my discontent isn't so much with the new DLC that they're launching, but the fact it so often feels like we're largely operating on the set of Nickelodeon. 'Adult' themes are alien, debauched and titillating rather than cornerstones of existence, forbidden territory comparable to the the most lascivious of pursuits as opposed to things that happen on a daily basis. What you get then is the weird feeling that a lot of games seem to exist on the opposite ends of a fulcrum. On one hand, we have those that celebrate the idea of being adult and edgy with all the extravagance of a Las Vegas performance. Voluminous mammary glands. Torture-porn. Glitter. Sometimes, all of the above, if you're unlucky (or lucky, depending on your predilections). On the other, we have stuff like Sons of the Trigon, which meekly insinuate at such concepts with the trepidation of a Victorian duchess.

Like teenagers giggling nervously to each other about squishy biological functions, video games in general don't seem to quite have a handle on what being grown-up means just yet. This is not to say that they're unintelligent or incapable of elegantly presenting big, frightening ideas or that the medium has yet to demonstrate a capacity for being mature without resorting to sensationalism. Certainly, the indie scene has been forefront in addressing such topics. There's Auntie Pixelante's Dys4ia, an autobiographical examination of the reasoning behind and the results of hormone replacement therapy, Rogue Legacy, which delighted the Internet with how it handled the idea of being queer ("I had a few 'gay' characters' and it seemed like they were normal people." "I believe that's the point.") and Papo & Yo, a fantastical re-telling of the Creative Director's experiences with an alcoholic father. I could name a hundred more, all brilliant and all almost unsettlingly attuned to what makes our world tick.

And it isn't exclusive to indie development either. Bigger titles have been getting progressively better at doing the same. There's a sequence in the Personal Story (an instanced quest chain that puts your choices and character in the starring role) for the plant-like Sylvari where you find yourself assisting a pair of lovers. Both are male and this variable, as it should be, is treated as circumstantial rather than as a salient plot point. Similarly, Borderlands 2 and Fallout 3 make references to the diverse sexuality of their cast without so much as a sly grin. After all, gender is simply an aspect of one's physiology, one as simple as the structure of a person's hair or the color of their eyes.

It goes beyond those games too. Naughty Dog's Last of Us was recently heralded as a 'start' by Eurogamer's Ellie Gibson in our bid to eliminate sexism in the industry. "I don't think this is a game about men; it's about why humans need each other." Gibson says. She describes Ellie as someone residing in the middle ground between 'Defenseless Kitten' and 'Gruff Badass Who Has No Time for Emotions or Lipstick'. "Brave enough to show fear, powerful enough to ask for what she needs. She is not a princess or a warrior queen, just a normal girl trying to cope with life in a broken world."

"She is not a princess or a warrior queen, just a normal girl."

Gibson's sentiments are reflected by Edge's Jason Killingsworth who notes how there is 'nothing pornographic' about Tess's demise, "Tess simply dies and the gears of the plot grind on without her, in the same way the natural world spends no time mourning the extinction of any other individual creature's passing."

That last bit, I think, encapsulates what I'm talking about best. Games don't have to be loud to be 'adult'. Death can be as much of a whisper as it can be a scream. Women can be multi-faceted beings who do not immediately evoke desire. Two men can kiss without the world ending. At the same time, games don't have to be afraid of making a point. To go back to Sons of Trigon, there are little things, nuances that do not need to sway into the realm of poor taste, that could be introduced to make Lust's home seem more like a den of Sin. Disembodied limbs, separated from incriminating genitalia, stretching out from the walls. Photos of Jared smeared across the walls like a stalker's shrine. Chains. The presence of incubus along with the bat-winged seductresses.

There's a word -lagom - in the Swedish language that feels applicable here. Devoid of a precise English equivalent, lagom can be loosely translated to, among other things, 'just enough'. Sufficient but not ideal, a hair's breadth before what we might construe as a perfect medium. We need more of that, I think. We should be able to address sex and death and other topics like depression or poverty without wilting from shock or resorting to exaggerated gestures. Being adult is not a momentous event, it's simply something that is and we should treat it as such.

The best community comments so far 19 comments

  • cassandrakhaw 8 months ago

    @weevilo Definitely not too negative at all! As I've mentioned in a previous comment, I think discussion is good regardless of whether you agree or disagree with me. (Wouldn't be discussion if everyone agreed, anyway. o__O) So feel free to bury my articles with your thoughts (which are very articulate, and very appreciated).

    "at least no more so than a die-hard atheist would after playing a game that deals with a religious subject matter."

    To deviate from my own thoughts on this for a moment, I've /seen/ this happen. Ryan Green's 'That Dragon, Cancer' didn't get uniformedly great responses from the secular community but many seemed to get the gist of what he was doing with that.

    For the article, I used sexuality as the primary example because it's the one we seem most emboldened to talk about in games. Personally, I'd like to see the topics you've mentioned - spent a few years in Europe and you immediately become kinda liberal - discussed more. As you've mentioned, 'sensitive' topics tend to be viewed as either pandering or hateful. I'm wondering if simply airing them out and not treating them as extremely negative or positive anomalies but as existing topics that are part and parcel of our world might make us capable of discussing them in an open fashion sometime.

    That said, you definitely have your point and I agree partially with it, even if it's a slightly depressing thing to ponder.

  • weevilo 8 months ago

    @cassandrakhaw I have the same feelings about this topic that I did in Pete Davison's article "We're All Adults Here... Right?" We seem to have a problem in this culture of treating sexuality as synonymous with adult subject matter. And I see this coming across in two ways: there are games that try to titillate: like some of the Japanese games or comic games; and there are games that are trying to... showcase(?) a personal viewpoint on sexuality: like some of the indies that deal with homosexuality or transgenderism.

    In the first case, as I argued in Pete's article, I think your primary audience is mostly teenage and early adult males, though maybe I'm giving too much credit to us oldies out there - so maybe we can take that off the table as being part of "adult subject matter".

    In the latter case, you're stepping into the same minefield territory that accompanies religious and political discussion; though in our current cultural climate it's much safer to talk about and promote non-conventional sexual behaviors than it is to talk about or promote a religious or political belief. The latter two are almost taboo nowadays, and for good reason. No one has ever been convinced of any religious or political issue on the internet. We all just want to see and hear other people championing our own personal beliefs. And for adults, sexuality is the same thing. I don't buy for a second that someone who is against homosexuality, for example, is going to play a game that attempts to depict the thoughts and struggles of the author or game character, and have anything like a positive experience - at least no more so than a die-hard atheist would after playing a game that deals with a religious subject matter.

    So I would argue that it's nearly impossible to have a game (or even a book or movie nowadays) discuss sexuality, religion or politics without either pandering to the common popular opinion, or being decried as hateful for being against common popular opinion - so let's not bother.

    There are plenty of other fruitful topics that are engaging and speak to the human condition, and don't carry the same useless controversy and baggage. For example, The Last of Us is enjoyable because it deals with responsibility and loss, much like The Walking Dead, though both using different types of games and mechanics to do so. My favorite game of the last few years is Dark Souls, which has one of the most engrossing and.. adult! stories I've ever experienced in a game. I went a little long here and I hope I'm not coming off as overly negative, I'm just very sensitive to how hypocritical the discussion around sexuality has become lately when contrasted against other topics as I mentioned, and am really not looking forward to games being talked about as provocative and adult simply because they promote homosexuality or transgenderism or whatnot - things I don't particularly have a problem with, but like politics and religion, I think are topics best left to ourselves.

  • weevilo 8 months ago

    @cassandrakhaw I just reread my post and it _does_ sound pretty depressing and single minded. I didn't mean to imply that you were only focusing on sexuality in your article, it just happened to be one of the things on my pet peeve list that got me going :)

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