Up Up Down Down is an occasional column about video games.
Many of you have asked if I am OK. (Many more have pointed out that I am a faggot—thank you.) I suppose writing about your own semi-agonizing experience of having had cancer and depression, and couching all that in the context of your recent layoff, and proceeding to discuss your drug and alcohol use, your passing resemblance to Walter White, your crying jags, your sense of loss, loathing, desperation—I suppose that kind of stuff will elicit such a response. So let me clear something up: I am OK. Further, the point and purview of this sorta regular video game column is not to dwell on my personal shit, because anyone's personal shit is inevitably annoying. By sharing it you indulge in a certain narcissism that's tolerable only in the smallest of quantities when and if it's delivered with maximum humor, self-effacement, panache, etc. etc. It's an incredibly thin hallway to squeeze oneself down, and I am a very large man, and my attempting such a maneuver is inadvisable to say the lea—
—actually fuck it. I recently masturbated to a video-game avatar.
Lemme back up.
I loves me a good RPG, which means "Role-Playing Game" to you normals, which means, yes, I do occasionally help myself to bites directly from the cheese block and, yes, my T-shirts jut out over my belly and hang just above but not over my waistline and, yes, my girlfriend and I discuss such things during conversations whose subtext is "Why is my boyfriend so gross"—Role Playing Game, got it? My fondness for these things goes back decades, to childhood afternoons spent "grinding," a term my friend @harvilla recently introduced me to, apparently universal in the suburb he grew up in. It refers to the practice of roaming the virtual landscape of a given RPG (steppe, tundra, mountains, cavern), seeking out bad guys to slay in an effort to rack up experience points, which facilitates leveling up, which facilitates the learning of new spells and skills, which facilitates the killing of even more bad guys and just generally more enjoyable grinding1. When my craving for grinding recently became insatiable, I sought out Dragon Age: Origins.
Now Dragon Age is far from new—there's in fact a Dragon Age 2, as well as an impending third installment. But if you're like me—if your adulthood occasionally outpaces your dorkhood, those midnight mom-piloted car trips to the Culver City Toys "R" Us for Mario 2 a distant if triumphant memory—then there's a mage's spellbook's worth of games on your list you've yet to find time to play (sorry, Orange Box). The other thing, too, is that RPGs in particular suck up an ass-load of free time, especially these days, when the core story is only like 30 percent of the game, the rest comprising various side quests and even just completely tangential little errands, all of which must be played in order to obtain that sense of completion any RPG-player worth his Asperger's requires. So there's the time thing, and I have dogs and grow herbs, which means mine is scarce.
Given this, it would be hard, I would have thought, to squeeze in the 60-100 hours required to beat Dragon Age, and yet for me it turned out to be not nearly hard enough: In my quest to accrue better spells, swords, armor, and fighting companions—playing as a mage I'd named "Dr. Yum Yum," I should add—I'd wake early on weekends, squeeze in short sessions before dinner, and forgo nightlife activities entirely, grinding and grinding, hour after hour. Eventually I'd learned a hefty sack of quality spells—"Inferno," "Chain Lightning," "Rock Armor"—and assembled a team of warriors, dwarves, mages, elves, and even a dog to accompany me in my quest to unite the kingdom in an effort to defeat a scourge. One such companion was named Morrigan, a witch raised in a bog by her hermit mother (whom I would later slay when she turned into a dragon—that's why they call the game Bad Dudes).
As our adventures turned increasingly adventurous, so did the bond between Dr. Yum Yum and Morrigan—we fought together, cast spells together, huddled together by the light of the campfire, etc. Plot-wise, I suppose I should have seen it coming when Morrigan propositioned me for sex, but then again see above re: the dorkhood and the cheese. I like my porn porn-y and my video games asexual and innocent, like those Japanese pillow companions; in this topsy turvy world of trolls and ghouls and ogres, let's at least keep our hands to ourselves, alright?
Anyway, we fucked, at which point something odd happened: I—as in the real-life human playing the game, not Dr. Yum Yum—became aroused. Upon completion of the sex act in the game, and without giving it too much thought, I retreated to the nearest corner of our apartment to ashamedly take care of business
This was a first.
Now. The Venn diagram illustrating the overlap between folks who play videogames and folks who look at porn is undoubtedly a perfect circle, and this fact is not lost on game designers. You can catch Ellen Page showering in the recent Beyond: Two Souls, have an orgy in God of War, bang a tribal leader in Far Cry 3, and even enjoy a lesbian threesome in Dragon Age, which I discovered while researching this piece and am now totally pissed about missing, dammit. Then there's GTA, the vehicles of which aren't the only things you can joyride and then destroy. If you connect these dots, the line is straight, and it leads back to one man.
"We thought we were making fun of sex," says Al Lowe, the auteur behind the 1987 landmark Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. I recently spoke with Al in his capacity as chief design officer of Replay Games, which released Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded in June. "We were using it to mock a guy who couldn't get laid. So really, if the game was titillating, then we failed."
This doesn't seem to have mattered, since Larry is often cited as being the first commercially successful video game to deal with sexually explicit themes, even if the 8-bit representation of such themes leaves more than a little to the imagination. Both gaming and Larry have come a long way since then, the latter spawning umpteen sequels (including The Missing Floppies, Pocket Party, and, uh, Cocoa Butter), and Lowe admits to having had trouble walking the lines between sex and humor, reality and fantasy.
"When motion video became very fashionable in the '90s," he explains, "we actually explored doing a Larry game with real actresses and real sets and blue screens, but the outcome of the tests we did was horrible, because suddenly all these lines became really trite and obnoxious when spoken by actresses."
What was it about Morrigan and Dr. Yum Yum's coitus that day that got me so worked up? I find myself grasping. I mean, it's not even a particularly raunchy sex scene—they keep their underwear on! And the Morrigan avatar is this hexagonally sculpted Amazon with enormous breasts that jut out like chest peninsulas. This shouldn't be a turn-on. Go ahead, see for yourself.
Then I realize: It's the context. There are fewer and fewer things you do alone in this world, and fewer and fewer media experiences as intimate as a video game, which requires you to suspend a metric ton of disbelief and then asks that you invest yourself so emphatically in its characters, its world, its rules, its conceits that you're not just willing but excited to devote 15-70 hours of your life to it (which is longer than some sexual relationships I've had have lasted, and I'm sure I'm not alone here). To introduce a tactile component to that experience—the joystick (which now rumbles like a vibrator, btw)—is to insert just enough physicality to the proceedings that the experience of getting lost in a video game, especially a really elaborate, expensively crafted game like Dragon Age but even a comparatively low budget one like Larry—is more engrossing on at least handful of levels than pretty much any other form of media extant. Perhaps the mere whiff of sex under such circumstances, even awkwardly portrayed sex between two wizards, even utterly pixelated 8-bit hot-tub scenes, is enough to qualify as titillating, the same way a light breeze gave us male readers boners at the age of 13.
Perhaps that's the thinking of the ESRB, which gave Larry: Reloaded the same rating as GTAV, that being M for Mature, despite Replay founder Paul Trowe's assertion that, "With Leisure Suit Larry reloaded, there's no nudity, there's no sex, it's all innuendo." This all brings to mind the famous Supreme Court bromide re: porn, "I know it when I see it," but if the hooker-screwing savagery of GTAV and the hyper-colored satire of Larry receive the same rating, one must ask: Oh do ya now?
My girlfriend knows I look at porn; we have a don't-ask-don't-tell policy when it comes to the stuff (and since she's reading this: trust me, you don't want to ask). When I told her about the Dragon Age experience, I'm pretty sure she was just barely more amused than disgusted, and I was off the hook. It was a little like a mother's embarrassed acceptance of her teenage boy's fumbly sexual awakening.
And, really, it is so juvenile, isn't it? Grind hard enough and you'll unlock the sex scene, and the sex scene will be hilariously clumsy: The dude will have big muscles and the chick will have big tits, and they'll just sort of rub back and forth on each other. The video gamer of any age sees the virtual sex the way a 13-year-old sees the real thing—as an unlockable achievement, attained through many hours of grinding. So I responded the way any 13-year-old would. Reader, I masturbated. "M for mature," indeed.
1 Seriously, it's hard to express the satisfaction one feels from learning a really kick-ass new spell and then using it to decimate a horde of enemies. Or obtaining a new sword, dagger, ax, mace, club, etc., and using that to slice, flay, stab, maul, etc., a goblin, dragon, thief, knave, feral wolf. What a unique rush that is.
Garrett Kamps is a writer living in San Francisco. He's @gkamps on Twitter. Image by Jim Cooke.