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Sex as a narrative tool: The dos and don'ts of writing sex scenes in games

As Michelle Clough explained during her talk “Eros in Play: Writing Sex Scenes in Games,” sex can be a useful tool for writers and narrative designers looking to flesh out their characters and worlds.

“It’s easy to assume the only point of sex [in games] is titillation, or screaming ‘our game is adult,” stated writer, narrative designer, and IGDA Romance and Sexuality SIG chair Michelle Clough at the Game Developers Conference this week. 

But, as Clough explained during her talk “Eros in Play: Writing Sex Scenes in Games,” sex scenes can be a useful tool for writers and narrative designers looking to flesh out their characters and world. She recounted experiences with people who ask "why we have to make such a big deal about sex," but explained that sex is just another color writers can use in their palettes to create rich stories, worlds, and themes. 

On a basic level, explained Clough, sex scenes can be broken down into three core building blocks: who are the characters, what is their relationship, and why are they having sex. Those central bones are something Clough discussed in-depth during her preceding talk on the topic in 2017; this session, however, looked beyond high-level themes to explore the different aspects of the encounters themselves and how those play into larger narrative design goals.

Sex scenes themselves tend to fall into three key categories: sacred, mundane, and profane. One particular scene could fall under multiple (or even all three) categories, explained Clough, and each has its own associations and purposes.  Sex as a sacred act sees the encounter as something spiritual and transformative to emphasize an emotional connection or dramatic moment, profane moments view sex as lustful and places an emphasis on pleasure and physical acts, and mundane sex views sex as a normal part of life and emphasizes the normality of sex in many different situations.

Once the tone of the scene is nailed down, Clough explained narrative designers can work with other developers to craft the different elements of the encounter itself that communicate that tone like environmental details, body language, and audio effects. 

However, she warns that thoughtlessly leaning into obvious choices or cliches risks coming off as lazy or even being harmful to players.

“Evocative details like music, body language, and setting can help to tell our story, however with sex scenes the stakes can be high because every detail brings baggage,” warned Clough. Different settings or sexual positions can unintentionally attach cliches or stereotypes to characters, and Clough explained that it’s critical to be mindful of those associations and actively discuss each element before including it in a scene.

Throughout her talk, Clough likened the process to cooking, noting that narrative designers should write the “recipe” for a scene with enough instructions for the rest of the development team to execute the moment, but with enough wiggle room that other creative forces can be involved as well.

Closing out her talk, Clough listed off a handful of useful dos and don’ts to guide narrative designers and writers through the process. 

Do:

  • Incorporate fantastical elements into scenes, where applicable
  • Embrace humor
  • Include relationships and choices without sex
  • Make scenes for different characters equally intimate and explicit as one another
  • Use sex to reveal character
  • Write other genders, body types, etc as sexy
  • Allow men to be written as desirable and sexy
  • Write women as agents of their own desires

Do not:

  • Write queer sex scenes with less respect, intimacy, or eroticism than straight sex
  • Use sex as moral alignment
  • Make assumptions about sex with certain groups (sex with virgins as heroic or good, sex with people of color as “exotic”, sex with sex workers as dirty or bad)
  • Reduce one character to invisible, secondary, or eye candy
  • Write desire/desirability in one direction 
  • Write only conventionally hot women

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