Busy Hands

Busy Hands
Catherine's Complex View of Commitment

Leigh Alexander | 30 Aug 2011 15:00
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In my first article ever here at The Escapist, I said that Kana, Little Sister -- a Japanese story-driven sex game about a boy's feelings for his disease-stricken little sister -- had one of the most impactful stories of any videogame I'd ever experienced. Years later, no matter how great the strides I've seen more traditional games make into immersion and more sophisticated storytelling, I still feel that way about Kana, unwieldy bits and all.

And I still spend a lot of time thinking about why that is. In the past, I had a number of theories, and one of them was this: Videogames are designed interaction, and in eroge games, the only interaction that is designed is courtship, the only objective is sex. These are games about relations between people, which leaves dialogue and story a massive, yawning plain to be explored and filled. A certain richness of dialogue is essential to gameplay, whereas in games where the interaction is simpler - say, conflict - and the objective is more complex (save the world, accomplish a variety of plot-based missions, et cetera), story can languish and the game experience won't directly change.

I also thought, talked and wrote about how the two supposed "constants" of human existence are sex and death, and that in an environment where video games had the "death" part down so well, it was curious not to see games explore sex and sexuality more. It's that old bit of funny business about how bloody murder is routine in mass media, but a pair of bare breasts are taboo.

So yeah, while I wouldn't quite call it a fixation, I've spent a good share of time thinking about what sex can bring to games, and all the fashions and reasons I wished they'd stop shying from it. ┬ČIt wasn't until a bit later on that I realized that I was even more interested in what games can bring to sex - and by extension, many other things we don't always feel comfortable talking about, since you can't scratch the surface of the topics of either sex or violence without hitting a vein of human psychology.

Games are play and escapism, and the ways we play say a lot about us. They're also forms of communication and expression - statements of the intention of an artist or group of artists, or vehicles for us to communicate in action and abstraction amongst ourselves. At the best of times, playing a really immersive game can feel like a private conversation with oneself. And nothing delights me more than when that conversation pushes my comfort zone, whether that's with what I ponder about myself or about us as players.

That's why I'm super excited to begin this new column here, and share those thoughts and those conversations with all of you, on all things titillating, creepy, dark or unnaturally lovely in interactive entertainment. Each month, we'll visit a different offbeat game and dig in, in a search for the undiscovered threads of sentiment and experience we might miss when we avoid talking about things that confuse or us or make us uncomfortable. Sometimes we'll find singular moments of value easily overlooked in traditional games, too.

If you're fond of phrases like "it's just a game," or if you'd prefer to take the direct route through your relationship with games - aim, fire, next! - then this probably isn't a series of articles you'll enjoy. But if you're one of those that's interested in seeing games strain against their traditional bounds, then stay tuned. I recently learned about just how powerful alternative, sexual videogames could be when I curated an exhibit at Brooklyn's Babycastles arcade and found myself fielding tons of locals, curious non-gamers who were prepared to see games as art pieces, as something, anything other than what they'd expected.

This time, we don't have to look very hard to see evidence that audiences are interested in games that promise a dark, complex portrayal of adult sexuality. Just look at the pre-release period for Catherine, which launched earlier this summer. Featuring anime art and a number of surface stylistic similarities to the Persona games, such as the music of composer Shoji Meguro, early info was an unsurprisingly-easy sell to fans of Japanese RPGs and other games by Atlus - even before anyone knew what kind of gameplay Catherine would have.

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