As video games grow to represent stories and character more realistically, one of the most important facets to nail is inter-personal relationships, and especially intimacy. There’s only so much that strategically-crafted dialogue choices and painstakingly-animated cut scenes can convey, and more often than not it’s not much. During this past IndieCade during a panel entitled “Pillow Talk: A Keynote Discussion” a variety of panelists discussed how they dealt with instilling a degree of intimacy in their own games and how developers for other games can do the same.
Nina Freeman of Star Maiden Games discussed what she defines as intimacy in video gaming and how she’s used that definition when designing her games. She acknowledges the usual definition of intimacy is used to describe sexual relationships between people, such as in her game “How Do You Do It?” wherein the player is a small girl mashing her dolls together to figure out how sex works. But during the talk she used the opportunity to discuss a new game she had worked to developed, “Cibele”. Cibele is the autobiographical story of a girl named Nina who develops a relationship with a boy she meets online while playing an MMO. The game makes a point of putting the player in the position of Nina and makes use of another definition of intimacy that Freeman made sure to discuss, which is putting someone (The player) in touch with a character’s feelings, desires, and needs. Cibele accomplishes this by giving the player access to Nina’s desktop and her files, which the player can choose to go through to discover more about the character’s motivations and backgrounds. According to Freeman, “specificity in action is the key to player embodiment of character”. From her perspective the act of going through Nina’s files, looking at her old blog posts and chat logs, and even playing the game help the player gain a more thorough sense of immersion and respond to the story more viscerally.
Another panelist was Robert Yang, developer of “Succulent”, a game where the player assists a man trying to eat a popsicle, as well as “Hurt Me Plenty” and “Rinse and Repeat”. At first glance these games seem to make use of intimacy strictly in terms of sexuality; Succulent involves helping a scantily-clad macho man eat a popsicle, Hurt Me Plenty is a BDSM simulator, and Rinse and Repeat has the player scrub a naked man’s chest in a public shower. Yang did mention his goal was to make games with an overt, in-your-face attitude regarding sexuality, especially gay male sexuality, but he also discussed his intention to make games that examine intimacy through consent. In Hurt Me Plenty the player takes part in a consensual BDSM relationship, the key to which involves trust and boundaries. The player spanks their partner according to how hard the character asks for it, stopping only when the previously-agreed-upon safe word is invoked. If the player ignores either of these parameters, the game locks the player out and prevents them from playing for about 72 hours. “Basically,” said Yang, “No one wants to be in a relationship with you because you’re a bad person.” In a similar fashion Yang’s “Cobra Club”, a game involving taking artistic dick pics, punishes the player as NPCs in the game no longer wish to interact with them after they begin finding their private pictures they sent the player on the internet (In fact, the game does begin sending pictures the player creates to a Tumblr blog run by Yang). With this trust violated, the player loses the sense of intimacy they once had with the other characters. In some ways it teaches a lesson, but the games also are used to explore the value of intimacy and trust in relationships.
One of the runaway stars of IndieCade was not an actual video game, but a card game developed by Naomi Clark. Winner of IndieCade’s “Impact Award”, Clark’s “Consentacle” involves two players, one playing the part of a human, the other a betentacled alien. The object is to generate as much satisfaction out of the encounter as possible, through the formation and collection of Satisfaction Tokens. This can only be done by playing cards that build trust, in the form of Trust Tokens. There are two ways to play the game, the primary one involving speaking as little as you can, in order to build trust through body language alone. The game teaches the value of consent and trust by rewarding the players for working together and properly interpreting body language.
The panel at IndieCade was an example of what games can be used for. All games tell a story in one way or another, but the value of discussing intimacy as a gameplay mechanic was in how stories can be told and in what ways, how they can be better and what effects they have on the player. These games discuss how the interplay of in-game relationships affect the overall game experience, and how intimacy can be used (And is currently being used) to subvert the impersonal expectations of video games. If video games are to truly be a storytelling medium, it’s important to make use of these mechanisms to fully develop the potential to do so.