If love or sex comes up in a video game, it’s often the muscle-bound male protagonist bedding buxom women. Some games even have an accompanying minigame to put you in control of your (probably) straight white male protagonist, or a quick-time event to “beat” so you can get on with the rest of the game. It’s not very often that we see games deal with sex in a way that goes beyond “press x for arousal” or games that have LGBTQ+ themes at their forefront. Thankfully, games that frame sex and intimacy in a positive way exist, and the wonderful Video Game Art Gallery has a collection of them on display now through the end of April.
Polymorphism: Queer Encounters of Intimacy in Games, curated by the VGA Gallery’s Exhibition Manager Brice Puls, is a collection of fifteen independent video games that look at sex, sexuality, gender, body dysmorphia and more either through story, themes, or gameplay mechanics.
Curator Brice Puls wanted to put together a collection of games that focused on this underrepresented theme in video games: “A lot of the games in this show are games that aren’t able to be put (in front of) mainstream audiences, they can’t be in a store, they can’t be on Xbox, and until recently, they couldn’t be on Steam. They’re banned on Twitch…. [It’s a privilege] to be able to show a good amount of games that are about sex, and about having sex, and about wanting to have sex and about the core of intimacy.”
Puls went on to talk about how video games, in particular Gone Home, helped him confront his own gender identity and sexuality, and how that inspired him when putting together this exhibit. “The fact that that game had such a profound effect on me was something that really encouraged me to be in this space, and create art, and show art from other people who are creatives… Each game here is sort of a passion project, and it’s something that [developers] connect with in terms of personal identity, and they’re able to reflect themselves and what they like in their work. But it’s not a show specifically about the anxiety and depression and the fear of figuring out gender identity, and figuring out sex and intimacy. It’s a celebration of that as well. So there are games in here that confront the idea of the oppression that gay and LGBTQIA people experience–there are still games in here that explain anxiety and depression. But it’s also a celebratory space.“
Games on display at the exhibit range from the fun and whimsical Genital Jousting to the lo-fi, but extremely sobering A Russian Valentine. Some of these games deal mostly with the gamification of sexuality through their mechanics.
Empty Fortress’ A Russian Valentine is considered a “micro” game, but it probably had one of the most profound effects on us of the entire exhibit. The premise is simple: you are two gay men who want to kiss. You have to sneak a kiss outside of the prying eyes of the police. The only way to win is by not playing, and losing is a bleak reminder of harsh reality. The whole experience is represented by blocky graphics, only a few colors, and sounds from the Atari 2600 era, but it’s incredibly effective.
Sean Wejebe’s The Longest Couch was another simple game that managed to stick with me. It’s a game where two boys are sitting on a couch, and the two players’ job is to get them to meet in the middle before they fall asleep. Its theme is incredibly endearing, and the gameplay works perfectly in sync with it. You have to both share a keyboard, and input various letters—like a long quick-time event that ends up being a game of keyboard Twister. It’s a great ice breaker, or an excuse to get close to your crush: either way, it’s one of my new favorite things.
Radiator 2: Anniversary Edition is a fantastic suite of three games by Robert Yang that are no-holds-barred fun and immensely stylish. Developers make no apologies for the games’ themes of “male sexuality, punishing, eating and driving” and by design push you to do the same, and just have fun. The collection includes “Hurt Me Plenty,” “Succulent” and “Stick Shift,” and all are fantastically presented games that frankly, humorously and thoughtfully portray gay culture and gay sex. As you rev up engines while getting into high gear with Stick Shift or salaciously devour a corn dog, you’ll have to abandon any sense of propriety and just have fun with it, and as it turns out, that’s just the point, and the commentary we think this game is trying to make.
NSFWare is a collection of minigames, very much in the vein of Warioware, but extremely pornographic. The art is a sort of rotoscoped pixel art, and it’s done fantastically. Each “game” is very short, with the objectives usually something like “stroke” or “slap.” Its bright color scheme and pixelated visuals make it stand out.
While many of the games on display dealt with game mechanics, there were also a few extremely poignant, narratively driven experiences on display: from the introspective the earth is a better person than me to the surreal Genderwrecked.
queer static, developed by RiotJayne, was another game that caught us by surprise. It takes the form of a simple visual novel, but tells a complex story about a person who’s recently transitioned and who is venturing out into the world of online (and soon, in-person) dating. Every bit of this game seems well thought out to help you relate to the character more. The narrative is like reading someone’s high school diary–full of the angst, excitement and uncertainty that anyone might feel regardless of orientation when venturing into new romantic pursuits–but adds the unique experiences, traumas and fears that come with being transgender to them in a seamless way. One of the most impactful parts of playing the game is how easy it is to imagine yourself as the character, regardless of different orientation or circumstances. queer static manages to capture perfectly the electric thrills of beginning to like someone right along with the burning fear of being rejected that you carry into each new stage of the relationship, while helping you understand the additional burden of oppression, repression and fear transgendered people experience as they present themselves to the world anew.
Hardcoded, by Fortunae Virgo is a game, much like queer static, that addresses issues of acceptance and identity. As the main protagonist, you’re a droid in a world full of those who are either outright hostile or at least a little suspect of you. Billed as a “lesbian cyberpunk erotic dating sim” we found its art style absolutely gorgeous and its treatment of intimacy fantastic–nothing objectified or sensationalized, and allowing simple expressions of intimacy that aren’t overtly sexual to be as meaningful as straightforwardly sexual situations. Characters feel fully realized, and the gameplay itself is engaging, allowing for exploration and quite a bit of decision making, with a feel akin to that of Gone Home or Life is Strange with a retro, sci-fi, cyberpunk slant. Again, this game manages to make it easy to slip into the plasticene shoes of the main character, and feel what they feel navigating a new world and new relationships while still haunted by their past.
We strongly recommend you check out this great exhibit, which continues its run through April 28. The VGA Gallery is located at 2418 W Bloomingdale Ave #102.
You can also purchase prints and posters that look great and help support the great work being done at the VGA Gallery. In addition, VGA Gallery has a scholarly publication, the VGA Reader, which just released its second issue, which you can buy here. Read our interview with VGA Reader editor Tiffany Funk right here.
Contributing author: Marielle Bokor