NB. In case you haven't guessed, the content below addresses some rather adult themes that may well prove NSFW.
No Reply Games caused a bit of a stir last September when they entered their erotic title Seduce Me into Greenlight's pool of games for consideration, polarising option on Valve's community-driven game approval service. Or at least it might have done had Valve themselves not stepped in and essentially said, "No sex please, we're Steam!"
Sex and games have always been uneasy bedfellows, perhaps unsurprising considering the mainstream perception of this interactive entertainment medium as something childish, and predominantly for kids and adolescents. The (entirely wrong) picture of gamers as hormonally-challenged, masturbating basement dwellers has created something of a black hole for any 'serious' erotic game here in the West, with explicit material generally reserved for giggling pubescent boys having stolen their parents' credit cards, or sexual deviants who keep things very hush-hush.
You'd never admit to playing an erotic game, would you? Who are you, some kind of pervert?! Well, no.
Times are changing. Japan has long had dedicated relatively-mainstream stores for this sort of thing. The erotic genre as an umbrella is so large on the other side of the world that there are sub-genres to be found. Here in the West, the best thing you can hope for are poorly animated Flash adventure games on Newgrounds that typically see you button mashing to fill a bar so you can change camera angle for the money shot involving a cartoon character from that kids TV show you saw once.
No Reply are hoping to change that, although it might have been easier had Valve not rained on their parade. "It has had a profound effect on our view of the industry," No Reply's co-founder, Miriam Bellard, tells me. "We didn’t expect such a fuss. We didn’t realise it was such a big deal! A game for adults by adults - why should anyone care?" Seduce Me proved one of the most hotly debated topics on Greenlight, with plenty of champions debating the freedom of expression with the game's detractors.
Valve's intervention, however, was as swift as it was unexplained:
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"We didn’t try to contact Valve after that email," says Bellard, "it didn’t exactly encourage communication."
It seems a strange jump to make at first glance - two people who've worked at Guerilla Games on franchises such as Killzone departing to set up a small indie outfit and try to plug a forgotten niche in the Western games market.
"A number of years ago - in New Zealand, before working at Guerrilla - Andrejs [Skuja - the other co-founder and remaining 50% of No Reply Games] and I had had a few drinks after work and were looking up sex games (as you do)," she explains. "We were shocked when we didn’t find anything. We found Japanese erotic games and small flash games, but no large modern Western games. At the time we didn’t have the experience to do anything about this, so the game remained on the backburner until after I left Guerrilla."
The rise in indie recognition here in the West has gone hand in hand with a greater breadth of distribution platforms and opportunities available to developers striking out on their own for themselves, so the decision to take this route on with a smaller team seemed to be an obvious one, particularly when contrasted with a traditional publishing model that has proven staunchly conservative.
"Large companies are by their very nature conservative," Bellard suggests. "There used to be Western erotic games back in the 80s, but, as development studios and publishers have become larger erotic games have dried up. "I am hoping that the current rise of the Indie developer will mean a rise in controversial content."
"The only way to change the perception of games is to change the games," she adds, when I point out the hysteria that this industry was faced with because of a little blue side-boob in Mass Effect. "The more incidents we have - like the Mass Effect one - where a development studio intentionally and maturely adds sexual content in their games, the more normal it will become, and the less of a fuss will be made."
But Mass Effect, of course, is a fully-fledged action-RPG that happens to contain a few romantic scenarios and possibilities; Seduce Me is something altogether different. Ostensibly a cross between a point-and-click dating sim and card games, Seduce Me sees you step into the shoes of a virile young buck, who's landed himself an invitation to the mansion of infamous socialite and apparent nymphomaniac, Pietra. The aim of the game is to waltz around Pietra's villa, flirt with everyone you see, and try to raise your standing with the main four characters enough to eventually have sex with one of them. The twist? All of the player-driven conversations and interactions play out through card games that have their roots in traditional pastimes such as Rummy, Shithead (Palais), and Hearts.
"Early on I made the decision that I wanted the gameplay to reflect the process of flirting and seduction," Bellard explains. "I didn’t want irrelevant gameplay with dirty pictures as a reward. This led to research trying to find gameplay that reflected the feel of human interactions.
"My research included adventure/story games, other strategy games, board games, other indie games and experimental girl-games etc. Some types of play were rejected for being too aggressive (most games are, after all, based on war), others because I found them boring (I like strategy games and get bored with easy gameplay that doesn’t involve any thinking). I had also been reading a lot of articles at the time on the ‘player story’ vs. the ‘game story’ (i.e. the story that comes out of the gameplay as opposed to the scripted story). I was determined to make the ‘player story’ more important than the ‘game story’. (In retrospect I should have given them equal weighting, but we’re not giving up on Seduce Me and will try rectify that mistake).
"Traditional card games were an eureka moment. They felt right. They felt like conversations. And they involved some thinking - I didn’t get bored. From this point on it was about finding the right card games for each situation and tweaking each game until it felt right.
"The more experienced you are with the game the more the card games become natural, more emotional and less calculated. I also believe there are underlying rules to real world interactions and that being charming can be a learnt skill. I read books (eg. The Player’s Handbook), and listened to talks (e.g. Debra Fine’s ‘The Fine Art Of Small Talk’) and tried to distill some of those rules into the card games."
It's certainly a more interactive way of doing things than clicking between orifice options and sitting back...then again, one supposes that might be the point of the latter type of game. Unfortunately, no matter how good Seduce Me is, it's going to get pigeon-holed in with the low and base games that have formed this genre to begin with. I suggest that if you suggest the term 'erotic video game' to someone they'll either look at you in bewildered confusion or point towards those aforementioned dodgy Flash titles and things like Bonetown. Bellard agrees, although she hopes that's something which will change.
"At present the situation is as you describe it," she says. "In the future I hope Western erotic games will become a whole genre of their own."
The art style is another key thing that separates Seduce Me from its more anime-centric, rather more pubescent peers. I ask Bellard if the painted stills were an effort to create an adult distinction away from those other existing erotic titles, and talk of connotations of Mills and Boon cover art, and the sort of thing you find in that section of a well-rounded bookstore.
"Yes," she replies. "This was partly a deliberate choice - to try appeal to a Western audience - and partly a matter of personal taste. Andrejs’ inspiration for the style of the game came from 50s pin up artists (eg Gil Elvgren) and modern concept art styles.
"Unless you have a huge budget it is impossible to have animations in a painterly style. We chose stills in Andrejs’ painterly style over 3D or cell-shaded animations partly out of aesthetic preference, and partly because we didn’t have an animator on board."
But artistic aspirations or not, there are still a whole bunch of stills that are certainly NSFW. It's fine to kill an absolute shit-ton of virtual people without batting an eyelid, these days, but don't you dare go showing people what men and women have between their legs. The imbalance is not lost on Bellard, but she sees hope for the erotic genre in this industry, precisely because violence has become less of an issue. I point out that in this post-Fifty-Shades-world perhaps taboos are being broken down, and she agrees.
"The very presence of books like Fifty Shades of Grey makes the idea of erotica more acceptable," she says. "We need more erotic video games though. It’s hard for a genre to be made acceptable when it’s non-existent.
"Personally I think too much sex is much better than too much violence. To change the industry brave souls need to make controversial content, and other brave souls need to support the same content. In many ways this is what happened with extreme violence. People made games and films with extreme violence and supporters of free speech defended those works and demanded that they not be censored. Now those works are much more normal and cause far less controversy."
With talk of controversy, our conversation comes back around to Greenlight and the increased attention that No reply and Seduce Me have garnered as a result of it. In all truth, there's every possibility that we wouldn't be running this coverage had the Greenlight incident not happened, and I ask Bellard if she feels the increased scrutiny has been a bad or good thing. Her answer is remarkably honest:
"It’s been both good and bad," she says. "But, to be honest the bad far outweighs the good: [Firstly], it’s emotionally exhausting. We just want to get on with making games, but it’s hard to not get upset and want to give up when you see yourself criticised and vilified. We are private people and this experience has been traumatic.
"[Additionally], our game is judged by different rules. We, of course, have seen some of the reviews out there. And, while I know that the game is not perfect and still needs work, I can’t help but think that people would have been kinder and more forgiving - and maybe more encouraging - if we had used exactly the same gameplay with a different theme.
"It’s hard to get distributors. No-one else wants to suffer the same criticisms we have, and large distributors have more to lose. The only large distributor to agree to take on Seduce Me was Amazon."
Surely the increased publicity has had some benefits, though? "Well, at least some people know who we are and that our game exists," she says.
For Bellard and Skuja, the immediate future is based around refining and tweaking the Seduce Me experience, responding to feedback on the No Reply forums, and sifting through constructive criticism in an effort to improve the game.
"We want to keep working on Seduce Me and make it into a better game. We’re going to add more pictures, more story, and a few other gameplay elements - nothing that requires more learning, rather things that will mix up the rhythm of the game and add more story.Once we are happy with Seduce Me we intend to start working on expansion packs. Players are already making requests.
"And, after that we’ll consider what game next. We’ve been considering making an erotic game for women."
Wouldn't that be interesting?
Thanks to Miriam Bellard for taking the time to answer our questions. Seduce Me is out now and can be bought direct from No Reply Games' site.