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Video game sex that's sexy, not sophomoric

BioWare has integrated romantic and sexual relationships into its two latest games in a manner that is deft, daring and adult … and gaming is far better for it.
Image: Mass Effect 2
With "Mass Effect 2," video game developer BioWare proves it knows a thing or two about what makes sex sexy. And it's probably not what you think. BioWare

I was having a hard time deciding who I wanted to jump into the sack with more — the green-skinned lizard-man assassin with the sexy voice or the battle-scarred space warrior with a face like a steel-plated grasshopper.

Both of my potential bedmates were just so … attractive. No, perhaps not attractive on the outside and perhaps not attractive by the usual human standards — but attractive, you know, on the inside. After all, they had both traveled the galaxy. They had both led daring lives. And they had both come to my aid in the toughest of times.

But a decision had to be made. I’m no space ho, after all. So I decided to put the moves on Thane, the reptilian killer who’d left a trail of dead bodies strewn across the galaxy and yet seemed to have a genuinely sensitive side. (I’m a sucker for the strong, troubled types.)

After spending some 40 hours playing BioWare’s latest role-playing game, I can tell you that there are a lot of things that make “Mass Effect 2” one of the greatest games ever — the engrossing story, the stellar shooting, the outstanding voice-acting, the sublime score. But I’m not afraid to admit that my top favorite thing about this game is the digital sex.

When the first “Mass Effect” game launched in 2008, some conservative and mainstream media outlets (*ahem* Fox News) stirred up a moral panic over the game’s sex scenes. They suggested that “Mass Effect” — which allowed players not only to save the galaxy but to bed humans and aliens alike along the way — was corrupting our youth, objectifying women and destroying the very fabric of civilization itself.

The sequel to that game, “Mass Effect 2,” launched last month and contains even more possible romantic liaisons for players to pursue (when they’re not busy saving the galaxy yet again). Meanwhile, BioWare also recently launched “Dragon Age: Origins” — a game that allows players to explore a variety of sexual relationships — relationships with humans, relationships with elves and relationships with homosexual humans and elves (gasp!)

Right on cue, the conservative commentators have freaked. But having played both of these games, I say “bravo, BioWare, bravo!” No matter what the critics say, this development company has integrated romantic and sexual relationships into its two latest games in a manner that is deft, daring and adult … and gaming is far better for it.

That lovin’ feelin’
If you haven’t had a chance to lose days of your life to these games, allow me to explain. “Mass Effect 2” is an epic space opera of a role-playing game — one that puts players into the boots of the super heroic Commander Shepard  as he or she (you decide the gender) sets out to stop some super nasty space beings who are up to some serious no good. “Dragon Age: Origins” is a “Lord of the Rings”-style RPG that lets players fight some medieval-style evil as a human, an elf or a dwarf (again, the gender of the hero you play is your choice).

For the record, both “Mass Effect 2” and “Dragon Age” are Mature-rated games meant for players who are 17 and older. Also, for the record, no player is forced or even remotely required to get it on with a green, blue or rainbow-hued alien in “Mass Effect 2” or with, say, a bisexual elf in “Dragon Age: Origins.” In fact, no digital coitus is required to enjoy or to complete these games.

And one final bit of record keeping: The sex scenes are, like, totally tame.

Whether you go for a private romp with Leliana the lovely lesbian bard from “Dragon Age: Origins” or you fall into bed with Jacob, the super-fit interplanetary super soldier from “ME 2,” the scenes that eventually unfold before you will involve some warm embraces, a bit of kissing and perhaps the removal of  some articles of clothing. But nobody ever gets totally nekked. Meanwhile, just when things start to get hot and heavy … the music swells and the picture discreetly fades to black.

Yep, you’re guaranteed to see more skin at a Florida beach … or on prime-time TV. In fact, some players have complained that the sex scenes in “ME 2” and “Dragon Age” are too tame. They suggest that BioWare dialed down the steamy stuff because of all the hysterics over the first “Mass Effect.” Of course, BioWare insists it didn’t dial anything down for anyone.

Too much sex. Too little sex. Not the right kind of sex with the right kind of ... er ... people. Rubbish, I say. BioWare is spot on with its depictions of sex and romance in its latest two games.

Video gaming is a young medium, one that’s still in its adolescence. And so sexuality in games has historically existed for two purposes: To offer eye candy for randy teenagers or to provide juvenile comic relief (bouncing bosoms of “Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2,” I’m looking at you). I’ve often wondered when the medium would finally grow up enough to present genuine adult sexual relationships. Looks like that day has finally arrived.

Knockin’ digital boots
Here’s the deal — the reason I think the sex in “Mass Effect 2” is so, like, wow is because by the time I got around to knocking boots with Thane the Galactic Lizard Assassin, I actually cared about him.

The thing is, the developers have gone to extraordinary lengths to populate their games with memorable and believable characters that are fully fleshed-out in terms of their personalities and their back stories …. rather than just fully fleshed-out in terms of their bra and bicep sizes. And that makes all the difference in the world — especially when it comes to trying to portray authentic and compelling sexual experiences in a game.

Whether it’s Zevran the randy bisexual elf in “Dragon Age: Origins” or Subject Zero the violent woman warrior from “ME 2,” players are treated to unique characters, each with their own take on life and love and sex. And players are strongly encouraged to take the time to dig beneath the surface of each to find out who these characters really are.

For example, throughout “ME 2,” I had Thane accompany me on numerous life-threatening missions and spent no small bit of time hanging out with him in his quarters, simply talking to him about his past. Little by little, I learned about his strange childhood, his murdered wife and the estranged son he longed to reconnect with.

So by the time we got around to doing the deed, the whole thing played out not like the freaky-deaky space porn one might expect to find in a game but more like the ultimate moment of character revelation. Before he took me in his scaly embrace, the stone-cold killer with the heart of gold confessed his fear of the epic battle that loomed before us — confessed that he feared his own mortality just like the rest of us.

Yeah, you know what's sexy? Getting to know someone.

“The reason that we put such a focus on characters is because they add an emotional and a human aspect to why you do things in a game,” says Casey Hudson, project director for “Mass Effect 2.” “When I play a game, I always I find it odd when I’m just running around shooting things and beating things up without understanding why I care. I need a personal reason to care. That’s something that the characters offer.”

And that’s just the thing … I was surprised just how much I cared. When it was time to head into the last battle of “Mass Effect 2” with my new paramour at my side, I was seriously worried that Thane would die.  What if my shooting wasn’t up to snuff and he took the hit for it? What if I accidentally put him in harm’s way and he was struck down by the enemy? I was invested in this character in the most intimate way and that intimacy made the game all the more gripping.

When Thane did survive, it was a huge relief … and a huge triumph.

In the end, although critics and haters will argue that sex in video games desensitizes players, I’d argue that the thoughtfully portrayed intimacy in BioWare’s video games does exactly the opposite — it makes players care more.

Winda Benedetti isn't afraid to admit she's got that luvin' feeling .