The hot new creation at the world's top video game convention may be procreation. Amid the thousands of new products at the Electronic Entertainment Expo featuring shooting, racing, punching, slashing and pummeling, a handful of upcoming titles like "The Sims 2" and "Playboy: The Mansion" have focused on "love" -- or at least the physical act of it -- as the player's main goal.
In "The Sims 2," a sequel to one of the most popular PC games ever, players create and manipulate a family of characters, trying to satisfy their social, emotional and physical needs.
In the original, the characters had to be told to do simple things like take out the garbage, take a shower or use the bathroom (you could download updates that made sex an option).
The sequel relegates those mundane acts to the background. Now gamers have a host of emotional categories to fulfill -- and the game differentiates between love and lust.
Jonathon Knight, a producer with Electronic Arts games, showcased a family he created: Sarah, the wife who wants to spend wholesome quality time with her family; Don, her fun-loving, overly amorous husband; and their son Alex, who just wants to make the transition from childhood to adolescence (Sims characters in this version can age.)
If you want Don to keep Sarah happy, then don't let him talk to Dina, his superbly curvaceous ex-girlfriend, who comes to their son's birthday pool-party in a revealing bikini.
A meter shows that Don wants to talk to his sexy ex. "But if you indulge his wish to talk to her, then he wants to flirt with her, then he wants to kiss her," Knight said as the illicit digital lovers snuggled onscreen.
When the Sarah character finds out, she has a mental breakdown -- her emotional levels plummet and her face becomes a mask of agony. (A digital therapist can be hired to calm her nerves.)
If you don't let Don the philanderer have his way, he'll be unhappy for a while. But the game's artificial intelligence will eventually reshape his desires. "If I played him more faithfully, he would get used to being faithful," Knight said.
The sexuality in "The Sims 2," a PC-only game which will be rated T for teenagers when it's released Aug. 31, doesn't get any hotter or heavier than kissing. Characters can have intercourse -- which may lead to pregnancy, just like real life -- but onscreen coitus resembles giggly horseplay and tickling, not nudity or penetration.
Adult-themed titles push limits
The question of how much skin is too much is a problem for more adult-themed titles like Arush Entertainment's "Playboy: The Mansion" and High-Voltage Software's remake of the 1980s sexual-conquest game "Leisure Suit Larry."
Both games are set for release later this year, but neither wants to get an AO "adults only" designation from the Entertainment Software Rating Board. To keep the games in mainstream stores, they'll have to secure an M rating for "mature" -- but that means cutting back on the sex and nudity.
In the new "Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude," which is considerably more detailed than its pixilated forerunners, a shrimpy, cartoonish man courts impossibly buxom coeds at a college.
He plays drinking games, organizes wet T-shirt contests, goes on panty raids -- all aimed at seducing them. The game bills itself as following the tradition of movies like "Animal House" or "American Pie."
Juvenile? Certainly. Likely to alarm parents groups? Yes.
Brian Bilicki, the game's lead software engineer, anticipates an uproar. He said it's hypocritical that showing a cartoon woman's breasts is regarded as taboo in an industry that embraces so many grotesquely violent games like "Manhunt" and "Grand Theft Auto III."
"You can bash someone's head in, or shoot someone in a sniper game, but you can't play a game where you try to score with a girl," he said.
"Leisure Suit Larry" was designed to feature jokey scenes of sexual intercourse, Bilicki said, but they will likely be obscured by black bars or severely curtailed in the United States -- with a more explicit version released in Europe.
Meanwhile, the "Playboy" title is also bound to feature some nudity, according to producer Chris Boxmeyer. "Most likely topless," he said. "But no full frontal."
Unless the ratings board will let them get away with more. Even then, he added, the developers could be censored by Microsoft's Xbox or Sony's PlayStation 2, who may want to maintain a more family-friendly image.
"We do have animation that is more explicit," Boxmeyer said. "But for now it's just topless."
"Playboy" gamers play as the magazine's iconic founder Hugh Hefner, clad in his signature smoking jacket. Among the tasks he is presented: Organize parties, lure celebrity guests, and persuade curvaceous beauties to pose in the buff for magazine covers.
Let digital Hef approach a woman at a party, and you have the option of giving her a formal handshake, a casual greeting or a hug.
The hug leads to other options -- but make a sexual remark too soon and she'll balk at your advance.
"There is absolutely no violence in this game," Boxmeyer said. "Except for a comical knee to the groin."