A.I

Steam’s bestselling, big budget porn game has got nothing on these queer games

Late last month, Studio FOW released an early access version of Subverse, a multi-million dollar space opera best described as a Mass Effect porn parody with a dash of South Park and Know Your Meme. Players take on the role of a rogue Captain commanding an eclectic group of horny, well-endowed women against a puritanical religious government. Along the way, fans engage in a mixture of ground and space combat missions, read through voice-acted visual novel dialogue, and grind their way toward unlocking 3D sex scenes with their girl of choice.

In theory, Subverse sounds thrilling — adult games are an underserved market, and few titles within that world receive even a fraction of the same budget. But Studio FOW’s initial offering underwhelms. In a review for the Daily Dot, I wrote that the game doesn’t hold true to its own lofty ambitions. Sure, Subverse’s combat segments are fine, and its open-world galactic travel segments do mirror Mass Effect’s spacefaring mechanics. That’s not really why we’re here, though. [Warning: The rest of this article features NSFW descriptions of sex games.]

According to the game’s product page on Steam, Subverse features “diverse sex scenes.” Yet as of the game’s early access launch, Subverse only offers boy-girl looping 3D animations with little interactivity. At most, players can speed up playback or hit a flashing button that says “cum.” “A new era in adult entertainment,” as the game’s Steam page puts it, this is not.

Studio FOW has since tried assuaging fans’ fears, explaining that “experimental features” and “fringe kink content” are on the way. But players looking for an exemplary adult gaming experience don’t need to wait for Subverse to catch up to its own hype. The truth is, there are already plenty of adult games out there pushing the envelope for what gaming can do for explicit content. It’s these pre-existing titles that deserve players’ excitement, praise, and support instead. And most of these games are by queer creators, if not queer-inclusive.

Unlocking marginalized desires

Illusion

First, a bit of history. TechArts3D’s 3D Custom Girl is a 2008 hentai game in which players can customize and dress up their own 3D anime girls, then kiss, grope, strip, and penetrate them to their hearts’ content. This was particularly rare at the time; most adult games offered linear stories as opposed to full player customization. Today, popular 3D hentai games like KISS’ Custom Order Maid 3D2 and Illusion’s Koikatsu Party (2019) follow in its wake.

The open-ended adult sandbox gave room to queer possibilities for LGBTQ players. Queer fans were no longer relegated to whatever (predominantly heteronormative) sex scenes a developer created in a semi-linear visual novel. Bi, pan, and lesbian players could sculpt the girls of their deepest sapphic fantasies and play out their desires. Subverse, in comparison, feels like a step backwards. The space game forces players into a linear storyline with straightforward adult scenes, predominantly revolving around a straight man’s sexual exploits with cis women.

Open-ended adult games give far more room to modders, which opens the door to all sorts of kinky, fetishistic content. With 3D Custom Girl, the game’s mod scene kept the adult title alive for years with everything from succubi to femboys to futanari (a hentai category for women with penises), far outweighing the relatively vanilla bedrooms and classrooms available in the original game. This has only blossomed in recent years. Koikatsu Party modders have added “genderbend” options that let players insert women into the “boy” role, boys into the “girl” role, or create women with penises and men with vaginas. All of these options queer the game’s straight sex simulation mode far beyond Illusion’s original work. Like 3D Custom Girl, queer players wedged their way into Koikatsu’s world and walked away with their own treasures.

Granted, Studio FOW teased mod support for Subverse in the future. But the possibilities engendered by the base experience, and the audience it tries to court, seem limited. Subverse isn’t all that interested in building erotic connections through physical and emotional intimacy. It’s more focused on grinding out experience points so players can unlock sex, fuck, cum, and move on to the next scene. This dictates what players can do with the game’s sexual content while fiddling with mod tools, and save for a laborious total conversion mod, it’s likely modders will be forced to work within the same confines Subverse already lays out.

Open-ended adult games are integral to understanding how queer players interact with porn games today. They showed us that games offer spaces where we can explore desires privately and safely with others who would invite them, if not quiver and shake at the thought of our digital hands caressing their eager bodies. When games let the player dictate how sex takes place, marginalized desires can sing free.

Creating queer porn by us and for us

A young person stands in the streets of Hong King, backlit by the sun

Image source: Oracle and Bone

Many queer games follow directly in 3D Custom Girl and Koikatsu Party’s footsteps. Heat is an upcoming “anthro intimacy” VR game best described as queer furry porn. The game, which is in active development and has pre-release builds available on Patreon, currently offers two dragons and a horse boy that players can interact with, and a wolf girl is on the way.

Beyond the diversity of these options, Heat is worth considering because it treats sex not as a goal with a fixed end, but rather a way to build intimacy and trust. You have the ability to lovingly caress your furry partner’s arms and backs, kiss their lips, stroke and finger them, or even watch them have sex with one another in a future update. Sex toys and body writing are also available too, or you can just simply bop your favorite characters on their snouts and giggle at their reaction. Unlike Subverse, the point here isn’t to reach an orgasm and move on to the next scene, instead allowing the player to savor everything that makes sex worth having in the first place.

Then there are queer adult games that take the classic linear narrative approach and reinvent them completely. Dominatrix Simulator offers a branching narrative experience where players can visit dommes, submit to them, and learn BDSM skills through realistic play scenarios. The game explicitly makes room for queer players’ bodies at the game’s start, letting them choose their gender, genitalia, and pet name. The end result is immersive and affirming for players with trans bodies, which can help facilitate their own subspace experiences (or an altered state of consciousness obtained during Domination/submission play.)

Meanwhile, A Summer’s End: Hong Kong 1986 blends queer romance with historical fiction, painting a striking portrait of young adult lesbian life for women during a time of great sociocultural change in China. For a game based so much on yearning, sapphic sex isn’t just a dessert for the hungry, underserved marginalized player: it’s integral to A Summer’s End’s themes. Subverse’s writing, by contrast, feels juvenile.

And much can be said about Ghosthug Games’ Hardcoded, perhaps the best-known queer indie porn game yet. The story follows HC, a trans droid in a cyberpunk dystopia who runs away from her cruel creators and finds a home amongst a run-down city’s queer and trans residents. Hardcoded masterfully blends cyberpunk satire with a trans sapphic coming-of-age story that’s unashamed of its players’ desires. The end result is a cyberpunk romp that has much to say about having a queer trans feminine body as it eagerly flaunts public sex, tentacle play, and hot trans girls sending you nudes over the internet.

Each of these adult games delights in how queerness and artistic sexual expression intersect. They merge gameplay and narrative together to not just excite the player, but to make them feel understood, recognized, or celebrated, if not indulged. These adult games can be healing, just as any other form of representation can be.

Subverse, on the other hand, isn’t interested in how adult game design can heal marginalized people and bodies. When queerness is mentioned, it’s usually mocked. Homophobic tropes abound throughout the game, whether it’s the “Fuccbots” obsessed with “boipussy” or a male antagonist’s oft-derided fixation on dick. In the rare occasions when sapphic interest pops up, Subverse only briefly considers the opportunity. Demi, the Captain’s robot AI, briefly lusts after another woman’s “apex fuckability,” then drops the subject altogether.

Because queer sexuality comes with no default cultural scripts, queer games don’t either. Queer game developers are forced to syncretize desire with different approaches to game design and play, whether that’s modding a pre-existing game or building a brand new one. Subverse, in comparison, offers a set of pre-defined animations in a pre-defined plot rendered in real-time for the pre-assumed cis and straight player. Although lesbian scenes are on the way, the game in its current state ultimately makes its intentions clear. You can eat anything you like from the menu, as long as it’s predominantly cis and straight.

Subverse, for its multi-million dollar Kickstarter and impressive 3D graphics, could learn a thing or two from Hardcoded or Dominatrix Simulator. And yet, I wonder what queer adult games could look like with Studio FOW’s budget. Imagine playing through Hardcoded but with all the immersion and atmosphere Cyberpunk 2077 promised. What sort of awe and amazement would that bring to a young trans lesbian who just wants to know that their body is perfectly normal and desirable? And why are those desires so stigmatized socially, culturally, and financially, while games like Subverse are treated as the default pornographic experience?

With the right funding and care, video games could revolutionize the way people think about sex and intimacy. Until then, adult queer games make do with the tools they’ve got. And given the circumstances, they’re doing a damn good job.

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