Art, Porn, and Who It’s Made For:
Guest Writer Elizabeth C. demonstrates how the videogame Ladykiller in a Bind criticizes a pornography industry that fails at consent culture.
~CONTENT WARNING: This article includes topics of porn, misogyny and descriptions of sexual intercourse.~
I was taught my morals in America, and I came away with a few main points. Don’t kill anyone. Don’t steal stuff. Don’t lie. Look both ways when you cross the road. And, finally and most importantly, sex is bad and you should feel bad for thinking about it. America is traditionally highly Puritanical, and as a result there are strong taboos that exist around the subjects of sex and sexuality. Abstinence-only sex education is an excellent of example of this. “Just… don’t.” That’s really the beginning and end of it. At one point in high school my friend’s class was asked to write and perform skits about what one could do instead of having sex, such as genealogy and baking. It was pretty dire.
And yet America pornography is a powerhouse. Anecdotally the porn industry crowned both VHS and DVD as the formats of choice for the home, and when HD DVD and Blu-Ray were competing it was porn’s favoring of Blu-Ray which finally tipped the scales. In the US alone, the industry made $10 billion dollars a year before free porn sites gutted its bottom line and halved its revenue around 2010. Since then pornographic internet content is responsible for around 25% of all web searches, and 35% of all downloads. 40 million adults in the US admit to regularly viewing porn. Think of the millions who don’t! And, in a twist of delicious irony, the most popular day for looking at smut is… Sunday. Mm. Naughty.
However despite the prevalence of women and “lesbians” in the genre, porn just isn’t meant for them. Overwhelmingly, porn is made and marketed for straight men. While the taboos that surround the industry certainly keep it in the shadows (not very deep ones, but still) the taboos that surround female and queer sexuality are stronger still. Women are barely allowed to be sexual for fear of being labeled a slut. Queer people still haven’t had a same-sex kiss aired on the Disney channel! It’s a tough market to get into, especially when common wisdom (read: people restating prevalent morals as fact) states that there isn’t a market for pornographic or erotic content for women and queer folks.
Enter Christine Love and her latest game, Ladykiller in a Bind. Ladykiller openly challenges the status quo of sexual media by simply being created by a woman, but goes further by having an openly queer bent and by including many aspects of kink and BDSM. The game has a sufficiently absurd premise: you play as a young woman, the Beast, whose twin brother has convinced her to dress up as him and go on a cruise with his classmates. Fundamentally, the Beast must make it through the week without getting found out as an impostor, while at the same time getting enough votes from the the other class members to win The Game. From there the player is let loose into a visual-novel style experience to finish the game and The Game however they wish. Inevitably that means having sex with someone.
But it’s how the Beast goes about having sex that is all important. In most porn, the pizza guy/plumber/UPS guy/literally some random dude happens upon a busty, lusty lady, puts his penis in her vagina, anus, and mouth, cums and that’s a wrap. In Ladykiller the first real choice you make is whether you want to see the sex scenes. Let me repeat that. The first choice you make, in an erotic visual novel about being a horny lesbian on a cruise ship, is whether you want to see sexually explicit content. And you keep the right to opt out at any time. Besides turning those scenes off entirely in the options menu after the option is presented to you, there is always a “skip scene” button available. One of the last choices you make is between three paths. Two have content warnings, and the third is simply “NO.” Here no means no, and if you say “NO” then the game takes you right to the end. At its core, Ladykiller in a Bind is about consent, and that is huge.
Too often in our media consent is implicit rather than explicit. If you truly pay attention to this trend, it often makes “normal” scenes unsettling. “But,” some might argue “it would ruin the mood of the moment to have characters negotiate the boundaries of their sex.” Which is fair, but it’s also fair to note that explicit consent is conspicuously and utterly absent. I cannot think of a single scene in a movie, play, or book in which characters discuss what’s happening and how they would like it to proceed or not. In this way Ladykiller is a glaring exception.
The phrase “consent is sexy” might be thrown around on occasion in certain circles, and Ladykiller does its best to make that true. Beyond the frankly incredible step of allowing the player to give active consent, as opposed to assuming it based on their booting up the game, every sexual interaction the player character has with someone involves consent. Despite the perpetual arousal of the Beast and her “ladykiller” reputation, every encounter is talked through by the involved parties from start to finish. And no always means no. During a scene with a shyer character, the Beast starts to make her move and in doing so asks whether she can touch the other character’s breasts. They seem taken aback, but say yes. The Beast reminds them that they can say no and stop everything at any time. Flashing forward, though there is no flashing in this scene, the Beast asks if she can touch their crotch. They say no, and that’s that. It’s a beautiful example of what I suppose must be called ludonarrative consistency. The mechanical choices the player is given are reflected perfectly in the narrative. Even when the Beast is rendered speechless (remember the in a Bind part of the title?) the person she is in the scene with makes sure that she has ways of communicating discomfort.
In general, Ladykiller is also far more erotic than pornographic, a distinction which supported by a number of quietly brilliant design decisions. Generally, a scene is visually separated into four parts. Broadly, there is a background which covers the entire screen. On top of that, on the left, is a small image which sets the more specific details of the scene, and on the right is shown the characters in the scene, usually showing only the person speaking. Finally, over all of that, the lower third of the screen is a translucent rectangle which contains all of the dialogue. As a result of this arrangement, explicit sexual content like breasts and vulvas are more often than not at least somewhat obscured by the dialogue box, if not the dialogue itself.
In fact, in the one scene I encountered which had an unobscured view of a character’s unclothed bottom half, the angle in the illustration was such that her vulva was completely obscured. There are references to penises as well as semen, however neither is depicted in any capacity.
The treatment of genitalia by the game’s creator is perhaps one of the most telling ways that Ladykiller differentiates itself from the mass produced pornography that likely springs to mind for most people when they hear “erotic visual novel.” There are no gasping, oily, dead-eyed men and women slapping themselves against each other like raw fillet mignon tied to a landed sea bass. It doesn’t cater to imaginationless men on the internet. There are no up close images of lubricant slathered vaginas. No “lesbians” kissing at some unnatural angle to allow the viewer a chance to see their tongues play tonsil hockey. No phalluses pumping in and out of orifices like a plumber joylessly unclogging a toilet. Instead it allows space for the player to draw from their own experiences and knowledge to fill in the gaps. In a manner similar to H.P. Lovecraft’s finest works, Ladykiller in a Bind forces one’s mind to work to fill in the negative space, making the experience all the more visceral.
This is certainly one of the most groundbreaking aspects of the game. It’s a piece of visual media in which the gaze isn’t even the point. The point is the thoughts and feelings created within the player by the writing, limited illustrations, music, and the relationships the player has developed with the other characters. Many of the most titillating events aren’t even illustrated. Love consistently positions herself as a writer, not a designer, and that shows in Ladykiller. I have heard many times over the years about “porn for women” which emphasizes relationships and feelings over simple acts, and if that was ever anyone’s goal Love has certainly made a stab at it here.
As a trans woman, the experience of playing Ladykiller was deeply affecting. Immersion is something I value very highly, and being immersed in a well crafted, passionate, and emotionally fulfilling story with a queer, gender bending woman as the protagonist hit some nerves that I wasn’t prepared for. Without being too explicit, it gave me the approximate experience of scenarios that I am physically incapable of having. As a result, I always found it difficult to close down the game once it was going and just as hard to start it again. Eventually I even found myself unable to continue writing this piece due to the distress I found myself in. After some time and distance I was able to come back and finish writing, but the feelings Ladykiller left me with have endured to the point that I haven’t booted it up since.
Obviously I have a very high opinion of the game, and it’s worth noting that it’s one of the first games I’ve played that has me rhapsodising about design decisions and narrative implications over simple story and moments of play. The subject matter is wholly unique in my experience as well, pushing back strongly, in its own niche way, against expectations and beliefs about what’s erotic, and who is allowed to express sexuality and how. It takes every trope of pornography and turns them on their heads. It touches on sexual orientation and gender, consent and kink, a whole spectrum of female sexuality and it does all of that in a respectful, thoughtful way that pervades its design and narrative. It is truly the antithesis of modern pornography, and that’s worth discussing and celebrating.
–Liz lives in VT with her two rats and talks incessantly about video games and psychology. Sometimes she writes things.