Why are sex and nudity a bridge too far in video games? Observations on the reception and evolution of House Party

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House Party. // Courtesy Eek! Games

Today, we’ve got an opinion piece on the complications of tackling adult themes in video games. Why? Because we’re fascinated by what it takes to push the art of games forward. We don’t want to shy away from the complicated perspectives around art, whether it go high-brow or low-brow. And today’s author who is a creator attempting to measure his own work (and its mainstream criticism) to find a newfound perspective. The game in question is called House Party. And its creator is named Bobby Ricci.

The game and its creator have drawn widespread criticism, but there are valid points of discussion that arise from examining the source of these complaints. Within the grand history of games, how does one explore sexuality without alienating an audience? Ricci has some opinions on what his project did right, and where he might do better next time. And that mixed reception seems appropriate for a game hailed as the worst game of 2017 (via Rock Paper Shotgun) yet receiving “best of” awards elsewhere, and selling exceptionally well for a small indie title.

Is a dating sim game that sets out to be comedic/satirical inherently free of the criticisms that would normally befall an adventure with sexist elements? Is the divide between audience and critic too vast, or is all of this just different shades of grey? Is it stupid that violence has been embraced by games for decades, while anything dipping its toe into sexuality is in danger of being lambasted? 

Perhaps most importantly, this is a chance to examine the journey of the game—not just its development and constant change, but the battles it encountered along the way in terms of access. Even if you were to find the title’s content to be not your cup of tea, the struggles of genre creators everywhere can be found echoed in House Party’s navigation of the inconsistent minefield that is content curation. Who makes these judgments and why are they always in flux? Should all art be accessible to those who are interested, or do some titles simply have no place in our culture? Can adults treat other adults as adults?

Here are some observations on the development, reception, release, and continuing evolution of one of gaming’s most interesting lightning rods—as written by the man who keeps pushing for it.


The world can be a weird place.

The video game world can be even weirder.

For an indie game developer just trying to make his mark, that world can be brutal, especially if your game happens to contain murder, violence, torture, decapitation, dismemberment, war, or genocide. 

Just kidding! All of those things are perfectly fine and encouraged video game content inclusion, unlike the focus of this piece; nudity and sex.

Immediately, that probably made some of you reading this uncomfortable. In fact, you would probably feel more comfortable if I said I was here to talk about violence and murder. I’m here to ask why that is. I’m not being disingenuous when I say I really don’t get it.

My name is Bobby Ricci. I am the owner and founder of Eek! Games, and I conceptualized and wrote the game House Party, which has gone on to sell over 700,000 copies and has positive review scores among players. [As of publication, it has an average score of 9/10 stars and just under 7,000 votes.]

House Party is a point-and-click adventure game where your choices shape the party around you in real-time. The player can play the game as a sandbox. They can run around and do whatever they want. They can dive into the individual party guests’ stories and get deeply involved in them. The point of the game is to uncover the lunacy, zany stories, and opportunities waiting to present themselves based on the player’s choices and watch the madness unfold with each choice.

When I wrote House Party, I didn’t even think it would be that big of a deal. I didn’t expect it to get the attention it did, at least not with the sexual content held up to a magnifying glass. In fact, I should make it clear that House Party was not intended to be a “pornographic” game. I was generously awarded that label by people who I think felt uncomfortable with the topics the game contained.

Somebody expecting pornography would be grossly disappointed by this animated adventure; in my opinion. You know how they say you’ll recognize poronography when you see it? I do not think anyone could see it here. That’s because House Party isn’t a sex simulator. Sexual scenes account for less than 5% of the game’s content. Sex is a mechanic in House Party, much like driving a car or shooting a gun is a mechanic in Grand Theft Auto. It’s just something that the player can do, but the “reward” is the comedy that ensues on the player’s path. 

When it came time to implement the sex scenes, the thought did cross my mind to censor it, but then I thought, “Why?” It was 2015 when I began work on this title, and the most popular television show Game of Thrones had regular male and female full-frontal nudity alongside a plethora of other modern cultural taboos. People’s perceptions of nudity and sex in media have changed. They’re no longer acting like children when they come across it. Naked bodies grinding against each other (which is about all the House Party sex scenes animatedly show) seem to be normal in mainstream entertainment. So why self-censor? Wouldn’t people be, you know, into this?

If I had instead made killing everybody at the party in weird and gruesome ways the core mechanic of House Party, I doubt it would have even raised a single eyebrow. It wouldn’t even come close to measuring up to the violence and gore in games like Friday the 13th, Doom, or Mortal Kombat. Video games are fiction and are intended to be fantasy. They are not meant to be taken in the context of reality. Are people able to disconnect reality from violent entertainment? I would think that we’ve all agreed on that by this point. Unless you personally feel like you’re incapable of doing so. In which case perhaps you should stop? I don’t personally know any adults that believe they’re incapable of separating the two.

Why can’t people disconnect in the same way when they approach a game about sex? And why aren’t more developers writing games about sex? Part of the reason I chose to make House Party was because sex and physical relationships are such a staple of film and television, but grossly underrepresented in video games. 

It wouldn’t be so prevalent in other media if there wasn’t a demand for it. Why would we, as an industry, pretend that there isn’t?

When House Party first released to Early Access, a journalist reviewed the game on Rock Paper Shotgun. One of his criticisms included that the game might be misogynistic. I found that reductive since the game is choice-based. You can make crappy choices in House Party, which result (for the most part) in crappy outcomes, but you can also make better choices that can provide rewards. You can’t make a meaningful choice-based game without putting in reactions and outcomes to bad choices. In effect, I suppose I’m saying that the game is only misogynistic when you’re playing as a misogynist. Does it give you the option to do so? Yes.

One thing the reviewer got right was that it was a bad game when he reviewed it. There is no denying that.

I was a solo developer moonlighting on the game for two years at that point. There was only so much I could do in that short amount of time, but it was a fun and quirky idea that I did hope would at least emotionally resonate with people. Now I have a team of eight and work with several other companies and contractors on further development. The game is looking, playing, and generally feeling much better. It’s a pleasant evolution to watch.

Could you read elements of misogyny in some of House Party’s content? I think insofar as much as you can read toxic behavior in a lot of mainstream stories about dating. It would be unreasonable to pretend that we live in a world where that doesn’t exist. In Grand Theft Auto, the player can choose to go on a murderous rampage because they feel like it, but that’s accepted in terms of giving a player choice. However, allowing the player to take his pants off would be a bridge too far. The NPCs in House Party don’t respond well to these types of actions in the game, obviously. It is again an attempt at crafting honest reactions to a series of choices. Yes, if you drop your pants out of nowhere, people are going to hate it. The option to make that choice is not inherently good or bad, but you absolutely understand how the cause and effect will play out. 

During the development of the game we tried not to reward bad or misogynistic behavior and we only portray consensual acts of sex in the game. We also presented LGBTQ+ options in the game. And that was simply the baseline from where we launched. Our next phase of evolution in the game is finally realizing a female main character play-through, which has been one of our goals since the initial pitch. Again, one of those things we wanted to explore but that a lone programmer couldn’t knock out while attempting to make this simply functional. 

I cannot say I’ve been completely unassailable for the choices that I’ve made in the development of House Party. As the game evolved, as well as my understanding and awareness of consent culture, it was clear that I needed to make sweeping changes to the narrative. Not that any of this was ever born from a place of ill-intent, or even dubious grey areas, but rather I came to understand that players were left in positions where they might take the wrong message away from a situation. Reworking the interactions and the story to clarify and improve—that’s been the thrust. I also began striking elements that I realized could make people feel uncomfortable in a way that undercut the intended levity of the game. Trying to do comedy is hard, and trying to do comedy around such complicated subjects as sex and dating—for a wide and diverse audience—feels impossible to get right. But we’re still trying.

This was a great lesson for me as a developer of adult games. The rules for this genre aren’t written in stone and it was through taking missteps that I could grow and my game could evolve. That evolution still hasn’t reached its final stage. More than anything, I’m thankful for the opportunity given which allowed us to find and develop our path. 

Shortly after its initial release, the game was actually removed from the game store Steam. I got an email saying that there had been complaints and my game was awarded the honor of being considered “pornographic.” Through trial and error, we re-released a ridiculously over-censored version, that at least allowed the game to continue to be sold. Working alongside the community and taking the more constructive criticisms to heart, we got the chance to keep developing this into something that seems to have engaged more people and at least satiated some of the critics who thought it went too far.

The censoring of our game actually lead to Steam setting a new policy which allow games with sexual content and nudity to be sold, so long as they are age gated. That’s perfect. That’s all I could want here. House Party is intended for mature audiences, and I don’t mind the disclaimer. All I wanted was to be treated fairly and similarly to other games. And this feels like an important step forward for the entire genre/medium.

Why does our game and team have to fight this uphill battle? I think it comes from a place where any and all sexual content can wind-up being a Pandora’s box. I am sympathetic to anyone who finds such art handled poorly or even offensively because of course that should happen. Just as the characters in game have their own sets of choices, so do those who engage with our content. But at the end of the day, the ability for anyone to choose to interact with our content should be allowed. There are, as aforementioned, plenty of violent games that I may choose to play—or have no interest in whatsoever. Some of what they do might offend me, and then I know it isn’t for me. But we do our entire industry a disservice when the access to those titles is opened almost everywhere, but banning and deplatforming coming faster and easier towards creators that want to explore human intimacy. Certainly, sex and dating is a more universal experience than, say, firing a rocket launcher? Why hide from the complications of, you know, reality and society?

While I can’t offer any solid conclusions as to why sex is still considered forbidden territory in video games, or where it will go in the years to come, I do hope that House Party’s success can speak for itself. The audience and interest are there. Maybe we should try to treat each other more like adults while working in this adult space.

Categories: Games