The industry’s complications with sex aren’t some hidden secret. Whether viewed through the lens of Mass Effect or Uncharted, sexual encounters are often portrayed as a libido-infused act, even among the romantic undertones. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying sex like one would enjoy a hobby, this one-sided interpretation is what One Night Stand hopes to subvert. Across its twelve endings, this indie visual novel presents the sexual experience more humanely.
The Gamification of Romance
One Night Stand is far from the perfect human experience, but it avoids the biggest pitfall of AAA gaming—that being the gamification of romance. Games are expensive to create, produce, and market. Logistics are one reason the industry has seen such homogenization over the past decade. Whether it’s standardized control schemes across similar genres or shared ideas such as crafting systems, AAA studios are targeting the broadest audiences based on data they think represents the people within that audience. While this has stifled creativity in some areas, it makes sense to homogenize the gameplay experience as much as possible if a safe return on an investment is what companies are after.
However, this homogenization trivializes what sex can mean to different people. While gameplay systems continue to converge to a point that AAA game from Studio A is sometimes indistinguishable from Studio B’s AAA game, the industry has largely made a concerted effort to enhance the narrative experience. Even among the crop of the uninspired, attempts are made—however imperfect—to tell complicated stories broaching a wide range of subject matter. With such a push toward legitimizing its narrative strengths, the lack of progression within recreating intimacy in the AAA space is a failing of what gaming is capable of.
It can be anything and yet, despite the freedom afforded by the medium’s interactivity, sex is almost universally implemented identically as a lustful pursuit. Even in games that frame sex as an expression of a couple’s love, the relationship’s gamification reduces sex to a trophy—one which, after the player reaches this status, the relationship can go on ignored. Sex is the point at which games typically solidify a relationship, rarely introducing consequences for failing to keep up with one’s own partner. Treating sex as the end-point of a linear cycle rather than some indiscriminate point on a non-linear timeline is the issue. By holding rewards behind this end-point, sex becomes just another system to game. This gamification betrays the complexities associated with intimacy and its implications within relationships.
Games have seen fit to express mental illness through various avenues, whether it’s Hellblade or Sea of Solitude. This subject matter is taken into account within the medium’s viability as a window into someone’s inner workings, portraying similar issues through vastly different gameplay systems and visual language. Yet, with all these strides toward representing subjects such as mental illness, the industry seems content with its narrow interpretation of sex.
A One Night Stand
One Night Stand is the antithesis to the AAA product, whereby you’re either in a relationship or you’re not. Real human relations aren’t defined by such a binary state, something which is understood by developer Kinmoku.
The protagonist awakens beside a half-naked woman, clothes strewn about the floor, stricken by a hangover. The phone buzzes incessantly, signaling a text from the player’s friend, asking what happened last night. Still disoriented, with the battery sitting at five percent, the protagonist begins attempting to piece together last night’s events from the various objects strewn about the woman’s floor while also making occasional conversation.
They’ve already had sex. Rather than sitting at the goal-post, sex acts as one piece of a complicated whole. While there are up to twelve endings, none offer the stereotypical situation with the guy and the girl falling in love under unlikely circumstances. This gets at the heart of One Night Stand‘s triumphs. While its writing can be unnatural, with sometimes illogical reactions to player actions/responses, sex isn’t used as a convenient symbol of romance, nor is it brushed off as a casual affair without ramifications for either party.
Depending on players’ actions, the relationship between them and the woman, Robin, takes so many different shapes, reflecting various factors. Despite her loneliness, she isn’t immediately committing herself because she had sex with someone willing to listen to her in her moment of need. She doesn’t distance herself either, unless the player does something to make her uncomfortable like snooping through her wallet or putting on a pair of her underwear. Depending on where conversation goes, she expresses happiness, comfort, concern, and discontent, but she’s never cold-hearted unless given a reason to be. The one night stand plays a role in how she feels, but it’s only one small piece of navigating the very real social cues and common understanding that comes with human interaction.
You’re not finding a way to get in her pants to attain some benefit—rather, you’re both fumbling through awkward conversations, and a deeper, more genuine connection starts to form. Navigating the intimacy’s aftermath to arrive at a positive ending is a more earnest way to implement romance and sexual energy in games.
One Night Stand Understanding Entitlement
No matter what the player does, no ending results in a romantic relationship or even another sexual experience. You could be the most genuine human being possible, inquiring into her feelings, including entertaining conversation about her brother and music—two subjects Robin feels strongly about. You could check up on her when she randomly darts out of the room after feeling nauseous and even have the same preference of coffee while sharing opinions about a movie and book decorating her room.
These actions would lead to sex or a relationship in most other titles. Games simplify complex and often unexplainable emotions as “we share common interests and/or I feigned concern for you, so we do the sex and are in love now.” We’re more layered than that. No one is entitled to sex or a relationship simply because a person they find physically attractive shares your views, hobbies, and is willing to carry a conversation.
The two best endings, “True Friends” and “Her Song,” encapsulate this understanding of entitlement. When players are prompted to leave by Robin, they’re given the option to make a move, asking to stay friends, or leaving without making a show of it. Robin always rejects the advances; however, her response to being friends is the most telling of the game’s attitude toward sex, relationships, and entitlement.
“Listen, I know things have been a little awkward between us this morning. And this isn’t exactly how friendships usually start… but I had a nice time with you last night. You were there for me when I was feeling down… and you’ve been a real gentleman this whole time, even with your bad hangover. So yeah, let’s stay in touch.”Robin – One Night Stand
You did everything fiction expects partners to do for each other when, at the end of the day, the actions and responses that result in the good endings are just common decency—actions which should be done out of genuine concern for the other party rather than an expectation of some ulterior reward.
In “Her Song,” Robin plays a short tune she’s been practicing on the guitar gifted by her brother before you head home. You both agree to keep in touch with no preconceived notions of where the relationship will go. Players that paid attention will understand how vulnerable of a moment it was for Robin to play that song half-naked in her place for a stranger. That guitar symbolizes her inseparable relationship from her brother. She’s opening up without saying a word; it’s a powerful moment. Despite this show of trust, you’re still not entitled to anything beyond friendship or possibly even just acquaintanceship.
Robin shows other, less heartwarming signs of vulnerability during an earlier conversation. She urges the protagonist to stay a while longer so that they could get to know each other. No longer fearing the typical outcome of her one night stand walking out unannounced, she attempts to keep you around. At another point prior to this, Robin asks if you’ve had a one night stand. Answering “yes” fills her with embarrassment and discomfort meanwhile answering “no” reassures her. There’s a sense that, beyond regretting having sex, she’s in need of someone. However, that person doesn’t need to be a partner.
She’s still making sense of the night before. Having never had a one night stand before, she’s simultaneously processing the implications of that night and what it could mean for them moving forward. Sharing a part of herself under uncertain circumstances, Robin places her trust in the protagonist, but it’s the form this trust takes that’s the most powerful. She’s strong enough to understand that while she feels something because of the night before, she recognizes that something doesn’t have to materialize into one of those trashy or convenient romance novels sitting on her nightstand.
We’ve been conditioned to expect certain outcomes due to the way video games implement romantic and sexual pursuits. One Night Stand flips that on its head with its abstraction of the visual novel style of “doing this thing leads to this other thing,” one which makes it difficult to get the perfect read on Robin. You can’t predict the exact response to match her personality in an effort to get the reward you want. Your interactions with her aren’t a system to be gamed. They’re the means through which you attempt to make sense of each other’s feelings together. There is no ulterior motive.
One Night Stand isn’t the most ingenious visual novel or introspection of the human psyche, but it is much more daring than the average AAA title in its depiction of sex and romance. The relationship between Robin and the player centers around the awkward aftermath of a one night stand—one filled with nausea, discomfort, and uncertainty. Sex is treated as an important facet of the human experience, but it isn’t placed on an impossibly high or romanticized pedestal. Sex isn’t always glamorous, and neither is the trajectory of Robin and the player’s relationship. Rather than looking forward several steps to get what you want, you’re simply living in the moment, content with what’s in front of you—something which the traditional gamification of romance and sex can’t hope to accomplish.