At the ends of innumerable popular movies and TV shows, after defeating his adversaries, the male hero is awarded a woman; in videogames, the award is extended vicariously to the player, who is assumed also to be a straight man. Whether we see it explicitly or not, the male protagonist’s sleeping with the female semi-protagonist is the final and most profound affirmation of his and the player’s status. Mario defeats Bowser and is awarded Princess Peach’s affections. Having found the treasure and saved the world, Nathan Drake, at the end of the first Uncharted, will return to civilisation and take Elena to bed, thus establishing himself heroic, wealthy, and sexually potent, the epitome of masculine aspiration. By surviving torture and in the process proving he’s tough enough to protect a woman, Solid Snake is allowed to leave Metal Gear Solid with Meryl on the back of his snowmobile. Together, Snake and Meryl form the rough equivalent of the archetypal cowboy, Gary Cooper, riding into the sunset with his new bride Grace Kelly—in fitting tribute to penile-seminal insecurity, after restarting the game the player receives a bonus item that endows his guns with infinite bullets.
In all these cases, sexual consummation is a kind of prize and women are veritable trophies. The male characters and their presumed male controllers are made to look and feel more virile.
By having them sleep together at the beginning rather than at the end of the game, Wolfenstein: The New Order provides its two leads, BJ and Anya, some nuance and humanity. On an overnight train to Nazi-occupied Berlin, she suggestively reminds BJ there’s only one bed before asking if he’d be comfortable sharing. He accepts, wordlessly, but during their love-making explains his feelings to us, through internal narration: “Sometimes Christmas. Sometimes birthdays. Sometimes mayhem, suffering, and death. Sometimes you just need to feel something good.”
Where women usually become sexually available only at the end of a game’s story, and are thereby correlated with the material objects (bonus items, new modes, experience points, etc.) also used to demarcate player success, Anya wants BJ long before he has dismantled the evil empire, or saved the world. She is not a prize, handed to BJ—or his controller—once he’s proven himself sufficiently, stereotypically manly; she isn’t used by the game to acquaint the male hero’s power. Likewise, Anya’s desire for BJ isn’t rooted exclusively in a love for violent, manful behaviour. Where so many of her contemporaries are written to only find men arousing if they’re bloody and redoubtable—and by that measure are really just components to an anachronistic male image, maintained generally by insecure men—Anya is drawn to BJ before and therefore beyond him attaining discernible power.
She sleeps with him on the train after he’s just been intimidated by a Nazi officer called Frau Engel. Rather than some kind of sheer potency, Anya is attracted by BJ’s vulnerability. She possesses a human quality, of seeing in other people unspoken concerns and characteristics. And that gives Anya depth. If women in videogames are typically passive, it’s because they’re penned to only desire the man once he’s done something very ostentatious, something literally world-changing. They’re dimly unable to decide on the hero until every fibre of his character screams for attention. BJ tries to hide his being shaken—he keeps his thoughts in his head, and doesn’t even mention the confrontation with Frau Engel—but Anya apparently detects it anyway. She sleeps with him based on her own desire: she doesn’t need to be told this man is attractive, or that he has admirable qualities, she discerns it for herself.
In a spin on videogame man-videogame woman relations, Anya sees through BJ’s archetypal male stoicism, rather than being impressed by it. He tries to stay silent. He speaks to her only in a restrained, polite whisper. But when Anya has sex with BJ on the train, it’s not just because she needs to feel something good; she sees, because he’s human, that he needs it, too.
Aside from more guns, health packs, combat abilities, and other simple things, men in games usually aren’t portrayed as needing anything. Any connection they have with a woman, by extension, is purely superficial: since these characters have no human need, they also have no human emotional framework, and so can’t be relied on to appreciate any other human. Sex and coupling are subsequently used to confirm the man’s indestructibility. He doesn’t need them. He doesn’t care about them. They’re just more things to which he is—we’re supposed to feel—impressively immune. By contrast, when BJ sleeps with Anya in The New Order, it is an admission of his need—a human condition not to be confused with weakness. He needs to feel something good. He needs, after his fourteen years confined to catatonia (which he recalls for the player by repeating the line “sometimes Christmas, sometimes birthdays”) the touch of another person. Sex and seduction are almost always used in videogames to ascertain something facile about the male hero, something which is only aspirational to players with correspondingly facile perception. In The New Order, they’re used to make Anya seem observant, humane, and sexual according to her own taste and volition, and BJ emotionally complex, and more attractive for it.
You could almost ignore The New Order‘s nuances of dialogue and performance. Simply by the two characters certifying their relationship before the narrative climax, these effects are achieved. The woman appears interested in the man not just because he’s powerful, and by that virtue she has a bigger part to play than just helping to consolidate an antiquated, masculine image. The man seems to need the woman for reasons beyond affirming his own status, and becomes in the process a more complicated and ingratiating character. We might name this criteria the “Train Car Test”: the two leads must have sex before the final narrative third. And if Wolfenstein: The New Order, a game largely preoccupied with dismembering occultist Nazis using a laser gun, can pass then others surely could as well.
Ed Smith contributes to Vice, The Observer, Edge, Play Magazine, and Kill Screen. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.