Werner Herzog, the Power Fantasy

A current struggle in the gaming community is a call for more common and better-realized depictions of minority characters, from women to people of color to the LGBT. We still wrestle with questions on what would be different about games if minorities populated more casts and, eventually, what a game with only minorities would look like. Absolute Obedience attempts at this, giving the player two gay men as a main characters, both secret agents who do strange espionage-esque work in what seems to be post-World War II Germany. They are each given a unique set of assignments to complete (that the player is graded on) that typically include seducing the target, all who are men. It’s a meld between typical dating sims and visual novels, where you have a roster of romantic interests to pursue, but there are few choices and the main appeal lies in the narration. If you choose agent Louise Hardwich, you can pick up a mission that has you seducing the heir to a mafia family, Werner Herzog, renown as arrogant, hyper-masculine playboy. Louise’s client is a famous female prostitute Werner frequents, who frames this mission as a prank to undo the hyperbolic manly image Werner shows off.

It’s easy to write this off as a stereotype; gay men are over-sexed deviants who pine for straight guys to give them at once chance to switch teams. However, we need to look at the intended audience Absolute Obedience. While this game is categorized as a Boy Love (BL) or yaoi game, these are ultimately under the otome genre, which are games aimed specifically at heterosexual women. Looking to the history of fanfiction, which is arguably the progenitor of visual novels, yaoi and slash were centered around a community of straight women, not gay men. Louise’s pursuit to “turn” Werner is a sublimation of straight women’s desire for men that cannot happen between heterosexual couples. We can see themes of power, equity, ambiguity, and identity, all issues related to gender politics women have gone through, and which some argue straight men haven’t yet. Absolute Obedience misses the mark on depicting admirable gay male protagonists by serving an audience rarely pandered to in games. The player can see this in Werner’s gendered behavior in the game; while he is extremely affectionate and giving to all the prostitutes he sleeps with (while also advocating against human trafficking), he only sees men as intelligent and capable business partners and worth respecting. Even though he’s straight when Louise meets him, the woman player needs to take the role of a man to explore his character.

Louise approaches his objective to bed Werner by playing his ego against him, a familiar trope from advice columns for women that adopts a calculating mentality to tear a man down from his self-ordained pedestal. The choices you need to get an ‘A’ rating tell you clearly that you must never submit to Werner, never allow him to understand what’s on Louise’s mind and never give him the chance to be dominant. Werner eventually slips, referring to Louise as beautiful and talking to him as if to a woman, while mentally respecting the personality attributes he associates with men. When Louise eventually gets Werner to a bedroom, the scene takes on ambiguous rape qualities that are commonly found in pornography, where one participant starts out unwilling and eventually begins to enjoy what’s going on. Unaware that he would be bottoming (being penetrated) for Louise, Werner begins to struggle (oh, did I forget to mention that Louise carries around a whip with him at all times?) against what he perceived as humiliation, as his masculine persona avoided being treated like a woman at all costs. Even though this is a sexually explicit scene, it’s the action of feminizing a heterosexual man that’s erotic. As women’s gender is allowed more flexibility in expression of masculine traits, society still doesn’t allow men that same ambiguity and other men are typically the ones to bully each other into acting “like a man.” This scene is a forbidden fruit of sorts, revealing the aspect straight men try their hardest to avoid expressing and setting it up as sexually satisfying for straight women.

Making the correct choices, Louise’s cold and manipulative exterior eventually gives way to Werner, and starts to fall in love. There are many times Werner will try to flip the roles back to what they are “supposed” to be, but this results in a low score for the mission. It’s not until he accepts his new, ambiguous identity and performs with skill bottoming during sex that Louise realizes he’s grown affectionate for him. The true ending depicts a scene where Werner leaves behind a group of women escorting him to an upper-class party to join Louise instead, the first instance Werner shows affection for another man in public. This follows the erotic arc of queering a heterosexual man’s sexual identity, by an open announcement of his taboo lover. Werner serves as an example as a latent sexual tension surrounding straight men in relation to their sexuality to other identities, as well as revealing the politics of depicting male homosexuality for a audience of women.

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