Ladykiller and the Politics of BDSM

I’ve been waiting for Ladykiller in a Bind for a long time now, nearly half a decade. Christine Love’s style has almost always been based around exploring how technology has impacted how we communicate with each other, including building relationships, but Ladykiller removes that aspect and explores relationships and communications from a more overtly sexual lens. Calling it a “sex game” or something of the like isn’t inaccurate, but I don’t think it’s a proper way to describe what the game really is. Ladykiller does something really unexpected and refreshing in how it chooses to engage with sexuality, and that’s using choice mechanics to demonstrate to the player how BDSM relationships work. The game lets you play both dominate and submissive roles with multiple characters, and how you play the game significantly changes based on this.

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The long and short is that you play as a lesbian main character pretending to be her brother during a game of manipulation aboard a cruise ship. The way to get ahead is to manipulate the rest of your brother’s class into getting their votes and getting the highest tally. How you do so differs with each character. Some characters require someone who can take charge, and others need someone who can support them, and others still blend those lines.

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One of the easier routes in the game is with the Photographer, who negotiates with you to help her out. It’s not initially clear, but you’re ultimately acting submissive during her route to help her get what she needs, ending in one of the more uncomfortable scenes in the game as her sadistic side shows and lacks the kindness someone like Beauty has. Her route is based around doing as she asks or signals, and then trusting her when she asks of a massive favor, with the proper choice being to trust her. But her route also carries risk, because sometimes she wants you to do things that can raise suspicion. The fact she really does think you’re the brother early on is what makes this route so clever.

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Beauty’s route is more focused on the positives of trusting someone than the risks. Doing exactly as she says results in a refreshed suspicion meter the next day, so doing her route and doing entirely as ordered makes the game miles easier. Unlike the Photographer, who gets caught up in her own insecurities and abuses her power (though she thankfully relents), Beauty makes sure to not go too far and take your safety as priority. She stops play at times to remind you of your safe word or double check her bondage technique to make sure she’s not putting you in harm’s way. There’s no risk with her, just comfort in doing as she says. Even when she gets rough late in route, she listens for that safe word and slows down if she worries she’s going to far.

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On the dom side, the Boy’s route is one of the most difficult to deal with. He’s an emotionally insecure mess that lives in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and interacting with him is usually referred to as entering the lion’s den. Not even the brother fully understand the needy mess, making conversation tricky. Amazingly, the key is not to be polite, but to exude confidence and take charge in conversation. But going to far with that mood can result in disaster. Being honest with the twerp is one of the worst possible choices, you have to say things closer to what he wants to hear. What those words are is the hard part.

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Stalker’s route is the healthier example of taking control. Unlike the Boy, she’s more open about how she feels and what she wants, but the key to interacting with her is to avoid abusing your power and focusing on what you want. Stalker is also a very insecure person, but unlike the Boy, she doesn’t try lashing out or manipulating people. When dealing with her, you can help her gain some self-confidence by showing her that she has a lot to be proud of in her appearance. It’s an inverse to the Beauty route, where you’re constantly objectified, but also significantly different because you’re trying to get Stalker to objectify herself. It’s an interesting twist, and explains why Stalker and Beauty didn’t really work together before you appeared in the story. You discover the two are dating during the harem route (and hinted in Stalker’s route), and that Beauty never went further than kissing because she felt she would be too rough with Stalker. She’s not really a person who can help someone build confidence, only get people to put their confidence onto her.

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Arguably the most interesting route in the game is the Swimmer’s. She’s a switch, so her route revolves around acting dominate and submissive. It’s also the route with the least emotional attachment involved. Swimmer’s goal is to get revenge on your brother for dumping her, meaning everything she does in her route is a means to mess with you in some way. It’s a fling in the mix that ends on a very bitter note, no matter if you choose to be the better person or not. She best shows that a submissive partner can still be the one that holds the most power or leverage in a relationship, something that’s commonly ignored in most works that explore BDSM.

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Funny enough, the route I’d describe as one of the game’s strongest is the one that, when played correctly, has no sex or making out at all. The Nerd’s route stands out because the Nerd is coded as ace, and she expresses no interest in sex. What she actually needs is for someone to validate her emotions. She’s the President’s right hand woman, but she gets no respect or thanks for all the work she puts in for him, and everyone else constantly teases and bullies her. Her route ends on the happiest note if you just listen to her and help her out when she needs it. It’s nice break from all the sexually charged routes because it’s a reminder of the importance of emotion in building a relationship, especially when compared to all the comedic scenes where she’s constantly harassed.

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Ladykiller’s strength is that it has a solid understanding of how relationships work, something lacking from most smutty visual novels. Saving the damsel in distress and winning her over that way is a ridiculous fantasy. To get anywhere with anyone, you need to connect on some level. The game uses sex mainly for this very reason, even in routes with characters like the Photographer. How people act with a sexual partner says a lot about who they are, and some things are best communicated without words. This is the game’s major running theme, making it a stand out among its peers for being so sex positive.

Oh, and when doing the harem route, when given the choice at the end, always pick the Boy.

Just trust me on this. DO NOT PICK THE PRESIDENT. Okay, good.

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