The game, which launched in early access on March 26, raised approximately $2.3 million over Kickstarter in spring 2019. Games journalists compared Subverse to an adult take on Bioware’s space opera role-playing game Mass Effect. Based on my time with the game, it’s mostly an apt comparison.
Subverse casts players as the Captain of the Mary Celeste, piloting an enormous starship freighter souped up with a stealth drive and faster-than-light travel capabilities. Players lead a growing rebellion of lewd crewmates against the Imperium, a galactic empire obsessed with its deeply conservative state religion, the Veil. The Veil, in short, emphasizes unity through sexual purity, which it turns out is a great way to assert dominance over others.
The Imperium isn’t exactly popular, but it’s powerful, so the Captain must recruit an eclectic mix of well-endowed female companions to help with the ordeal.
That’s where the porn comes in. After successfully completing a “recruitment” quest, players unlock a special sex scene with their new spacefaring companion. Afterward, players can purchase additional lewd animations through earning PP, or “Pooter Points.” Want more sex scenes? Take your crewmate on combat and ground missions to level up their “Devotion” for more PP.
A mixed voyage into the unknown
Subverse’s early access release is split into episodic chunks. The first part, which released on Friday, includes all of Act I and the start of Act II. This involves an open-world nebula-wide romp fighting back against a molerat-like pirate lord—and a very intimate introduction to the game’s first three female companions.
The initial six episodes clock in around five to six hours (excluding any solo time with the game’s unlockable adult segments). That time is split between 360-degree bullet hell space combat, turn-based tactical battles, pre-rendered cinematics, and voice-acted 3D visual novel cutscenes. Complete a mission, unlock sex scenes, rinse and repeat. Subverse’s combat levels are challenging but fair and show decent polish for an indie studio’s first game.
Then there’s Subverse’s overarching sci-fi political drama. The Imperium is not just a big bad government but a Roman-esque empire hellbent on order and stability through any means necessary, including genocide. Deception, double-crossing, and hidden desires are prominent themes throughout the Imperium’s narrative segments, and the writing for these sections is interesting.
But Subverse’s greatest appeal is its women. They’re surprisingly deep characters, often showing tragic backstories filled with trauma, betrayal, regret, and internal conflict. Demi, the Captain’s onboard assistant, was an abusive pirate lord’s mainframe bot until the Captain rescued her and fostered a sexually anarchistic relationship with her. Lily, the busty xeno biologist researcher, is a former military sniper turned ethically questionable scientist. Pirate Queen Killision (or Killi) hails from a species obliterated by the Imperium and seeks vengeance on her kins’ behalf. Subverse’s voice acting is masterful, and its top-notch talent brings these characters to life.
Those details aside, Subverse is kind of a mess.
The game is full of video game, geekdom, and anime porn references that push the limits on the phrase “porn parody.” Jokes about mandatory gameplay training and asset store enemies abound in the tutorial. A key plot point revolves around the Battle of Nü Vegas, a reference to Obsidian Entertainment’s popular role-playing game Fallout: New Vegas. The Captain and his engineer repeatedly share their love for tentacle porn and futanari smut. Errak, an alien politician who aids the main character, suspiciously sounds like Patrick Bateman.
A side mission involves a purple-skinned Gordon Ramsey-looking alien shouting “IT’S RAW.” Another references Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford supposedly leaving a memory stick with underage pornography at Medieval Times (it remains unclear if the USB stick actually contained illegal content). These are all intended as a wink and a nod to Subverse’s core demographic: hardcore gamers and geekdom fans.
Satire is well and good in a porn where plot is surface-level and everyone is there for the sex. Humor keeps things light, and a cringey joke can be excused if the fast-forward button is always near. But Subverse isn’t just porn with a veneer of plot. There’s actually a lot going on underneath the surface; there’s more gameplay and narrative than there is porn in the game.
The end result is a game overseasoned with cultural references—to the point that the jokes sell the game’s writing short.
Sometimes Subverse’s sense of humor goes beyond cringe and into far darker directions. Jokes about “hookers” and “whores” abound in ways that aren’t friendly to sex workers. Many imply full-service workers are dirty, scummy, or desperate. In one scene, Demi invites Killi to hire sex workers from “New Japan” if she “requires a scatjob” to humiliate her enemy. The “Weird Japan” caricature is a common form of racist stereotyping that dehumanizes Japanese people and Japanese culture.
Then there’s the Fuccbots, a Borg-like sexually aggressive entity obsessed with discocore, “boipussy,” and ramming its pink phallic spaceships into anything that moves. The Fuccbots are a not-so-thinly veiled homophobic gag about gay male hookup culture. If the bit isn’t obvious, the true nail in the coffin is the Fuccbots’ logo: the trans symbol with a smiley face in the middle.
Gay jokes continue throughout Subverse. A prominent gay Imperium politician, the brother to the former Empress, is repeatedly chastised by his sister for his gay fantasies and homoerotic exploits, most of which involve coercing men into having sex with him. In one story scene, he is interrupted after he tries to brainwash a man from a subservient species into mutual masturbation.
In a dinner segment, the Empress warns him to “keep your hands off the guests… as well as the rest of your anatomy.” Jokes about his obsession with cock continue throughout the game’s first two Acts, often played for laughs as the hypersexual gay male villain who just can’t keep it in his pants. In Subverse, hedonism is great unless you’re a queer man or a sex worker, in which case, no thanks.
All this shouldn’t be surprising based on Studio FOW’s history, one marked with controversy over racism and misogyny in its pornographic content and, more recently, a non-apology over a Subverse partnership with a far-right YouTuber. I suspect these controversies won’t hold back Subverse’s initial early access sales, but they may linger over the game as more troubled content surfaces over Subverse’s subsequent chapters.
Smut without passion
As for the porn? Well, Subverse is surprisingly underwhelming there, too.
The game’s adult scenes are well animated, fun to watch, and pretty sexy, for sure. Each character has thematic encounters that fit their personality well and give players a decent incentive to keep playing. I’m particularly fond of Lily’s tentacle sex scenes and Demi’s high voltage vibrator segment.
But, as Subverse fans have pointed out, the game’s final result falls short of expectations. Practically every animation feels like a real-time rendition of a Source Filmmaker or Blender porn scene but with lower quality due to real-time rendering’s limitations.
And while Subverse is only in early access, the initial assortment of sex scenes are surprisingly limited. Most either involve the Captain, a Xeno alien, or just the character herself. There are no futanari scenes, no lesbian scenes, and, despite Killi’s claim that she prefers to be called Mistress in bed, any semblance of BDSM is lacking in her initial offerings. Most clips aren’t interactive; the few that are have a speed slider and a flashing “CUM” button that lets the penetrative partner ejaculate.
The end result, to quote one Subverse player, is smut with “no context” and no “build up between characters.” “The porn itself feels so disappointingly detached and the rest of the gameplay, [at least] for me, just feels bogged down by uninspired mechanics,” the player said.
There are many adult games that succeed where Subverse fails. Dominatrix Simulator blends realistic BDSM interactions with lovable (and fearsome) dominant women. Hardcoded offers a smutty cyberpunk romp filled with plenty of sex and plenty of real questions about transness and identity. Crisis Point: Extinction organically combines the Metroidvania genre’s sophisticated gameplay with some incredibly hot fetish sex. None of these games have $2 million budgets. But money isn’t everything when it comes to porn.
A beginning, not an ending, for adult games
As I was playing Subverse over the weekend, a famous porn movie kept flashing through my head: Pirates.
Pirates was a 2005 porn flick hailed as the most expensive adult movie of its time with a budget of over $1 million. The film was partly a porn parody of Pirates of the Caribbean, and partly its own swashbuckling story about a pirate hunter and a cast of horny seafarers. Pirates stood out on release for its high production value, earned several AVN Awards, and broke into the mainstream’s awareness, if only briefly. The New York Times even reported on it.
Subverse feels a bit like the games world’s Pirates. Just 24 hours after its release, the game was (fittingly) the 69th most popular game on Steam, beating out indie heavy-hitters like Hades, VRChat, and Loop Hero. That same weekend, Subverse topped Steam’s best sellers list globally. Its early access launch trailer reached 669 upvotes on Reddit’s r/Games by Saturday afternoon. Subverse has left an impression, like it or not.
But, like Pirates, mainstream recognition and popularity shouldn’t be confused for exemplary quality. Pirates was marketed well, had a huge budget, and cashed in on the Pirates of the Caribbean hype. But it’s hard to claim that Pirates is the pinnacle of adult entertainment. Most 20-something porn viewers have never seen it, let alone plan to.
It’s equally hard to say the same about Subverse. It’s a fun indie game with some decent sex scenes, but is it the AAA porn revolution the world has been waiting for? No. It’s flashy, it’s impressive, and it has decent gameplay features, but Subverse is held back by its creators’ own limitations.
My hope is that Subverse inspires disappointed players to look a little deeper into the adult games genre. There is phenomenal art coming from this world’s creators. If only players pull back the veil, seek beyond the hype, and set their standards a little higher than looping 3D animations and a gay robot shouting “boipussy.”