Sex Machines

A new game takes the human-gadget relationship to its logical extreme.

Luxuria Superbia

Screenshots courtesy Tale of Tales

Right now I’m concentrating on satisfying my iPad. I’ve learned I have to start gently, with one finger circling the screen, and then add a second, longer caress. It doesn’t like it to be over too quickly. 

It’s all gone white-light now. I perceive the tablet to be breathing. Words surface from the afterglow: “Kiss me.” And for some reason, absurdly, I comply. I’m making love—after a kind—to my iPad, and I kind of like it.

Luxuria Superbia is the latest genre-defying game from two-person development team Tale of Tales. As I pet the screen, it blushes pink and then red as a flower, seeming to pull me down a lush, blooming corridor that feels delightfully—and sometimes unsettlingly—organic. Its curvaceous, petal-like walls are dotted with abstractions of buds, or maybe knobs of pollen. When you touch them, they open, and color spreads along the tunnel walls. This seems to be what the creature wants, and as your fingertip makes little loops through the sparkling space, it feels abstractly like a tunnel racing game (if you’re thinking about video games) or like a Georgia O’Keeffe heavy metaphor (if you’re not).

In spite of its video-gaminess, Luxuria Superbia feels sensate, alive. You complete a “level” by stimulating it to full color, but never too roughly or quickly. Some touches seem to work, while others don’t. Like many a human partner, it offers very little explicit instruction on how it wants to be caressed, but plenty of feedback to learn from. A little score-counter racks up in one corner of the screen, but it’s completely inscrutable, irrelevant. I hardly notice it because I’m so focused on touch, stimulating buds, and spreading color, learning the needs and patterns of this languid, sighing machine.

Luxuria Superbia’s plush, touchable inner walls, the rising swell of its celebratory, ambient music, and the tiny icons it sometimes produces in response to touch—mirrors, jewels, household objects—seem to celebrate the material plenitude that makes it possible to own high-end touch-screen devices in the first place. It also makes our intimacy with our devices more literal—or brings that intimacy to its logical extreme. Our devices come into bed with us, squares of light attracting our touch and attention after partners have fallen asleep.  They’re the ones we turn to when we are lost, need help, are lonesome for basic interaction. In Spike Jonze’s newest film, Her, we meet the awfully plausible hypothesis that a computerized voice alone can substitute for real intimacy.

One could read Luxuria Superbia as a critique of these kinds of gadget fetishism. If you like it so much, why don’t you just marry it? I wonder what I must look like, bent over this glass square at rest on my thighs, my breath shallow, my finger to its face.

But Tale of Tales’ Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, who’ve been a couple since they met and fell in love online in 1999, tell me via email that Luxuria Superbia isn’t about criticism, but about portraying a lighthearted, loving, and even spiritual side to the human connection to devices. “It is always there for you and you are always there for it, aren’t you?” they write.  To them, Luxuria Superbia is a “virtual creature,” independent of particular hardware (it’s also available on Android, Mac OSX, Windows, and the Ouya microconsole), existing in the same kind of space in which they fell in love.

The intention of Luxuria Superbia, then, seems to bridge the gap between human and hardware. “I exist for you,” reads the delicate text that serves as the blooming flowers’ only verbal communication with the player. “Take what you want from me.” Luxuria Superbia might make your friends giggle if you put it on the table for them to touch during a party; it might make your cheeks a little hot if you play it alone. Intentionally or otherwise, though, it manages to subvert the concept of “consumer technology”—here, your luxurious, expensive device is a lover who wants to know why you always take, take, take. Isn’t it time you gave it a little appreciation?