Published on November 5th, 2013 | by Andrew Vestal3
Luxuria Superbia: Push My Buttons
Noted sex advice columnist Dan Savage believes an ideal lover should be GGG, or Good, Giving and Game: exhibiting skill, sympathetic to another’s needs, and open to creative experimentation. He also proposed the “campsite rule” for relationships between consenting adults: you should leave your lover at least as emotionally and physically healthy as they were when you started seeing them. Basically, a good lover should be attentive, encouraging, kind-hearted and open-minded.
Video games are terrible lovers.
The poster child for terrible video game “romance” is Bioware. A successful relationship in Mass Effect or Dragon Age requires you stop thinking of your party members as people, and view them instead as a bundle of algorithmic wants and needs to be mechanically separated. It’s never about what you want, it’s only about what they want. So you say what they want to hear, send them the gifts they want most, and in the end, an invisible bar fills up: hooray, sex! It’s just another puzzle to be solved, one more equation to be balanced.
It’s also a singularly depressing view of human relationships. The lesson of Bioware is that enough flattery, lies and bribery can break anyone’s will, and that the value of a relationship is measured only in how quickly someone gets dragged into bed. When I played Dragon Age: Origins, I felt like the game was actually turning me into a worse person. I was role-playing a pansexual psychopath who would abuse his party members’ trust for 10 points of Gamerscore, and I didn’t much like it. Through conversations and gameplay, I’d been taught that these characters didn’t care about anything but their own wants and needs. Is it any wonder I responded with the same dispassionate cruelty? Two liars who fuck then never talk again: that’s love, Bioware style.
So. Luxuria Superbia. It’s the latest art game from Belgian wunderkinder Tale of Tales, though it leans more toward the “game” side than the studio’s previous offerings. It’s got levels, scores, heck, even controller support! It combines the rail-shooter synesthesia of Rez, the psychedelic colors and imagery of Katamari Damacy, and the relaxing rhythm of Everyday Shooter. Also, Luxuria Superbia is a game about having sex with a flower, or maybe your computer. You are definitely having sex with something.
There is a garden filled with white flowers. Each flower is an endless tunnel with its own shape, imagery, and music. You restore color to the wilted flower by touching its walls. The more colorful the walls, the faster your score increases. Suggestive text appears on screen (“I need you to pollinate me.”) There’s a catch, however: restore every wall completely, and the stage ends prematurely. Or: You want the flower edging for as long as possible before you make it come. That is the game.
But it’s not a joke – or if it is, it’s one the entire human race is in on. I want to describe this game as honestly as possible because this this is a winningly honest game. Tale of Tales have made a game about sex without being creepy, exploitative, demeaning, misogynistic, classist, or any of the other three dozen pitfalls that so often plague video games. The game is warm-hearted, charming, and winkingly perverted. So you’re fucking a flower? There are weirder kinks.
And by making the act performative and interactive, it more clearly reflects the way people actually have sex. Games tend to present sex as the omega point of a relationship; everything builds toward this one single inevitable climax… after which your lover is discarded like an unwanted cheeseburger wrapper. But in real life, people have sex for all sorts of reasons, at all sorts of times, in all sorts of relationships. Sex is how lovers get to know one another better. Sex isn’t something you build towards – it’s something you build from. And sex is how you learn the shape, rhythm, and patterns of each of Luxuria Superbia’s flowers. Here, sex isn’t a goal, but a process. Ultimately, your score is meaningless – the real reward is learning to understand the garden on its own terms.
The game also asks you to listen. So often, games are about doing as much as possible as quickly as possible – how else would button-mashing work? – but this game gently but firmly forces the player to live in the lacunae. Mashing just ends the level. Instead, the player has to pay attention and to act briefly, fleetingly, only when desired. I was reminded of my experience with Emily Short’s Galatea, a conversational work of interactive fiction. At release, I played the game several times and became convinced I had completely exhausted all possible conversation paths. I then consulted a walkthrough and found out I had only scratched the surface of what the game had to offer. The thing is, many of the paths required the player to say nothing at all – to simply > WAIT. And in your silence, Galatea would continue to speak, or even change topics entirely. It makes perfect sense. A real conversation is people talking to each other, not at each other. Sometimes, the most important thing you can do in a relationship is shut your trap and just listen! But as a gamer, I hadn’t been clever enough to think of that. I was too used to equating inaction with death, and to thinking my will was the only one that mattered. It’s the rare game that offers us a chance for quietude, and Luxuria Superbia is an excellent reminder that a lover who doesn’t listen is a selfish one indeed.
One of my favorite moments in Luxuria Superbia comes after you complete a level. The screen fades to white, and the game tells you: “That was superb! Thank you.” That simple “thank you” is more emotionally rewarding than any virtual conquest, because it arrives honestly and fairly, not through exploitation and deceit. Other video games have simulated the act of sex, but Luxuria Superbia is the first to make it consensual. It recognizes the sublime pleasure to be found in giving pleasure to another. It is a good and giving game, and it left me better than it found me.