The Secret Language of Desire is an iPad app, enhanced with images and music and sound effects, which tells the story of a woman’s erotic awakening through a series of 27 short vignettes. It is available via iTunes, and will also be shown at the upcoming ELO conference in Bergen.
It’s fully linear: there are no branches in the story, no hypertext links to dig into. Unlike in PRY, there’s very little hidden information to tease out of the interactions, either. In one case, there’s something to uncover that explains the meaning of an intentionally vague and referential bit of text, though I was pretty sure what I was going to find there. This is the exception rather than the rule.
Instead both the text and the interface are concerned with sensual experience. You read about a walk out on the bare ground and then touch the image of a fallen leaf, see it tremble on the page, hear it crunch. You read about an evening out and touch an instrument, which plays the music the character is hearing. You read about a handsome man, then rub at the surface of the screen to reveal a photograph of a man’s torso. Though the text is fairly explicit, the images are less so: we’re exposing well-lit abs here, not communiqués from Anthony Weiner. If the result is not quite Filament Magazine, it is still in service of the (straight) female gaze. For full effect I might have expected the photos to be larger, but on the other hand it was already a bit of work to uncover them, so maybe not.
I think we are meant to experience the touch of the iPad screen as delicate, caressing, pleasurable. It didn’t work quite that way for me – maybe my screen is too old, not silky enough, so that scrubbing at its surface felt like effort? – or maybe something else is at issue. I’ve never gotten around to playing Luxuria Superbia, which might be the obvious point of comparison for haptic sensuality on the iPad screen.
That’s not to say I was wholly unmoved. I think there’s something to be said for illustrating a mostly-text work with individual objects that suggest culture, context, texture, physicality. The cutout images on plain white reminded me a little (though in a very different context) of the illustrations in N.K. Guy’s Six Stories. The leaves reminded me sharply of the smell of eucalyptus that rose from walking around parts of the UCLA campus when I was a child.
I ran into a few issues with the implementation. There’s not a clear interface distinction between on-screen objects that are interactive and those that aren’t, so sometimes I’d tap an object and see it shake or move or drift gently across the screen… and otherwise my tap would land on a picture that was actually static, so it would count as an attempt to wake up the menu bar, disrupting rather than enhancing the experience.
Then, too, the movements are implemented as animations. They play, and then snap back to their starting position. A flower drifts out of frame only to pop back to where it began. It’s a small thing, but a thing that reinforced how little agency I had, how irrelevant were my actions with these items.
Here for instance is a slightly surprising representation of online dating, screenshotted quickly before all those kiss marks faded again.
What of the story? It was more seriously literary than most of the interactive erotica I’ve covered here in the past. Occasionally this meant a reaching for poetic phrasing for a sexual act that struck me as funny rather than hot – always a danger with this kind of thing – but in general the prose quality and characterization were at the better end of what I’ve encountered in this genre.
I did feel that the ending came a bit abruptly, a happily ever after that didn’t feel entirely justified by the protagonist’s experiences or beliefs up to that point. On the other hand, it was a situation that at least gave the female protagonist significant control over her situation. And – as with a lot of erotica, but especially in this case – it felt like the journey was more important than the destination anyway.
Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this work.