Robert Yang’s games have been seen by millions of people, but sometimes he’d rather they hadn’t.
Yang is well known in indie game development circles as a creator of games that explore the wide world of gay sex and its consequences with an unflinching artistic vision. Hurt Me Plenty is about consensual spanking and power negotiation. Rinse and Repeat finds you scrubbing down naked men, a comment on the loaded history of public bathhouses. His latest game collection Radiator 3, recently posted to Steam Greenlight, includes VR support, making his games even more intimate than they already are. Now you can don a headset and visit these scenes, which Yang hopes will push people to challenge their own assumptions about sex, kink and their own bodies.
Despite his games’ brevity, Yang packs each one with layers of meaning; through them, he looks at the history of the gay experience in the United States and, he hopes, connects the queer community with the struggles of the past.
“I’m trying to talk to gay people about gay stuff,” Yang says. He brings up Stick Shift, a game in which the player masturbates the gear shift of a horny car while driving down the highway. The goal is to help the car achieve orgasm, but that can be stymied by the police — 48 per cent of the time, you’ll be pulled over by armed officers. 48 is the percentage of LGBT violence survivors who have dealt with police misconduct, Yang says.
“The police aren’t fun, and can’t be reasoned with,” Yang says of the game. “That’s kind of my way of saying, ‘Hey gay people, remember how police have been the historic enemy of the gay community for decades and decades, since before Stonewall?'”
That’s a heavy message for a game about jerking off a midsize sedan. And it’s likely that the majority of players or viewers who encounter Stick Shift never get past that. “I work really hard on the surface level and the conceptual depth of my games, but sometimes the surface layer is all people see,” Yang says. “I don’t blame them, but it really doesn’t help when the average YouTuber uploads painfully uninspired boring rote performances of my games, which again, is sometimes all that people ever see.”
Mega-popular channels like jacksepticeye have featured Yang’s work in a less-than-flattering light. In the first few moments of a video compiling a few of Yang’s games, the host says that these games are “messed up” and gives viewers a warning so that they don’t “just vomit all over the floor”. The video currently has three and a half million views.
“It’s hard to feel successful when many of these (straight) YouTubers seem to flatten any understanding of my work, and profit from the ad views,” Yang says. “I try not to think about it and instead derive some sort of intrinsic value from making games that hopefully isn’t tied to internet numbers.”
While it’s certainly the case that some number of non-queer folks have played his games so as to empathise with the experience, Yang’s not sure how he feels about that, either, especially on the eve of his move into virtual reality with Radiator 3.
“I am against the promise of any claim to a ‘VR empathy machine’, and I am against it forever,” Yang recently wrote on his blog. “How do you know this is actually empathy you’re feeling? Do you really need to wear a VR headset in order to empathise with someone? Can’t you just fucking listen to them and believe them? You need to be entertained as well? Are you sure this isn’t about you?”
Instead, Yang has a different idea for how he’ll approach VR: By creating art that is “obscenely gay”, Yang hopes that homophobes will quit playing VR games altogether. “It’d be beautiful if I managed to convince them that VR was for gay people, and so these gross people stay away from VR entirely,” he says.
Yang likens it to the way that many LGBTQ have rallied around films like Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s cultivating a new medium in its early stages, providing an outlet for frustrations endemic to the American gay experience.
“In the end, tech is going to fuck up every culture it touches,” he says. “But for a little while right now, VR is a weird barely-coherent thing that no one can monetise efficiently, and so they’re funding some interesting art.”