Robert Yang is the strange mastermind behind a variety of fragmentary game experiences, many of which take their inspiration from the gay hookup scene. Cobra Club encourages you to take the perfect dick pic on a fictional gay dating app; Rinse and Repeat explores an intimate encounter in a public shower; Succulent stars a guy standing around in his underwear sucking on a lollipop.
Yang was one of the speakers at Indiecade 2015’s keynote event Pillow Talk alongside Nina Freeman and Naomi Clark, and we grabbed him after the talk to quiz him on pleasure, gay games and the end of the world.
The Existential Gamer: You were speaking about VR being broken, and about that being a good thing. What attracts you to dysfunction in systems?
Robert Yang: I think I like it because systems are broken. If you have a system that works really perfectly, that’s almost like lying about how the world works. I feel like VR, the idea that reality literally makes you sick and nauseous, that’s real, you know? That’s truth.
TEG: Reality makes you nauseous?
TEG: So when do you think that dysfunction best comes in? Do you think it’s best to have it come in at the level of the creation tools themselves, your knowledge of them, purposefully built into the game or unintentional dysfunction from how you failed to execute on the game?
RY: I don’t know, all those sound nice. I think all those are the same, almost. I feel like I wouldn’t really draw that much of a distinction between them.
TEG: Do you find that some of your favorite parts of your games are things that you did not intend?
RY: Yeah. I can’t think of any examples, but I’m sure they exist. If you can think of any, I would probably agree with you.
TEG: I can’t right now…
TEG: What’s the game you’ve played the most over the course of your life?
RY: The most? Hours? I think… I guess like Half-Life or something, technically.
TEG: What’s the most serious game you’ve enjoyed?
RY: What do you mean by ‘serious game’? Do you mean emotionally?
TEG: I guess the question stems from the fact that humor always seems to be a part of your game design. So I was wondering what the least humorous game you’ve enjoyed was.
RY: Oh, these are hard questions. Uhhh… can we come back to that? Maybe if my subconscious works on it.
TEG: Of course. So you use the cruising and the pickup scene as a setting, or at least as an influence, in a lot of your designs. Do you find that when you’re designing your games you’re thinking more about connection or pleasure within those contexts?
RY: I think connection. I think my games usually end before the pleasure part… I think. And, you know, that’s OK. I guess connection – trying to meet someone, getting them to trust you – I think that would be most apt. I would say my games aren’t really about… I feel like games that are very grind-y and systems-y, those are kind of about the pleasure of just engaging and interacting with things. But my games are very short, they don’t want to overstay their welcome, and I would say that’s more about connection.
TEG: Do you think intention is really relevant to your game design choices? Like, what’s your goal in terms of player experience, or do you function more on fancy? Do you create a game because it just sort of comes to you, or do you do it with an end result in mind?
RY: My process? I don’t know, every game’s kind of different. Sometimes I sort of know what the beginning and middle will be, but I don’t really know about the end. Like with Rinse and Repeat, I wasn’t really sure about how I would end it, so I just had to sort of keep going and figure out what the ending will be. I think intent is important, you know – like criminal justice systems differentiate between manslaughter and murder, so if it’s good enough for them, I think it’s good enough for art, you know? But we also say ‘intent is not magic’. Just because I said that’s what it means, doesn’t make it so. Meaning is a negotiation between player and creator.
TEG: To follow up on that, do you create games you want to create, games you want to play, or games you want others to play?
RY: I think I make games that I want other people to make. Cause I felt like no one else was gonna make these games. I actually was staying away from making gay stuff for a while, cause I felt like I was gonna get typecast in this niche, where ‘Oh, he just makes gay stuff, OK.’ But then no one else was working in the same kind of space, and I felt no one ever was going to, so I just decided, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just do it and be that person.’
TEG: There’s a certain sense of responsibility that I feel coming from your answer. Why do you feel that responsibility?
RY: Cause I grew up in games without knowing any gay game designers – or barely any gay people at all. So I felt like – God forbid I’m a role model for someone – but the idea that I exist, and that gay games exist, and that hunky dude games exist, just that idea can be inspiring for someone. You don’t have to love my games, but the idea that they’re there, hopefully someone finds that existence as a provocation, as inspiring or whatever, and then we’ll see a lot more gay games or something. I don’t know.
TEG: Playing your games, and watching others play your games, I always think of Ryan Trecartin, the contemporary artist, do you know him?
RY: I think I’ve heard of him, actually.
TEG: He makes these hysterical video pieces where his friends and him are made up in all kinds of different ways and destroying things, but there’s a sense of…
RY: I think I’ve seen one of Ryan Trecartin’s videos, I think someone compared him to me.
TEG: Do you find inspiration in contemporary art in general, and where else do you draw from?
RY: Like Ryan Trecartin, like gallery contemporary art, that kind of contemporary art?
TEG: Sure, or others.
RY: No, I think my stuff is more pop-y than anything, really short. There’s meaning there if you tease it out, but it’s also not gonna be like… It’s not gonna present itself as subtle, you know? It’s like, Drake puts a video out and now there’s 20 think pieces about what it means, or Beyonce does something. I feel like Drake is not presenting, or Beyonce is not presenting, ‘Look at how subtle I am.’ I think they’re just sort of doing what they do, and we help find that depth and meaning. I think that’s kind of how my stuff operates. I think the depth isn’t necessarily there just by default. That’s why I have to write these long essays about where the depth is.
TEG: How does your creation process affect your real life, both emotional and sexual?
RY: Not much. My games aren’t really that personal. Like Rinse and Repeat is not autobiographical – I don’t think I’ve even been to the gym in years and years and years. That’s not much of a fantasy of mine either, to have sex in the gym or in a public shower. They’re not personal in that way, I wouldn’t connect them directly to my life. They’re kind of just like politics that I’m thinking about. I always want to maintain distance. I’m probably very different from, say, Nina [Freeman], where she really makes her games about her. I like having more distance than that.
TEG: I guess what I mean is, you sit down and you are 3D modelling and designing systems around sex and sexuality, you take time and hours out of those days, and so how does that interact with your life, emotionally and sexually. Do you find that they dialogue, even if they’re not based on one another?
RY: Oh, in terms of hours during the day or something?
TEG: And also the content of what your work is.
RY: Um… kind of, I guess? Hmm. I don’t know, I haven’t really been tracking my emotional state lately. And my sexual state has been mostly kind of the same – I’m married, so we kind of do our thing. Yeah, I wouldn’t really super directly connect that to my games, unfortunately. I wish I did, that sounds like a better story.
TEG: What about gaming itself? You playing other people’s games. Are you a gamer? How does it interact with your life?
RY: I think these recent games I’ve made haven’t been very connected to other games. But it’ll be a small, random thing, like maybe I’ll play Metal Gear Solid, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I really like how I can see this guy’s buttcrack, and I’m staring at his buttcrack, and the game is encouraging me to do this kind of, just by definition of a following mechanic. I wonder what would happen if I made a game where you just stared at a buttcrack and stuff?’
I’ll tease out a really small aspect of games, that’s usually what inspires me. Not the whole vision or concept, usually just details I’ll really like and I’ll wanna pull out and steal.
TEG: Snake literally showers in that game. Did you design the game about what happens when he gets in that shower?
RY: But you barely see… I think Snake could have been beefier in that game. He’s sexualized, totally, but I think not enough, I wish they had sexualized him more.
TEG: They didn’t under-do that with Quiet.
RY: Yeah, yeah. I feel it’s a good critique to say that it just isn’t functionally realistic that she’d be wearing those clothes. In the previous panel they were talking about the reason she’s naked, that she photosynthesizes or something, but then… maybe it does make sense that she’s wearing thigh-highs. ‘Cause she’d get really sweaty, and then it’s like a greenhouse effect in her legs. Maybe it does kind of make sense.
TEG: What do you want chiseled onto your tomb?
RY: What do I want chiseled onto my tomb… I don’t know. ‘About time’.
TEG: What’s the most valuable thing you’d like to achieve in your lifetime?
RY: The most valuable thing I’d like to achieve in my lifetime… I think it would be… OK, this is never gonna happen. But it would be really cool if somehow I was known as a David Bowie of games or something. That would be really cool. But it’s never going to happen. I don’t know if anyone will ever be a David Bowie of games, there will probably never be a David Bowie of games. But that would be cool if that happened.
TEG: So who is Hideo Kojima’s musical counterpart?
RY: Uhh… Katy Perry?
TEG: Perfect. Last question: when do you think the world is going to end, and how?
RY: With a whimper. That’s it.
TEG: That’s it, just finish the interview on a T.S. Eliot quote. Oh, I almost forgot. There was that question we were supposed to come back to. The one about the most serious game that you’ve ever enjoyed.
RY: OK, there’s a game called Fate of the World. It’s one of those ‘social games for change’ kind of things. You manage a futuristic UN, that’s able to manage a lot of world finances and stuff, and your goal is to not let mankind destroy itself. So you’re trying to manage global warming, you’re trying to keep development goals going, maintain security around the world and make sure there’s not rioting everywhere, while maintaining standards of living and stuff, and it’s really, really hard. The point is that we’re all gonna die, in that game. It’s really morbid, and it’s so complicated. I think it’s one of the few serious games I’ve played that really worked, and that’s serious about its subject matter. The world is going to end, and this is how.
TEG: So when you stopped playing, why did you stop?
RY: I don’t like hard games. So I played it once or twice and was like, ‘This is too hard, I’m gonna stop playing.’