The Games of Robert Yang
By Brendan Keogh
Robert Yang’s Cobra Club is a game about taking dick pics. Presented from a first-person perspective, your character’s male, naked body is reflected in the bathroom mirror, awkwardly posed with camera phone in hand. Surrounding your character and reflected in the screen is your mother’s bathroom. Occasionally, she will knock on the door to check if “You’re all right in there.” Amusingly, your character’s face is blurred out while his computer-animated penis and testicles just hang there, the center of the combined gaze of player, character, and camera phone. You frame your computer-animated penis, determine its size and shape with an unrealistic amount of control, then choose filters for the photo. Finally, you can send the photo to other (computer-controlled) users of the Cobra Club social media site and engage in amusingly limited conversations. One of these users told me my personally customized penis was “blessed.”
Yang’s previous game, Stick Shift despite being less literal and more metaphoric, is just as explicit. Your character, a young man, is driving his car. The game screen is split into two frames: one focusing up-close on the character’s face and the other on his hand wrapped around the stick shift. The young man is driving along a city street, the glow of the streetlights and passing cars streaking across his face. The player moves the computer mouse to, simultaneously, move the man’s head left and right and his hand on the shaft of the gear stick up and down. Do this enough, and the car gets aroused. Read the signs correctly, going neither too slowly nor too quickly, and you can help the man help his car work its way up through all the gears up to a revving climax. Sometimes, unavoidably, the player will be pulled over by the cops and not have a chance to finish.
Yang’s game before that, Succulent, is a short, playable music video. Three hunky men clad only in underwear and aviator sunglasses glare out through the monitor at the player. The two in the background are squatting, rubbing their hands over their crotches. The one in front holds a long popsicle. As the player moves the mouse forward, the hunk pushes more and more of the phallic food into his mouth, while the camera simultaneously moves closer to the action. Once the icy pole is as far into the hunk’s mouth as it will go, the player can either pull the mouse back down to pull it out, or move it around left and right in the hunk’s mouth. Over time, the icy pole gets shorter and the music and visual flourishes of the background get louder, urging the player to help the hunk suck faster. Faster. Faster.
The games Yang has made in the past year—which, in addition to the above three, also include Hurt Me Plenty, which uses LeapMotion technology to allow the player to consensually slap a mostly naked man—are the kinds of games made beyond the blockbuster industry that will be covered by outlets that typically only focus on blockbuster titles. They are “weird” games—at least when contrasted against a particularly narrow and conservative definition of what counts as a “normal” game. A game about taking dick pics or jerking off a gay car fits, for many video game journalists, into the same kind of “LOL what” genre as a game about a cat knocking stuff off shelves, or one in which you play as a piece of toast. It’s weird because it’s silly.
Such coverage greatly undervalues the significance of Yang’s games, however. Cobra Club, Stick Shift, Succulent, and Hurt Me Plenty are beautifully realized creative works produced by an artist working in his prime. Each is an intricately crafted work full of deliberate detail. Each has a meaning deeper (yet entirely dependent on) its surface, in-your-face interactions. Each packs more significance into its five or so minutes of playing than you will find spread across many an eighty-hour blockbuster game and, taken together, the games present a fascinating oeuvre (a word video game critics rarely have an opportunity to use).
Yang’s games are explicitly political, explicitly homoerotic, explicitly masculine. They are technologically proficient and artistically confident. They are some of the most exciting works produced in the video game form in recent times, and are well worth engaging with. Here, I want to do this by looking specifically at their masculinity, their technical proficiency, and their politics.
The first two of these are intimately entwined. The first thing one notices when playing one of Yang’s games is the unabashedly photorealistic style. Very few independent videogame developers have the resources, time, ability, or desire to create character models in that particular aesthetic style we call photorealism (which is itself no less stylized than any other style). Even blockbuster video games, with their massive budgets and hundreds of laborers, will take creative liberties with their characters, just enough cartoonishness or perfect dimensions. Yang, on the other hand, crafts characters that are so perfectly imperfect as to fall square into the uncanny valley, that space where the more realistic an animated character or robot looks, the more those slight imperfections stand out. Yang’s men are disturbing in their uncanniness. Visually, his games explore the visual depths of uncanny male bodies that other video games deliberately avoid. There’s the slight gut and unshaved snail-trail on the naked character in front of his bathroom mirror in Cobra Club. There’s the way the character of Stick Shift bites his bottom lip and lets his eyes roll back as he moves up his car’s shaft and through his car’s gears. It makes the games unsettling, uncomfortable, and disturbing on a very visceral and intimate level. It makes the games sexual without necessarily being sexy.
It is through these bodily explorations that the games so powerfully engage with masculinity. The overwhelming majority of videogames are about cisgender men (albeit heterosexual cisgender men, whereas the characters of Yang’s games are usually suggested to be homosexual), yet the cisgender male form itself rarely appears other than as a muscly silhouette covered in camouflage or armor. Yang’s games, on the other hand, are about men in the sense that male bodies are the object of these games, rather than their subject. Not only does the player roleplay as a man here, the player looks at and objectifies the man that they play. Each of these games addresses the player addressing the character with a reflexive male gaze: the Succulent characters locking eyes with you as you command them to suck and rub the popsicle; the Cobra Club character looking at and assessing yourself/himself in the mirror. As Cobra Club progresses, options unlock that allow the player to not just determine the penis’s erectness, but its shape and size, as well as the shape and size of each testicle. The player could create the penis they want to have (either on themselves or their partner), or they could create the penis they do have (if they indeed have one). They could create an amusingly unrealistic penis, if they wish, which is all the more unsettling considering the game’s otherwise high fidelity. Here, Yang deliberately invokes the uncanny: “Let this fake body be fake!” Yang proclaims in his artist statement on the game.
This highlights the care, deliberateness, and intentionality with which Yang crafts his games. Every element of each game contributes to that game’s overall focus, and each game in the loosely held-together series strengthens the others. It is this thematic resonance across titles, more than anything else, that makes me excited for the growing acceptance of “short” video game works—that is, video games that are not jam-packed with 80 hours of “content.” Each of Yang’s games is only as long as it needs to be to communicate what Yang wants to communicate.
This also allows the games to be explicitly political in ways that many larger, impersonal games simply cannot be. Created by one person and distributed directly to players through Yang’s itch.io page, Yang’s games can speak directly to individual players through both their designs as well as supporting documents such as the artist’s statement and notes Yang writes on his blog to accompany each game. The idea of a video game having an artist’s statement is near unheard of; by doing this, Yang reveals deeper, subtler, more nuanced meanings that don’t jump out at the player. For instance, the chance of being pulled over by the police in Stick Shift is equal to the percentage of LGBT violence survivors who, in a 2013 survey, said they experienced police misconduct. And Cobra Club, ostensibly presenting itself as a single-player videogame, uploads the player’s unwitting dick pics to a public tumblr page in a commentary on Internet surveillance. Perhaps most polarizing is the fact that Hurt Me Plenty will lock players out from the game for an extended length of time (sometimes up to a fortnight) if they refuse to conduct their play in a consensual, non-abusive manner. Few, if any, blockbuster video games (targeted at “consumers” more than “audiences”) could justify forbidding their users to interact with the game because they didn’t act appropriately.
Cobra Club, Stick Shift, Succulent, and Hurt Me Plenty are significant works for the explicit attention they pay to things that are implicit in normative videogame design (technofetishism, male bodies, photorealism). They are powerful, personal, and political. Regardless of how interested you are in video games, Yang’s titles are worth exploring as important creative works.