Robert Yang has made some of the most notorious (and notoriously great) queer video games of the past decade. He talks to The Spinoff about his latest game, We Dwell in Possibility, and his recent move to New Zealand.
If you look at Robert Yang’s oeuvre, you might be surprised that he’s one of the most notorious (and great) queer game developers in the world. These are not your everyday video games, however. Call of Duty, this ain’t.
Stick Shift is a driving game about jacking off a gay car. Cobra Club is a photo studio game about the protagonist taking dick pics. Hurt Me Plenty revolves around BDSM subculture and the issue of negotiating consent.
Perhaps his most famous, or most widely reported, game is The Tearoom. The game involved standing at a urinal and making eye contact with other men in the bathroom, while avoiding being spotted by police officers. However, penises were replaced with guns both to get around censorship and as a comment on it. Guns are OK in video games, dicks are not.
The American developer’s latest, a collaboration with illustrator Eleanor Davis, is called We Dwell in Possibility. The game, which is free to play on any web browser, is a queer gardening simulation. Simulated avatars move around naked, alone or in crowds. They can plant things, place statues or set up little camps. They can also destroy and remove what other avatars have placed. The player can move things around at will, even delete things, essentially creating their own ideal world.
Like most of Yang’s work, it’s less about playing the game and more about the player’s emotional response to it, as it makes the player reflect on their own instinct and choices. Why did they move this tree there? Why did they take these avatars out of the world? What might have been an intensely academic exercise instead ends up being an immediate (and surprisingly joyous) one.
So how exactly did Robert Yang end up in New Zealand?
“By now, We Dwell in Possibility’s political metaphors are painfully obvious. To use the word ‘metaphor’ here also strains the meaning of the word.
But the design and upkeep of communal public spaces is precisely a political matter, there’s no getting around it. Which statues should remain and where? Who is allowed to sell products and services in a park? Who is allowed to sleep in a park? These material questions of governance require political justifications.”
That’s from Yang’s artistic statement for We Dwell in Possibility. Reading his writing, or listening to his lectures, Yang can seem intimidatingly intelligent. He wrote a series for Rock Paper Shotgun that went into the genesis of an inexplicably popular map for Counter Strike. You know, the kind of academic who might make queer sex games.
However, when we speak at Verona on Karangahape Road in Auckland on a sunny Friday afternoon, he’s a chill, jovial presence. His New York accent fills the bar in a way that a Kiwi accent never could. He’s delighted to be there, and equally delighted that apparently we start drinking in New Zealand as early as we do. He seems like, you know, the kind of guy who makes fun queer sex games.
It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the pandemic that had Yang coming to New Zealand. The plan was always to move here with his partner, a New Zealander, but Covid-19 sped that plan up. He says, “I was in New York with my partner up until last December. New York was like the Covid centre of America – ambulance sirens every five minutes – and it was awful. Being in New Zealand compared to that will always feel really wonderful and kind of a blessing.”
As well as our largely Covid-free status, New Zealand’s gaming community also attracted Yang. In New York, there’s constant communication between the Canadian scene and the West Coast scene, as well as collaboration with the European scene. “In New Zealand, it’s a little bit less connected, but also less dependent. It’s nice here that it’s kind of its own thing.
“That’s also what amazes me about the indie music scene in New Zealand. People actually go to things here! In New York, you cannot drag anyone out to see a show.”
Yang had time to immerse himself in the culture during his time in MIQ, and in the months since. “We watch a lot of The Breeze. I love that it’s just free on air, like it’s a public good.” He was amazed to find Seinfeld on TVNZ on Demand (where it still resides). “The government thinks this is essential. It’s like air and water and Seinfeld.”
Shortland Street is a bit advanced in terms of full culture immersion for him, though. He likens it to a “public TV Riverdale”, which is both an apt assessment and a high compliment for the soap.
Despite the change in locale, the work Yang is making hasn’t changed. He puts it bluntly: “They’re sex games, for lack of a better word.”
One of the games he’s working on is a sex-dungeon, sex-magic game called Zugzhwang. “You’re this sex angel who’s trying to get all these men cruising the sex dungeon to get together and have sex with each other, but also there’s these police interfering with that, so it’s very much a clear political statement about how police jeopardise how consent works, especially in regards to cruising.”
His other game is a quarantine life simulator, where the player is a daddy stuck in a hotel room. “It reflects on the quarantine experience, because people are still horny during a pandemic.”
On the surface, his new work might seem to be quieter or less radical than his earlier games. But look beneath the colourful surface and you’ll find a piece of work no less political or radical than what he’s made before.
The Manchester International Festival, a biennial arts festival dedicated to new and original work, reached out to Yang at the start of 2020 to discuss commissioning a game from him. “It’s actually been nice to see that video game culture is spreading out among indie music and performance culture too,” he says. “We’re not just siloed alone as a video game nerd thing.” He was all set to fly to Manchester to develop the game when – in a twist that will not surprise you – the pandemic hit.
This collaboration went ahead anyway, the result being We Dwell in Possibility. While common in the art world and especially in a festival context, such a partnership isn’t common in gaming, and co-production with a festival is especially rare. “Usually it’s either a company helping you make something and then taking a bunch of money or giving you money and then not helping you.”
The unusual nature of the co-production is what attracted Yang to it. The festival’s producer, Steph Clark, connected him with the game’s composer, aya, and the illustrator, Eleanor Davis, who he credits as the game’s co-designer. “It was basically just me and Eleanor for the most part, spitballing over emails, sending each other stuff and figuring out what we wanted this thing to be organically.”
One of the game’s main inspirations was Kids, a crowd simulation game where the player can direct mobs of people running around on the screen. Yang believes the game serves as an abstract commentary on society, mobs and how crowds form. “We both really liked that structure, because it’s very accessible, very approachable. Anybody can play Kids, it’s not a hardcore shooter.”
Their vision for We Dwell in Possibility was a lot more colourful, however, and they also wanted it to be more political. “We didn’t want an oblique political reference, we wanted to be clear what we meant. We didn’t want to be like, ‘Oh does this hole symbolise Brexit or critical race theory.’
“In video games, there’s a caution and a stigma against being political and trying to hide the politics behind genre – whether it’s historical, fantasy or science fiction. We wanted the politics of the game to feel instinctual. Do you want this statue here or not? The game asks you that, and it’s the decision that faces a lot of places and communities all around the world.”
This work is important for Yang as well. He didn’t grow up with a lot of games about being gay, or what his sexuality or race might mean. “It’s really important to have a game that talks about identity and politics directly, that reflects on the real world and isn’t scared of that connection. If video games are art, they have to say something about the human condition, right?”
In that way, Yang’s games are depressingly radical. It’s only this year that Ubisoft made a statement that the latest entry in the Far Cry series, where the player generally fights to topple a tyrannical despot, was “unequivocally political”. This is only a few years after the company took pains to distance itself from any politics in Far Cry 5 (about a white supremacist cult in Montana) and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (about a government agency maintaining order in a time of anarchy).
To have a developer making games that aren’t accidentally political, but intentionally so, is revolutionary. Whether it’s dicks as guns, jacking off a car or building a community in 10 minutes flat, it matters. Yang points out, rightly, he’s not the only person doing it, and name-checks Christine Love, the creator of some of the best titled games of all time: Digital: A Love Story, don’t take it personally babe it just ain’t your story, and the upcoming Get in The Car Loser!
As well as having that deeper societal relevance, Yang’s games are accessible and immediate in a way that many big-budget, ostensibly mainstream games are not. They’re quick, they’re fast, and you get the point really quickly. Stick Shift – the jack-off gay car game – in particular was apparently incredibly popular with mums on an exhibition floor in the UK. “They would just go in there, shoo their kids away and then just laugh amongst themselves and play this game.”
With Yang’s work, you spend more time reflecting on your experience with them than you do playing them. That’s the point of art, right?