"Touch Me" poster image

Touch Me

Where do I start.

On Thursday, Robert Yang put out a game called Rinse and Repeat. It is a game that is part of Robert’s growing body of work on making… well, gay sex games. However, these are not games about gay sex in the “want to watch some folks with cocks do it” way; rather, they’re about how we look at gay sex, and the role of sex in games, and bodies, and all sorts of other things. They’re almost all small, simple games, but they pack a lot in, usually.

For all sorts of reasons, let me slap down a cut — more on this beneath the fold/after the jump (that one’s for you, Maddy)

This post is 100% Not Safe For Work.

I am hoping that some honesty will make what comes after it all the more convincing: the first few games in this series were not really to my taste. In the (spoilery!) artist’s statement for Rinse and Repeat, Robert has this to say about them:

I get criticism about my prior sex games (Hurt Me Plenty, Succulent) focusing on muscular white bodies — I’ve always argued that this focus was intentional, to foreground the weirdness of a muscley white man as a gay cultural ideal, but I also understand that this will only seem intentional if I also practice the alternative, which is to try to depict a diversity of bodies.

Spoiler alert: I made such criticisms and it was indeed the narrowness of body types that made me iffy on those games (though I think Hurt Me Plenty‘s unique approach to consent and care is interesting, if out of range of things I can talk about decisively).

That being said, I think things turned around for me when Robert put out Cobra Club, a fascinatingly goofy dick pic simulator (about which I’ve written before). While I wasn’t sold on the idea that Cobra Club was a compelling representation of what the “real” experience of dick pic sharing is like — nor do I think Robert ever claimed it was — I found the game’s charm and honesty to be really refreshing.

Part of the fascination I had with Cobra Club was that you spend a non-trivial amount of time… uh, shaping your dick. I mean, there’s no other way to say it. You start with a simple set of tools — skin tone, are you erect or not — and by the time the game is done your combination of steadily-unlocked selfie camera features and dick customization tools means you can produce some utterly nonsense images, all while a certain podcast host asks if you “need help in there” in her best Midwestern mom voice.

Screenshot from "Cobra Club"
I, too, am chock full of Pikachu Worm™

As the above screencap should prove, all the seriousness in Cobra Club is decidedly sub rosa, only unearthed after digging through a number of wobbly knob strata, as it were.

Before this there’s also the unsubtle but effective Stick Shift, which I have not played myself but have seen played by others. Like all of Yang’s recent gay sex games, it hides its handful of “serious” (note quotes) commentary under a veneer of wackiness. Stick Shift is a game about giving your car a hand job. It does not in any way pretend it is about anything other than giving your car a hand job.  You work the shaft (of your manual transmission) with a steady and increasing rhythm until it is sated and (exhaust condensation) comes (out of the tailpipe, perhaps my favorite reference in any game to the ridiculousness of gay porn there has ever been). Alternately, half the time the cops show up and interrupt, allowing Robert to throw a Stonewall riots nod into this game about literally fucking your car.

So when I saw Rinse and Repeat cross my path on social media, I was in the mood to try it out. I had just come off writing about that awful Washington Post review of Mario Maker and was in dire need of a palate cleanser. Problem: this current semester, Thursdays I teach until ridiculously late at night (10:45pm) and I was not about to install the probably-NSFW gay sex game on my work computer, so I had to wait until I got home.

When I did get home — no thanks to Baltimore’s egregiously bad public transit system — it was almost 1am, I hadn’t eaten, and I was tired and angry. I ordered a pizza, sat down, and downloaded the game… which had a bug affecting people who started between 11pm and 2am (time is important — we’ll get to that). By the time my pizza had arrived and I had eaten, calmed down, and looked, there was a bugfixed version available, so I grabbed it.

Now, the deal with Rinse and Repeat is: the guy you’re looking for only enters after classes at the fictional gym where the game is set, and the class days/times are seeded randomly based on the time of day when you first start the game. Which for me was 2:30am on a Friday. Meaning my seed resulted in this:

Screencap from "Rinse and Repeat" -- gym schedule
Oh, god fucking DAMNIT

So.

The game was now on hold until 4am Saturday morning, which — as of the second I am writing this — was 2 hours ago. After what was for sure a rousing hour of, uh… “Gun Aerobics”… my showering partner dropped into the locker room and I was able to get right to it.

The actual gameplay of Rinse and Repeat isn’t too different from Stick Shift or even Hurt Me Plenty — you use the mouse to rub a bar of soap across target zones on the body of your hunky partner, a hunk so hunk-ly that he wears aviators in the shower. The speed at which you move the mouse around controls what he perceives as the speed and intensity of your washing, and his desires change depending on the moment and the body part. I admit I wasn’t terribly good at reading what he wanted and got a few hot-shower-fucking equivalents of the “STRIKE” buzzer from Family Feud. But one time I really just hit the rhythm right — hilariously, while washing his bicep — and he was really pleased with me.

And of course, because of the game’s vaguely goofy tone, there is a bevy of fully voiced, if somewhat awkwardly connected, responses from this guy you’re washing. Perhaps the best part, to me, was that his various masculine words for you — “bro,” “man,” even “pal” at one point, I think — seem to be stitched onto other spoken lines at random, meaning that every now and then it appears that this (relative?) stranger who you’re soaping down is having a hard time finding the right way to talk to you about it. I wish I’d thought to record my playing it, because I had a great moment of him huskily intoning “Oh, that feels so great…” followed by a nearly 2 second pause before he added: “…bro.”

Once I’d washed parts of his body a few times, he said he had to go, gave me a “here tomorrow? Maybe for more?” line, and walked out, leaving my carefully-placed-to-be-barely-visible-if-at-all-discernible body soaking under the hot spray of my own shower head.

I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t. Not until noon on Sunday when I hope to catch him again.

I don’t want to dwell too hard on the “cooldown” part of this — the part I understood the purpose of but was indeed thoroughly irritated by — because I am not really interested in it. I tend to be against any mechanic that relegates my level of engagement to “hurry up and wait,” but its inclusion here makes reasonable design sense. Thus griping about it — or a similar 10-ish minute cooldown in Stick Shift — is sort of a waste of time… though I at least worked in that I find it annoying and I’m not a virgin, Robert, so

I think the thing that fascinates me about Yang’s most recent games is their tactility. Which is to say, though the actual control schemes and such are abstracted into simplicity for the sake of accessibility, all of Robert’s recent games — even, in its own way, Cobra Club — make a concerted effort to evoke the feeling of actually touching something. Not reproduce, mind you; evoke. The spanking game Hurt Me Plenty was originally intended for (and I imagine is much more satisfying using) a LeapMotion instead of a mouse. Stick Shift‘s whole premise is that the rhythmic, repetitive movements of your mouse directly mimic you jerking off this car.

Games already don’t do this sort of thing enough; the ones that do tend to be mobile games, or other platforms where interface devices like touchpads/touchscreens are integral to the unit. So that in and of itself is interesting. But beyond that, there’s this secondary consideration that gay games and games with gay content don’t do this very well, either… particularly games about gay sex, which seem to almost universally relegate the player to the role of “erotica reader” or “passive porn viewer.”

Someone put a tiny Flash game called Sepe’s Cumshot up on the “Free Indie Games” blog. I’m not going to link it (google it if you must) but the game is this intensely low rent masturbation game where you use your mouse to jerk off a man who is, presumably, Sepe. As you do so, he and his cock get progressively larger until finally you get him off and he has become ridiculously huge and there’s the worst, most MS Paint-y money shot in the history of gamesdom. The whole thing plays in like, 45 seconds.

It’s pretty obvious whoever put it up on FIG did so as a joke, and I’m going to agree that it’s a pretty silly, obviously “cheap” (note quotes) game. On the other hand, I’ve yet to play anything like of its like in terms of games that say “this is about a person’s body, you are going to directly get them off in a non-abstract way,” separating it from the clever but eye-crossingly abstract Luxuria Superbia.

Bear in mind that I don’t play a lot of sex games, though, because most of the ones I’ve encountered have been awful and the ones I have found that weren’t text adventures/VNs pretty much stuck to one “idealized” body type for gay men that turns me off very, very fast. I digress.

To that end, I think Robert’s willingness to make his games evoke these feelings of tactile-ness, of touch is pretty important, because I am increasingly interested in how we depict gay bodies in games, and as you can probably guess from my recent writing, I’ve got a pretty strong interest in how fat bodies in particular work out.

The notion of something being tactile, of evoking the sense of touch without necessarily being “about” touching, is tricky. It’s been on my mind because of Mario Maker; I think that game’s tactility in particular is a major reason it works so well compared to other big titles with level-creation engines, like its closest analogue LittleBigPlanet. Building levels on a tablet — literally drawing them into being while the game shows a photorealistic hand holding a pen on your TV at the exact point you’re laying down a brick — works wonders compared to LBP‘s click-and-drag setup with the PS3 controller. It gives your actions in the level creator a feeling of weight-iness, of heft. For lack of a better word, it makes feel a little more… well, real.

Rinse and Repeat didn’t necessarily give me a feeling of “weightiness,” but there was something compelling in your partner’s reactiveness, in the repetitive and sometimes hypnotic motion of your hand — both you and your avatar’s — as you wash him clean. He is hard to read, what you do to him and how you do it matters. And as Robert says in the artist statement, you can’t just have him whenever you want him. It is, like actual sex, a negotiation between bodies and an exploration of those bodies… and like actual sex, it’s often weird, fucking awkward, goes wrong for reasons you can’t intuit, and generally is worth waiting up until 4am for.

As a point of order, I made a Twine game earlier this year about three moments in my own sexual history, called Upon Reflection. It’s text only, and is really just a branching story rather than a “game”-game, and perhaps most importantly it’s actually a little… well, sad, because my sexual history itself is a little sad sometimes. When I published it, my goal was to make a followup game that was less about “how this shit can fuck you up” and “coming to love having sex in a fat body.” As you can imagine, the story-game about how life was bad to me was easy to make; the [I don’t know what]-game about gay fucking while fat never materialized because how.

I’m not a programmer or a 3D artist; there’s a reason most of the games I’ve made alone are text-based. I’m a writer. And the problem I kept ramming my head against was, how do I really give the player some sort of way to really get what I’m talking about? All the possibilities I could imagine — floridly evocative prose, including actual literal explicit photographs of my own body as reference points and almost doing away with text entirely — felt awful, invasive, and most importantly ineffective. So it lay fallow.

You can probably imagine where this line of thought is taking me: I have to wonder, what would the Robert Yang-style tactile gay sex game about fat bodies look like? Is that a reasonable approach to this, or would it backfire? Part of the success of Yang’s work relies on its intentionally (and enjoyably) goofy presentation; it plays well with the magic crayon-like abstraction of the activity (jerking off a car, washing someone’s back, spanking your submissive, taking a dick pic). But part of me thinks: would that work for talking about fat bodies, which are — in the gay male world especially — already the target of jokes?

On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly what’s needed. Maybe I need the gay sex game where the utter ridiculousness of trying to arrange a 69 with two hefty partners is on display. Maybe I need the gay sex game where the player is put into this “average” body — or more accurately a “normal” body — but its desire for a fat body is just a given. Maybe I need the gay sex game where navigating the weird tensions between softness and hardness, and our femme/masc readings of fat flesh vs. muscle and bone, are an actual tactile part of the game.

At the very least, it would be — much as Rinse and Repeat and the rest of Robert Yang’s most recent titles — an interesting experiment.

So what do you say, Robert? It’d be a good chance to brush up on your soft body physics!

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