Yearning (usually referred to as YAGS) debuted a few weeks ago, in late January. It’s also free, which is both welcome and baffling, since it’s a long, ambitiously-designed game. (I imagine the programming on it must have been hideously complex.) It came to my attention when Obscura, the author of Coming Out on Top, tweeted about it. On the surface, the games are similar: both visual novels/dating sims place you in the role of a recently-out, gay college student who happens to have a distractingly hot, straight roommate, and you play through the term, making choices that will have a reasonably heavy impact on your character’s future.
Despite the games’ similar setup, they’re dramatically different. Whereas COOT was a sex comedy, YAGS is more of a young adult novel. I described COOT as being set in Porn World, but YAGS is set in something much closer to the real world. When I wrote about COOT yesterday, I talked about its college setup as a fantasy. YAGS makes a series of large and small choices subverting and puncturing that type of fantasy.
The two games are apples and oranges. No, wait: they’re apples and eggplants.
I loved this game, and I’m fascinated by it. When I played COOT, it made me aware of a largely unfilled niche from which I wanted more things, some of which were incompatible with one another. I’m delighted that YAGS fills another corner of that niche.
I don’t want to do YAGS a disservice by talking about COOT too extensively, but I’m fascinated by the parallels and differences between them. Parts of YAGS felt to me like a reaction to COOT. Interestingly, the game also gives itself a very specific timeframe: 2006, which I suspect suggests some things about the story Conway wanted to tell.A lot has changed for gay people in America since 2006. There are more positive media representations for queer people than ever before. Gay marriage was legalized. PrEP has changed the sexual landscape for many. I imagine that the experience of young LGB youth – depending on where they are – may be drastically different.*
YAGS places its story a little before all of that. It also gives itself a specific location far away from America’s coastal bubbles of liberalism. Our protagonist, Chris, is a freshman in his first couple of weeks of college. He’s placed in a context in which coming-out is not easy.
At the outset, Chris is closeted to everyone but a friend in his home state. Coming-out to anyone else in the game is optional for the first couple of weeks. (I’m told you eventually have to come out, but I haven’t experienced this.) While overall, Chris is safe in coming-out, homophobia – both external and internalized – are a specter that haunts the narrative. While it’s possible to meet other gay students who are out of the closet, you’ll also encounter kids who are closeted and scared.
A sharp contrast to COOT, we never see what Chris looks like. Aside from some early givens – his long-distance best friend, his initial discomfort with his gay identity – he’s a blank slate whose personality is built through a clever, opaque system in which the game tracks your early choices, using them to set the range of dialog and actions available to him. Is he friendly? Shy? Empathetic? Studious? Irresponsible? In addition, each time you meet another guy, you can determine whether Chris finds him attractive, and this, too, determines a lot. Because there’s so dramatically much choice involved in the game, I haven’t come close to finding all its different permutations.
Part of the game’s impressive ambition is to make its stories intertwine. I gather that most dating sims make you choose and follow one narrative branch at the expense of the others. YAGS took on the daunting task of creating a coherent social universe. While some choices will lock off other possibilities, it’s always in the context of social physics: if you’re openly dating someone, others may not hit on you out of simple decency. The evolution of most of these friendships feels remarkably organic.
YAGS adopts a Persona-like approach to time management. You play through a few months on what is frequently a day-by-day basis, with only occasional fast-forwarding until the game’s end. It’s a long game, and to a degree, that’s very satisfying.
YAGS makes excellent use out of its college setting, although the life Chris leads is largely mundane. That’s not a criticism; it’s often one of the game’s strengths. Chris goes to class, studies, plays games, and eats meals, usually with friends. This day-to-day normality makes disruptions to the routine feel significant. It also helps his friendships feel more substantial and lived-in.
Chief among those friendships are Adam, the hunky, straight roommate you meet at the beginning of the game, and his frat brother Carlos. Together, they’re my favorite of the game’s characters. I nearly got the wrong idea about the game at first because they’re two of the game’s most conventionally-attractive male characters, and they’re frequently, casually undressed around you.
Adam in particular is a good example of the interesting stuff YAGS does surrounding gay desire, with moments of brief titillation that reflect what Chris is going through; assuming he’s attracted to Adam (I’ve yet to try a playthrough in which he isn’t), it’s more frustrating than exciting for him. This isn’t fantasy material: Adam – who, again, is straight – is not one of the characters Chris can date over the course of the term. Naturally, Adam is also (arguably) the game’s most crushable guy. The game is titled “Yearning,” after all.
Although YAGS contains elements about sex, it doesn’t make those things out to be automatic or easy. Some newly-out characters are extremely anxious about physical intimacy. Whereas COOT had been set in comedic-porn-world appropriate to its tone, YAGS grounds sex in reality. Not every male romantic interest or sex partner has an underwear-catalog physique or fantasy dick. In most of the game’s storylines, characters are scrupulous about safe sex; condoms are regularly used for oral sex.**
The game has some explicit content – you may sometimes see a guy naked, and, very rarely, hard – but it’s censored by default, and it feels at times like the game is reluctant to indulge in leaning too sexy. Sex scenes fade to black. On the other hand, if the player is dating and intimate with someone, sex may crop up regularly, which is a major contrast to typical dating-sim narratives, in which sleeping with a guy often comes at the (forgive the inevitable pun) climax of the story. Here, sex is just one part of relationships.
There is one storyline that treats sex very differently, and it’s the one about which I’m most ambivalent. Dan, a chubby bear who’s a potential romantic interest, is openly gay and aggressively forward. He’s got good self-esteem and he’s secure in his identity, but he comes across as kind of a creep. In some parts of the story, Dan shows a keen interest in ethics around consent and non-monogamy, but he also shows a near-total absence of consideration for other people’s comfort and boundaries. He either doesn’t realize that he’s scaring other characters away from the college’s LGBT support group, or he doesn’t care. (A friend of mine with whom I discussed this pointed out it’s hardly unbelievable for a young person to be self-absorbed and only semi-woke.) Parts of the story if Chris pursues Dan strike me as coercive in a way that works against the story’s ethical-slut theme.
Thing is, I know that guy. I’ve met that guy when I was young and recently-out. His inclusion in this game, and the way he impacts the newly-out gays around him for better and worse, feels insightful. It’s also fascinating that the avenue of the game that’s sex-intensive is also the one that features (potentially a few) guys with more realistic body types.
He’s exemplary of one of the ways in which YAGS subverts expectations: none of the four*** relationships Chris can pursue during the term feel perfect. One of the game’s theses seems to be that relationships involve compromise, and not every compromise is comfortable, but this doesn’t mean those relationships can’t grow happily. The game’s “good endings” almost all got me choked up.
Given that the story in YAGS is remarkably fluid, I’m not entirely certain how much of it I’ve experienced; I’ve focused nearly all of my playthroughs on trying to make sure Chris has a happy term. In order to keep the narrative coherent, certain events happen in every playthrough, but there are a ton of permutations for the rest of the stories. I’ve played the game through at least six times, yet a friend who’s also playing it related multiple things unfolding in his game in a way I’ve never seen.
The same as COOT was not a perfect game, YAGS is not a perfect game. Sometimes, parts of the game’s mundane slice-of-life approach feel repetitive, and while the naturalistic dialog feels believable – actual humans don’t usually spout dialog that pops – there are moments of tedium. (I love board games, but the board gaming segments in this game had me reaching for the “skip” button.) There’s a moment in one of the romances involving infidelity, in which all my choices felt unrealistically well-adjusted. There are a few curious repeating elements: pairs of women with easy-to-confuse names, broken laptops, seriously unappetizing food. Poor Chris couldn’t get a tasty-sounding pizza until my playthrough pursuing Dan.
All of those, however, are quibbles about a tremendously impressive, ambitious game. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d hoped COOT would inspire. Bob Conway is apparently already working on a sequel, “Zen: A Gay Story,” which he claims will be less ambitious. (I am skeptical about the less-ambitious part given that YAGS was his first visual-novel project, and his ambitious, kitchen sink approach gave us a game that feels shockingly complete.) I’m both delighted that this game exists and eager to see what it, in turn, might inspire other creators to do.
Yearning: A Gay Story is available – I seriously cannot believe this – on a pay-what-you-want basis on itch.io. Although I donated when I picked up the game, I confess that my experience playing it made me feel like I seriously underpaid. I love the idea, though, that there’s zero barrier to entry, and that maybe this game will find its way into the hands of someone who’ll find it not just entertaining, but helpful.
* – I don’t want to make assumptions about how much has improved for transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary Americans. My suspicion is that while it may be better, it’s not comparable to the kind of progress young lesbian and gay people have enjoyed.
** – I haven’t seen much of this practice since the 1990s except among serodiscordant couples, and I just can’t see misc_young_people being quite as reliably responsible about safer sex as most of the ones in this game. I get the sense that YAGS is, to an extent, deliberately modeling responsible behavior.
*** – There is a fifth, challenging, “secret” path that the predictive text on a Google search would spoil for you. I kinda wish I hadn’t found out before I played through a particular romance that hints strongly toward it. Shades of “Openly Straight.” It’s maybe the game’s most satisfying “good” ending, although all of them induce the feels.