Visual novels are a staple source of representation in the LGBTQIA+ game community. Whether they use Twine, Ren’Py, Unity or some other engine few mediums allow a creator to tell their stories and share experiences like like you can in a VN.
Most visual novels you encounter are usually on the shorter side; telling a single story on a mostly linear path, getting the point across, telling the tale. Some others however take things to a whole other level to say exactly what they want to. Games like Yearning: A Gay Story.
A full playthrough of YAGS could take you eight hours or more, depending on the choices you make and how fast you read. The number of characters and choices you have in front of you is mind-boggling.
That’s why we’ve got Bob Conway in today to talk about Yearning: A Gay Story…
Jamie: Today on Digital Diversity I’m talking to Bob Conway of bobcgames about his coming out/slice of life visual novel, Yearning: A Gay Story. Welcome to Digital Diversity, Bob. A pleasure to have you here.
Let’s start nice and easy: Tell us a little about yourself and about YAGS
Bob: I’m Bob Conway. I’m 30 years old and happily married to an amazing husband. I write software for a living and spend most of my free time either playing board games or working on visual novels. I started creating visual novel games about two years ago.
YAGS was my first project, and it’s a visual novel about being gay, making friends, and coming out. It’s inspired by the visual novel Coming Out on Top, but intended to “fix” the parts of that game I didn’t think were as strong. So YAGS focuses on the coming out experience, as well as in tying any potential romances into the larger story, rather than having them exist as proper separate “routes” in the game.
Since YAGS took so long, I’ve also worked on and released three other collaborative VNs in the meantime (Whale’s Waldo for Nanoreno 2018, Xenopathy for YaoiJam 2018, and Earth Boys are Easy for BaraJam 2018). I’m currently working on the YAGS sequel (ZAGS) as well as planning out another collaboration for Nanoreno 2019.
Jamie: A game that takes 8 hours for a single playthrough is an epic commitment, not to mention all the other paths available for re-playing.
What inspired you to create such an incredibly huge project as your first game?
Bob: It wasn’t intended to be as large as it ended up being, and that was more a result of me having no real plan when I started writing. I knew I wanted to have enough time to develop your friendship with a potential boyfriend, as well as actually have time for a relationship to grow, which suggested a longer game, but I had no real story in mind before I started.
The final length was therefore not planned, as much just where it ended up when I felt like I’d told all the stories I needed to tell. I didn’t really stop writing until I’d run out of ideas, which coincided nicely with the end of a single semester of college.
In retrospect, I should have started with a much smaller and well-scoped project. But at least it was a good learning experience.
Jamie: All in all you put in a lot of time and heart and made a beautiful game. That’s the important thing. I hope you’re proud of what you’ve achieved.
Speaking of important things, the most important question I have to ask is of course which of the romance-able characters is your favourite? Who would you start dating if you’d met them on campus?
Bob: James is probably my favorite character, although I think a relationship with him would not go very well because I’d drive him crazy.
As far as actually dating, probably Jake.
Jamie: Jake is adorable, it’s no wonder he’s such a popular choice when it comes to romancing. Think I picked him mainly because I don’t think I could see myself dating anyone who wasn’t really into boardgames.
Since it was your first game, how many aspects of game creation did you find yourself having to learn from scratch to pull it together?
Bob: Basically all of it? In addition to it being my first time really making a game, it was my first time using RenPy, as well as my first time attempting to write Python code. I also wasn’t really tied into any dev communities yet, so I basically banged my head against the engine until it did what I wanted it to do instead of asking for help.
I found out later, of course, that Ren’Py has much easier ways to do 90% of the things I did, and I think I actually learned a lot more about proper use of the engine from the shorter jam projects I did.
YAGS was my first time really attempting to write an extended piece of text, so even though a lot of it is semi-autobiographical, it was a learning experience. I’ve received comments from some people that they like how much the game attempts to adapt to their choices and decisions, but that’s really because I just didn’t know any better, and coming from a programming background, my instinct was to add and track decisions everywhere.
But maybe the part that I was least prepared for was just finding, contacting, and then managing others. I have no artistic ability, so I had to hire people to do the sprites, backgrounds, and music, and I learned a lot about setting guidelines, deadlines, and expectations from that.
(In a couple of the jam projects, I was spoiled by a friend who acted as a project manager and did all that interfacing work between everyone. I didn’t miss having to do it.)
Jamie: At least you’re well prepared for the sequel, right? Now you’ve done it all the hard way you can try it the easy way and see how that works for you.
What are some things that you knew you had to include in the game? Any specific elements of coming out or interaction you felt were vital to making YAGS what it is?
Bob: LayeredImage is a lifesaver and replaces like 300 lines of custom sprite code, so that’s one Ren’Py feature I’ll take full advantage of in ZAGS. Plus I have a lot fewer pieces of art to commission, so I’ll be able to focus more on the parts I enjoy.
The big things I wanted to include, again, were things I felt like CooT mostly glossed over. I wanted the main character to really struggle with their sexuality, the way I did and I feel like a lot of other LGBT people do. I wanted to try and convey how coming out isn’t an easy thing, even when you know it’ll be okay, even to friends and especially to family.
I also wanted to include a route that more explicitly dealt with an inability to come out and self-acceptance, again because I think CooT tried to do it in Brad’s route, but I don’t think it really hit the right notes. (You haven’t seen much of this, having gone down Jake route, so I won’t talk a lot about it here.)
Finally, I also wanted to include some people that were out and comfortable with themselves, as kind of role models that I wish I had when I was younger and trying to come out. It’s a happy accident that they ended up being such polar opposites, but I think it’s better that way because, as James puts it, “there is no right way to be gay.”
I don’t pretend to understand or represent everyone’s experience with being gay and coming out, but my primarily goal was to give players a hopefully-accurate experience and understanding of mine.
Jamie: Being true to your own experiences is definitely the way to go, I agree. All too often we see media where people claim to represent the experiences of others without even talking to those they try to represent, and it rarely ends well.
Since we’re on the subject of representation do you have any favourite games that you feel do queer representation well? Or even ones that got close but didn’t quite hit the mark?
Bob: To be honest, I didn’t really play any particularly queer games until I got into gamedev, and I tend not to play a lot of video games in general, so I don’t have a lot of examples to pull from.
I keep going back to Coming Out on Top, but it’s probably still the most well-known game that really tried to address the coming out and queer (or at least gay male) experience. I’ve already talked about how I think it falls a little short, but I really appreciate it as an attempt to really focus on those aspects.
A game by a friend, a Fairy Special Night, also has some good representation of a gay man and his insecurities about himself and his sexuality, but it’s not yet complete.
In general though, I mostly encounter queer characters in games and situations where their queerness is secondary — which, don’t get me wrong, is always great to see in games, and amazing to see more in more AAA games. But I don’t think I’ve encountered any problematic representation, there. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.
As far as *good* representation though, the one that stands out to me is the Tracis in Detroit Become Human. It might just be because it’s one of the more recent things I’ve played, but I really liked how it matter-of-factly presented the couple, with the same motivations and fear and affection that any other couple would have. Their queerness felt mostly secondary, which is maybe why I thought it was good representation.
Jamie: I’ve yet to play Coming Out on Top, heard it spoken about quite a bit so might have to add it to my to-play list.
Let’s indulge in a little bit of pride for a moment. What are the parts of YAGS that you are the most proud of creating? Maybe a character stands out for you more than others or the impressive array of inedible food?
Bob: I think I’m most proud of the characters in general? I like to think I did a pretty good job making all of them feel like real people, even if you can’t date them, and I think that YAGS really only works *because* of that.
Otherwise, I’m proud of the behind-the-scenes code things I did around sprites: All of those weird quirky details that only worked because I had the world’s most accommodating artist, from varying Adam and James’ facial hair depending on how busy they were at different points in the story, to changing (even minorly) everyone’s clothes by the day and for the season, to having things like Adam’s torn shirt and Carlos’ cast based on story events, and having the option to completely switch the sprite style. (All of which are why my sprite framework was 300 lines of code.)
I guess there’s a reason I’m a programmer…
Jamie: Haha, yep. Honestly I can’t even fathom putting something of YAGS‘s scale together. You definitely earn your programmer badge with that one. So tell us about the future of BobCGames. You’ve got the sequel on the way, any other projects your currently working on?
Bob: ZAGS is my only current project, although as stated I’ll be doing another collaborative VN for Nanoreno 2019 next month. It’s going to be nothing like a dating sim, which will be a welcome writing change.
Otherwise, I’m looking to maybe tone back the gamdev a bit in 2019. I feel like I sunk too much energy into it last year, so there’s nothing other than those two games on the horizon, for now. (I also have a huge backlog of games by friends to play, so I should make time for that.)
At some point I’d like to make something that isn’t a visual novel, as well, but I don’t really have any plans there yet.
Jamie: Sounds like the perfect time to round things up with the magical Xmas land question: If you could make any game you wanted, with no limits as to time, resources or team, what would you create?
Bob: Weirdly, I think it’d be YAGS but with a lot more art and actual CGs for a lot of the scenes (including all of the sex scenes). In a lot of ways, YAGS already is the kind of game I’d always wanted to make, but it falls short of my desires for it, on the art side, because of budgetary (and artist time) reasons.
I guess I could always have another big idea down the line that would change that answer. 🙂
Jamie: “YAGS Remastered” Sounds like a super fun idea all the same. Time to set up a crowdfund!
Thank you for joining me today, Bob. It’s been great hearing more about the process and design of Yearning: A Gay Story after the emotional high that came from playing it. Anything you’d like to say or people you’d like to give a shout out to?
Bob: Thank *you* for the interview!
I just want to thank everyone that made this game possible, but especially my artists and composer and everyone that has been incredibly supportive of my gamedev efforts. And last, but certainly not least, my husband.