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  • Ryan House

Yoku's Island Express: Queer, Contra-Colonial Game Design

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

[Cross-posted to Serious Play's Blog]

This week on Coffee Break, I finally played the game that I’ve been talking about for weeks: Yoku’s Island Express. For me, this game excels on a lot of fronts. First, it’s an unlikely mash-up of the pinball and metroid-vania genres that comes together so naturally that you’ll question how you could have ever thought it sounded strange in the first place. More importantly, though, it’s a refreshing break from the various exercises in domination featured, explicitly or implicitly, in the vast majority of commercial videogames. It expresses a compassionate set of values that asks players to embody a thoughtful and reflective relationship with the game’s world and its systems through queer, “contra-colonial” game design.

I’ll explain what I mean by that soon, but first, let me give a quick synopsis of the game for those unfamiliar with it. Players take on the role of Yoku, an ungendered dung beetle, who, soon after being washed ashore on the island, is rather unceremoniously bequeathed the role of its postmaster. (The last postmaster, Posterodactyl, was just over it.) As the plot progresses, Yoku must assist the island’s inhabitants in saving the spirit of the island, Mokuma, mostly by delivering things to people. I’ve already mentioned the game’s pinball elements: while players can move Yoku (and their ball) right and left, there is no ability to jump. Instead, players must manipulate pinball paddles to navigate the island’s labyrinthine structures while collecting various abilities to access new areas to explore.

This pinball mechanic informs a large part of my claim that this game expresses queer values. Drawing on Bonnie Ruberg’s work on the queer art of failing[1], I argue that the pinball mechanic foregrounds a mode of failure as process. Because of the inherent contingency in hitting a moving ball with a stationary paddle, players must internalize a sort-of trail and error approach to progression in the game. For example, this could take the form of players attempting to hit the ball through a particular corridor and it taking several attempts for the player to hit the ball at just the right moment to send it in the intended direction. Often, I found that my progression in the game was as accidental as it was purposeful; I would intend the ball to go a certain way but miss, only to hit a button or take a path I hadn’t noticed before. Thus, my failure at the intended plan of action generated an unexpected success or, at the very least, a pleasant detour. These were productive failures that challenged my notions of success.

Moreover, Yoko themself embodies a queer hero. Their diminutive stature, both physically and socially[2], diverge from the archetypal champion of the hero’s journey. They are small and weak; they cannot destroy barriers without the explosive slugs, they cannot break clay pots without the party horn, and they cannot even jump. They’re also, again, a dung beetle and a civil servant. Conan the Barbarian, they ain’t. This de-emphasis of the traditionally masculine attributes of the hero figure positions the player into a role in which they might embody another kind of hero. A queer hero[3]. Moreover, the goals of the game are focused on helping others rather than defeating them (with a few minor exceptions). However, even when “violence” appears, it is framed as defensive andnot a solution to the problem. Indeed, at the end of the game, the player vanquishes the threat to the island through forgiveness, not punishment.

These values are presented non-diegetically, too, through the game’s design. To my eye, Yoku evokes the aesthetics and game design of “casual games,” such as Peggle[4]. Bright colors, satisfying sound effects, a de-emphasis on twitch reactions and complicated controls, fruit floating in bubbles to collect that keep on appearing, and a nearly inconsequential “fail state”[5]. Games such as these are typically coded as feminine and, as such, not “real” games. Anna Cameron provides a very useful summary of the scholarship around this idea[6]. She starts with the notion that women typically have less leisure time to devote to long gaming sessions. They spend disproportionally more time caring for others, such as childcare, housework, preparing meals, etc. What time for gaming they do have is typically in shorter bursts in-between these other tasks. Furthermore, gaming technology is typically coded as masculine. Cameron points to work done on “pink games,” i.e. games made about stereotypical girls’ interests like horses and cooking, that points to a widely held belief in the games industry that girls aren’t interested in videogames in and of themselves. Thus, gaming machines are marketed to males and feminized gaming experiences are relegated to other, more appropriate devices like smart phones. By combining these “casual” design elements with the architectural design of the metroid-vania, Villa Gorilla seem to be challenging those gendered notions of play and games.

This idea of the game reclaiming a space in the gaming landscape from the hyper-masculine forces that would control it brings me to my claim of Yoku being a contra-colonial game. After some consideration, I’ve landed on the prefix contra-because it expresses the idea of “being opposite of”, not “in opposition to” like anti- or even “lacking the quality of” like un-, though I do believe some of the meaning of both of those are present in what I mean by contra-colonial. Let me explain….

As stated above, the diegetic goal of the game is to protect the island from an outside invader, the God Slayer. Yoku is themself an outsider – a position that could easily place them (and the player) into a situation in which they must save the islanders from themselves through their inherent (white-coded, usually) superiority. But this game ain’t like that. Instead, Yoku is integrated into the society of the island through community work. The player’s first meta-task (an overarching goal that spans nearly half the game or so) is to bring together leaders of the island in order to face the invasion. Yoku isn’t put into the role of a savior of the island, rather they merely facilitate community action. They are subsumed into the “flow” of the island’s way of life; they don’t try to change it or force their way of life onto it. Narratively, this is expressed through Yoku’s becoming the postmaster. Procedurally, its expressed through the game’s main mechanic: the pinball flippers. Movement, and thus progression, is not completely out of the player’s control – they still have agency – but they must acclimate to the way the island demands to be traversed. They are unable to impose their will over it and, instead, must accept and adopt it.

To me, this construction seems to be perhaps even more enlightening than typical anti-colonial narratives in which an indigenous force fends off would-be colonizers. This is not at all to say that those stories are unimportant; they are. But those stories are still reactions to a worldview that is presented as inevitable and the natural order of things. People come, they try to take, “we” must stop them. Instead, Yoku challenges that ideological presupposition by presenting players with another mode of being in the world – one that imagines a way of sharing our experiences of the world divorced from empirical and capitalistic motivations. It allows players to enact this anti-, this ­un-, this contra-colonialism so that they, too, can conceive of its possibility.

So, what do you think? Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to respond to your thoughts during next week’s Coffee Break (2/17) where I’ll be playing through some more Yoku’s Island Express.

[1] Video Games Have Always Been Queer, New York University Press, 2019. [2] I assume the dung beetle to be low in the peerage of the animal kingdom. Maybe that’s presumptuous of me. [3]This reading is informed by Alexander Doty’s work in Making Things Perfectly Queer (1993) in which he argues that even straight, cis-gendered individuals can experience a queer reception of a text and break through the hegemonic ideology that renders queerness in mass culture texts invisible to them. [4] [5]When players lose a ball to the “drain,” a certain number of fruit is deducted from their wallet, but there is no death. *I should note that I never experienced what happens when there is no fruit to lose.* [6]Cameron, Anne. "No More Games: An Intersectional Approach to Geek Masculinity and Marginalization in Video Gaming Culture," Gnovis Journal, April 12, 2019.

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