Robert Yang’s Hard Lads (2020) is a short computer game about hitting someone on the back with a folding chair, a comedy of incompetence inspired by the viral YouTube video titled “British Lads Hit Each Other With Chair.” The video shows a group of young, shirtless Englishmen in the confused ecstasy of what appears to be an overlong day-drinking session, trying to execute a perfect chair hit, like the ones they’ve seen in pro wrestling matches, in a cramped back alley between rows of Tyneside flats somewhere in Northern England. It climaxes when the chair inadvertently opens mid-swing and its front legs crash into the lower back and shoulder of a wine-drunk twentysomething, who falls to the ground, where, just a few seconds earlier he shattered an empty bottle, his face glassy-eyed and vacant as a strand of thick white saliva dangles from the corner of his mouth.
As with all memes, people saw in the video what they wanted. Some found an unexpected resonance with Herbert James Draper’s Lament for Icarus (1898), in the way the drunken lad’s friends gathered round to cradle him just as the nymphs comfort the fallen Icarus in the fin-de-siècle painting. I nostalgically recalled the Camp Kill Yourself videos that teens used to trade on DVD in the early 2000s, before MTV executives converted the suburban stunt concept into the hit series “Jackass.” For those with some knowledge of contemporary England, the chair video depicted righteous punishment for a few specimens from the much-loathed Geordie subculture of working-class jocks with sculpted bodies and hair in gloomy northern cities like Newcastle. For Yang, it was an endearing portrait of “straight mate energy” and the tender vulnerability coursing beneath its hard exterior, perceptible in the guilt-stricken tone of the fallen lad’s friend, who promises, “I’m not doing that again. I’m not doing that again. That’s ridiculous.”
In a post on his blog, Yang describes Hard Lads as a “masculinity simulator,” a digital re-creation of an endearingly bumbling initiation rite into straight male culture through the half-joking administration of violence. For Yang, the fact that two of the lads in the video kiss on the mouth at the outset was as unexpected as the chair unfolding. While there’s some evidence the practice of straight men in England have taken to kissing on the mouth as a greeting—one 2010 study found nine of ten male university students did it—the gesture left him with the feeling it had been a stunt or hazing ritual. “The underlying joke is that LGBTQ intimacy is less real than their strong infallible heteromasculine bond,” Yang writes.
Perhaps because of this built-in tension, Hard Lads feels unlike any of Yang’s previous games, which animate sensual responses to simple gestures. In Succulent (2015), the player uses a trackpad or mouse to guide a melting popsicle in and out of a man’s mouth, while two clones of the same man fondle themselves in the background. As the player gradually intensifies strokes, the screen distends into a sherbet-colored psychedelic orgasm. Rinse and Repeat (2015) casts the player as a man in a communal gym shower, scrubbing another man’s chest and back with mouse movements or trackpad strokes. Follow careful instructions about tempo and intensity and you’ll be rewarded with exhalations signifying deep satisfaction.
In Hard Lads, these euphoric flourishes of sensuality are absent. The player is cast not as a participant but as the cameraman shooting the video with a smartphone. Initially, the simulation is so faithful it feels restrictive—the polygonal characters are frozen in place like improv actors waiting for a prompt. The viewfinder overlays a few icons on the scene. Pressing them re-creates moments from the original video. A heart triggers a kiss between the man swinging the chair and the man who will be hit, a sweet split-second moment in the video promising no hard feelings between the two should anything go wrong. You can also direct the man about to be hit to take a drag of his cigarette, forcing him to hold the butt to his lips for as long as you like. Same goes for a bottle of wine, which he can sip or chug in its entirety.
When you finally select the icon to begin the chair hit, the action is awkward and inconclusive, translating the angle and velocity of trackpad or mouse strokes into a stuttering, start-stop overhead swing. You’ll eventually knock your mate to the ground, and after a few seconds he’ll get back up and you can simply repeat the sequence, maybe skipping the kiss or wine drinking to cut straight to the chair attack the second, third, or fourth time through.
There’s a disappointing sense of limited horizons at this stage of the game, like the feeling you get when listening to the setup for a joke you’ve heard before. But if you knock the lad down with the chair again and again and again, a small miracle occurs. A second chair drops from the sky. As you knock him to the ground again, more chairs fall, until the scene is covered in them. It has an almost biblical feel: a miscoded rain of frogs, the kind of manna from heaven a Geordie-loving god would send down to care for his creations.
Once the cramped alley is flooded in chairs, the fallen lad’s body rises into the sky, less like Icarus than Christ being called back to heaven. This movement originated in a glitch that Yang decided to keep and transform into the game’s finale. As the lad floats upward, a chorus of faceless silhouettes appear on the surrounding rooftops singing an all-male a cappella version of Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply.” (The song comes from another viral video produced as a Valentine’s Day marketing campaign for Puma, encouraging men to be more sensitive and romantic.)
If the abruptness of this conclusion leaves you unsatisfied, you can start the game over. Small differences emerge. For the second playthrough, Yang has hung a digital reproduction of Draper’s Lament for Icarus on a brick wall in the alley, and when clicked it overlays a Fibonacci spiral onto the smartphone viewfinder. A third playthrough includes a simulated relief of Daedalus and Icarus. Click it and the world turns black and white. On the fourth playthrough, Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560) leans against the gate. Click it to add a large pair of feathery white wings to the back of the lad being hit. For the final run, Yang leaves the player alone in the cold damp alley, with only the original video playing on the polygonal phone. It seems eerily unrelated to any of the game’s previous permutations. The longer you look at the video, the more it becomes just another scene, every little detail that once seemed so fantastically unthinkable—two straight men kissing on the mouth for luck!—becomes predictable, inevitable, as thoughtlessly familiar as stations of the cross.
There’s a lonesomeness in the game that’s missing from the original video, reinforced by the distant anonymity of the singing silhouettes on the rooftop at the end, and the main menu screen you return to after each playthrough. The screen doesn’t show any of the lads, but rather two unfamiliar young men with shaved heads viewed from behind. On the soundtrack an original ambient composition by Ella Guro conveys a spooky tension. The men seem to be on the verge of turning around, aware that someone is watching them. Over time, the game starts to feel less like an appreciation of the tenderness of masculine social bonds than an exorcism of the experience of watching this tenderness from afar online.
In earlier work, Yang focused intently on physical response to simple actions. In Hard Lads, there’s no attempt to represent the pain of being hit with a folding chair. Former WWE wrestler John Cena said it “hurts like a swarm of killer bees devouring your soul.” Having that force concentrated into the ends of two chair legs would only make the feeling worse, potentially causing a kidney contusion or even rupture, maybe fracturing a rib or causing a tear in the thin muscle tissue between them that helps expand and contract the diaphragm with each breath. The final seconds of the video show telltale symptoms of organ damage: disorientation, nausea, difficulty breathing, an apparent sudden drop in blood pressure, an instinctive urge to lie down to try and keep up adequate blood flow to the brain.
Yang ignores these sensual dimensions of pain and damage as readily as the lads themselves. And so the game is a kind of homage to dissociation, a network of interactive distractions designed to help players pretend that what’s happening right in front of them might be something else entirely. In the ending apotheosis, everyday sadism transforms into a spectacle so powerful, so mythically self-complete there’s almost no room for anything outside of it. What could be straighter than that?