Genderwrecked is playful, poetic, lonely, beautiful, and gross. It’s a brilliant visual novel about a post-apocalyptic journey of self-discovery and gender. And also kissing, fighting, and talking to monsters, all of whom are endearing and grotesque in their own charming ways. One is a fiery ball of cosmic horror that alternates between shrinking with shyness and blazing with infernal fury. Another is a floating cube studded with sherbet-colored eyes that transforms into a gaping maw when it speaks. At some point, developer Heather Robertson promises that we’ll encounter a horde of children who are made entirely of ground beef, and “it’s horrifying, and I love them.” A free demo is up on Itch.io, and the game will be out January 18 for PC, Mac, and Linux.
Robertson and artist Ryan Rose Aceae have been working on the project for about a year now, and it’s inspired by discussions they’ve had about gender. The two creators describe it as “incredibly self-indulgent,” and the result is a game that feels personal, almost like an open conversation with a friend. It’s brimming with humor and punctuated with poignant moments about how messy and confusing the topic can be. Aceae is a comic book artist, and their colorful hand-drawn monsters pop against Robertson’s sparse ASCII art background.
“One thing that we wanted to encompass was the entirety of the experience of dealing with your own gender,” said Robertson. “Sometimes it’s really depressing. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on. But other times it’s an OK thing to laugh about and joke about. Just to have weird experiences with.”
“I think a lot of trans-centric media — the writers, the creators — try to make the experience of being trans so straightforward, and it’s so not,” said Aceae.
Genderwrecked is one of the biggest projects Robertson and Aceae have worked on, and now that it’s almost over, they’re looking toward the future. Aceae has a comic coming out in an anthology called We’re Still Here, which solely features transgendered creators. They also collaborated on a trans superhero coloring book that will be out sometime in the future. And Robertson, who’s impressively prolific, has two games coming up: Extreme Meatpunks Forever and Eternity. She’s also giving a talk at next year’s Game Developers Conference.
“It’s relieving and scary to have a release date,” said Aceae. “But we’re very close to the end of the game. We’re ready to put a date on it, and hopefully get people excited about it. As excited as we are.”
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Who are you, and how did you become game developers?
Heather Robertson: I’ve “been a game developer,” officially, for the past two or three years? It hasn’t been super recent. I mean, it has been fairly recent. I don’t know. I make a lot of stuff. Me and Ryan Rose have been working on this project together for about a year, and we’ve also been dating for about a year. Oh, and being in school. I go to the University of Southern California, the cinema school for game development. That’s where I’ve been studying for the past few years. I’ve been learning a lot about making games, making my own work on the side, doing schoolwork, and so on. It’s given me a lot of good experience.
Ryan Rose Aceae: Last May I graduated, also from the University of Southern California, the Roski School of Art and Design. I have a background mostly doing illustration, narrative, some comics. I ended up making a lot of friends in game design, because USC—there is a surprisingly robust queer community within the games community, so all of a sudden I realized all of my gay friends did game dev. I was like, “All right, well, I can draw and I can write, so why don’t I do this too?” I really fell in love with it. I’m not sure I’d consider myself a “game developer” yet —
Robertson: But you have been making a game for literally the past year, so —
Aceae: I’ve worked on a couple of game things and I want to keep doing it. It’s been fun. I’m definitely not Heather level of game developer, though.
GamesBeat: Speaking of Genderwrecked, can you tell me more about the inspiration there and how you started working together on the project?
Robertson: OK. We started working on Genderwrecked a little over a year ago. When we went into it, we knew we wanted to make something together, and so our first instinct was, “OK, let’s make something incredibly self-indulgent that we will like and we hope other people will like.” The first question that always came to mind when we were doing design decisions was always, “Is this something that we would enjoy doing and enjoy making?” That’s why we went for a visual novel, because it allowed both of us to use our skills to their fullest extent.
Aceae: We decided to make it about gender because that was something we had in common, that we bonded over some. We wanted to make a game that made us feel the way — in a way that we felt like we never really got to feel with media? Something that made us feel seen and that would make people like us feel seen in a way that I think is really rare.
Robertson: Representation, yeah.
Aceae: Or not even so much representation as just feeling that way.
Robertson: Yeah, I get that.
GamesBeat: I played the demo, and I felt like it had an intriguing blend of humor, but also the profound. When you meet Phil and they’re really hilarious, but then they talk about how their gender is a vacancy sign in a run-down hotel — it was really interesting how those two aspects are balanced. Can you talk about how you approached that?
Robertson: One thing that we wanted to encompass was the entirety of the experience of dealing with your own gender. Sometimes it’s really depressing. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on. But other times it’s an OK thing to laugh about and joke about. Just to have weird experiences with.
Aceae: It’s something that’s really common to trans folks. I think a lot of trans-centric media —the writers, the creators — try to make the experience of being trans so straightforward, and it’s so not. I think that there’s kind of like — like what you’re saying, there are two camps of being trans. There’s making stupid jokes about it and there’s trying to describe it in these really —
Robertson: — deep metaphors.
Aceae: Or not even deep metaphors, but really weird, esoteric, out-there — not even deep sometimes as just bizarre. I think that we both dabble in both of those.
Robertson: Right. Nobody’s ever truly in one camp.
Aceae: We also just don’t take ourselves very seriously.
Robertson: We don’t.
Aceae: We wanted to be poetic about it, but also we couldn’t write two lines of poetry without —
Robertson: — sticking a fart joke in there.
Aceae: Yeah, exactly.
GamesBeat: Do you view Genderwrecked as a game that speaks to other trans people who feel the way you two feel? Or do you see it as more of an educational game? “This is a messy topic with a lot of different approaches and everyone feels a different way and this is one perspective.”
Robertson: If people want to learn things from our game, they totally can, but we put this out —we are putting this out, because it’s still coming out soon — but we put this game out to talk about our experiences with other trans people. It’s not really an educational game.
Aceae: It was actually a really explicit design decision for the two of us, that we never wanted it to be an empathy game. We never wanted it to be a game that gave you the experience of what it’s like to be a trans person. We’ve had a couple of friends who are cisgender, don’t really have any complicated feelings about their gender, play the game, and some of them would come away saying things like, “I don’t feel like I really got it. I’m not sure I was able to empathize with the characters very much. Do you want to change that?” And we said, no, you know, I appreciate all of your feelings and the stuff you said about it, but I don’t think you’re necessarily supposed to empathize with the characters. I don’t think it’s supposed to represent what being trans is.
Robertson: Yeah. None of them are really representative of anything other than themselves.
Aceae: We had our original subtitle, “The Definitive Trans Experience,” which was like 500 percent ironic.
Robertson: Yeah. We’re changing that subtitle on the final version.
GamesBeat: Back when I was growing up, it was hard to find any sort of queer representation or trans representation in games. There wasn’t anything out there. And now there are games like yours available online. What do you think about how your game could impact people who are starting to figure out their identity? Or what place in the conversation do games like yours have?
Aceae: Something that has been really meaningful for us is seeing the reactions that trans people have had, particularly — I think we’ve had some younger trans people, our age or even younger, reacting to it and saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m Phil,” or “I want to kiss Fanny,” or whatever.
Seeing that kind of reaction, someone just instantly being able to relate to a character, is so meaningful. Just like you said, it was so rare for me growing up to find queer and trans characters that I related to. I think — we’re trying to make a game that represents people who feel true and honest to us. It seems like that’s also making characters that feel true and honest to other trans people who don’t see representation like that. And so I think it’s — we’re not trying to make any kind of definitive representation or necessarily make “strong trans characters” that set — what was it?
Robertson: Unrealistic expectations?
Aceae: Yeah, unrealistic expectations, or any kind of idealized idea. Or even necessarily characters that you can look up to. We’re just trying to depict the reality of these experiences that we have.
GamesBeat: Do you feel any sort of pressure, as trans creators, about whether or not the audience will misinterpret your intentions or your work? Do you find it challenging to try to separate yourself and not fall into tokenism or anything like that? Or is it just something that comes naturally?
Robertson: I personally have felt that kind of pressure at a couple of different times. We have definitely, at certain points, changed certain lines of dialogue to change how characters are represented.
But — the truth of the matter is that people in general are problematic. They’re messy. They’re weird. They’re all of these things that make us great and also make us kind of suck. We could make a game that’s 100 percent not toeing the line on anything. We definitely did have some points where we decided, OK, let’s step back from this line.
Aceae: Our characters are not perfect trans representation. They’re messy. They’re depressed. They have anger issues. A couple of them are a little bit stupid. I love them, but they’re a little bit stupid. They’re not what trans people should be, and they’re not this perfect view of what a queer or trans person is or should be. But they’re just people. Like us and like our friends. They’re dealing with a lot of issues. They’re not necessarily at their best. A lot of them are at low points in their lives. We weren’t trying to make perfect characters.
GamesBeat: Have you felt any effect from the current political climate in your work?
Robertson: I mean, there has definitely been some of that pressure. It seems like, in politics, every day something new that’s terrible happens. That’s always an adventure. Some of the emotional core of Genderwrecked, I feel, comes from that sense of exhaustion. There are parts of this game which are great. People are doing awesome. But there are also parts that are just about waking up on your worst day and keeping on going.
Aceae: I think something that’s interesting about Genderwrecked — stop me, Heather, if you think this is too spoiler-y — is that some of the heart of the game comes from, all right, we’ve gotten rid of — it’s kind of a world after gender is really an issue, so you don’t have people so much being oppressed on the basis of gender anymore.
So, all right, your oppressors are gone. You don’t have to worry about this anymore. Now what? Everything doesn’t magically fix itself overnight. There are still problems to deal with. There are new problems that come up. Having this place of hope, but also recognizing that there’s always going to be more work to do. We just have to come together and do the best that we can.
GamesBeat: Based on the demo, it has such a cool aesthetic, the blending of the ASCII art and the hand-drawn art. Can you talk about how you came to that?
Aceae: Absolutely 100 percent self-indulgent. I love drawing monsters. I really, really love drawing monsters. Like, so much.
Robertson: It’s true. They do.
Aceae: Some of the earlier character designs just came from me going into my sketchbook and looking at some monsters I doodled. Oh, cool, that’s a cool monster, I’ll put that in there somewhere. And then some of the later ones I designed around specific concepts. But I think we both just really did what was fun and what came naturally to us. I think a lot of the early aesthetic design of the game was both of us coming together saying, all right, this is a little bit of what we want to do, now let’s each go and have fun with it and put it back together again.
Robertson: I’ve been working on ASCII art for a couple of years now. It’s something I personally find very soothing to do, if that makes sense? It’s just a thing that I personally very much enjoy doing. Over the past couple of years, after doing it a lot, I became kind of good at it? So that was how I was able to add my own artistic spin to the game.
GamesBeat: Did you both do a bit of everything? With writing and art and coding. How is it split up?
Robertson: Ryan Rose did half of the design work, did most of the writing, and the character art.
Aceae: I did all of the character art, and I did most of the writing, although we made a lot of the writing decisions together. [laughs] Heather wrote Larry. Also just some bits and pieces throughout the game.
Robertson: Also I did the background art, and some of the sound design, though we have a friend who did most of the rest of the sound design.
Aceae: They did the beginning of the sound design, and then Heather took what they’d worked on and riffed on it for the rest, as they were unfortunately not able to finish working on the game with us.
Robertson: Also, I think I did all of the coding?
Robertson: All of the coding.
GamesBeat: I wanted to ask both of you a bit about the way you’ve evolved as creators and artists. Heather, I counted the games on your Itch.io page, and it’s like 25. And Ryan Rose, this is your first game project. How do you feel like you’ve evolved as a developer, Heather? And Ryan Rose, how do you feel your art has changed through working on a game, or has it at all?
Robertson: Personally, there are very few times at which I’m not working on multiple things. It’s kind of a problem, I know. I’m getting better at keeping it healthy. But counting board games and things I didn’t post online, I’ve actually made—I want to say 29 games in 2017?
Robertson: Yeah. Some of them are smaller. Some of them are much bigger. I think Genderwrecked may be the biggest one?
Aceae: Or Secret Spaces.
Robertson: Yeah, the second-biggest one is Genderwrecked.
Aceae: Genderwrecked is coming out in 2018, though, so you don’t have to measure it against Secret Spaces.
Robertson: It’ll be a different category altogether. But over the course of the past year I’ve learned a lot about not only game development as a whole, but also how to keep it healthy. How to create works and put all this time and effort into it without it actually taking away from my own well-being. That’s something I used to be really bad at. Now that I’m marginally better, it’s become much more enjoyable working on games.
Aceae: It’s been really good, seeing her able to take care of herself more too. I’m constantly checking in with you. Are you doing this because you feel pressure to do it, or because you love doing it? And increasingly she’s always answering, “No, working on this makes me feel really good,” and I love it. That’s really great to hear.
I’ve been doing comics for a while. I think they definitely have a lot in common with games. It’s been fun working on Genderwrecked because I was able to just focus on drawing characters. Just the character design, not thinking so much about—I can’t make this character that complicated because I’m going to have to draw them 14 times on this page. I think I found that really freeing, to just go ahead and enjoy and put a lot of detail into what I was making. I wouldn’t have to repeat it over and over again, the way that I would in comics.
I also definitely developed a bit more of a streamlined process. I wanted to make all of the sprites look like they went together. I didn’t have quite as much freedom to do each of them in a radically different style, as I would — in a work where everything’s ultimately coming together and looking like it belongs together. I think there’s kind of an interesting dynamic between freedom, freedom to play around, and a need to make everything go together.
I think when it comes to the writing, something that I both love and hate about games is that you’re going to write 20,000 words and 3,000 of them are going to make it into the game. It’s just accepting that a lot of what you do isn’t going to be in the final product, and you have to be OK with that. You have to be really willing to kill your babies and rewrite and listen to your writing partner’s suggestions and rewrite again. Redraw things a few times.
I think I’m really used to working independently, so sometimes it’s hard to listen to someone saying, “Oh, you should do this character a little bit differently because this joke doesn’t make any sense.” I’ll say, “No, the joke makes lots of sense!” And then I’ll give it a day and realize that Heather’s almost always right. So I think—it’s definitely been an interesting experience with my character art, and also, I think, made me a lot more receptive to listening to other people’s suggestions.
GamesBeat: You said it’s coming out in 2018. Do you have a ballpark as far as when that’s going to be, or is it still up in the air right now?
Robertson: All right, let’s announce the release date. The game is coming out on January 18, 2018.
Aceae: It’s relieving and scary to have a release date. We keep on saying, “Oh, it’ll come out in a few months, it’ll come out in a few more months.” But we’re very close to the end of the game. We’re ready to put a date on it, and hopefully get people excited about it. As excited as we are.
GamesBeat: Is it going to be weird to finally be done with it? It sounds like it’s been such an engaging experience for both of you.
Aceae: Yeah, I’m ready to be done with it. It’s been a good project, but it’s also been exhausting and overwhelming. I think it’s one of the biggest things that either of us has worked on.
Aceae: We’re ready to put it out in the world and let other people do the rest with it. I had someone ask me the other day, “Are you going to do anything else with Genderwrecked after it’s done? Are you going to do a spin-off comic or something?” And I’m like, “Don’t talk to me about Genderwrecked until it’s been out for at least six months.” We’re ready to put it out and put it aside for the foreseeable future.
Robertson: A bunch of cool plans for what’s ahead.
GamesBeat: Is there anything you can talk about?
Aceae: We’re not working on anything together for the foreseeable future. Heather has some stuff coming up soon that she’s excited for. I have — some things that I’m casually working on? I have a comic coming up soon, in an all-trans anthology called We’re Still Here, being put out by Stacked Deck Press. It’s a little five-page comic. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about it, but it’s really good.
Robertson: It’s really good!
Aceae: It’s fun. It’s some more fantasy trans shenanigans. So that’s fun. I also have a page in a coloring book, a trans superheroes coloring book that’s also being put out by Stacked Deck Press. No games that are coming soon, but a couple of things coming out.
Robertson: I’m currently working on a couple of different projects, which are coming out not super soon, but within the next few months probably. The two major ones that I want to talk about real fast are Eternity, which is a first-person stealth horror game I’m making, about a monster that can change the past. I’ve been working on that for about a month now. And I actually am finally able to talk about this, I’m presenting a GDC talk about some of my findings in that game.
The other thing is — this is going to be upcoming. I’m making a — OK, the description is a lot of words all at once. It’s a hyperkinetic antifascist mech brawler called Extreme Meatpunks Forever. It’s going to be really fun thing to work on, and also a fun thing to play. It’s about this group of antifascist rebels who drive around these mechs made of meat and just punch people and are generally disasters of people.
Aceae: Is it really a mech if it’s made out of meat?
Robertson: The M stands for Meat. The E stands for…mech? [Laughs] Yeah. So those are the two things I’m working on, upcoming soon.
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