All-male studios are common. All female studios? Less so. At last count, women only made up 8.7% of game developers in Australia. But Blush Box, a new initiative made up of five female developers, is bucking that trend.
This is a story about five women getting together to make a video game about sex, romance and everything inbetween. This is a story about spies, dinosaurs, beauty pageants and a strap-on named Havel.
Shell was in year 12. Shell was getting to know a girl. Let’s call this girl ‘Really Cute Girl’. That’s what Shell calls her.
Really Cute Girl asks Shell a question.
“If you could change anything in this world what would you change?”
Pause. Shell frowns.
“I guess I would have been born a girl.”
Another pause. Really Cute Girl doesn’t miss a beat.
“Then why don’t you just change?”
Shell always felt like something wasn’t right. Shell remembers being a child, wishing she were born different, asking her mother all sorts of questions. Asking about the differences between boys and girls. Shell remembers feeling confused.
Shell remembers having to compartmentalise. Shell remembers a Step Father – ex-military, traditional values – who made her terrified to accept her true self. Shell remembers having to push her truth inwards, to a place where it could not be easily retrieved.
“Why don’t you just change?”
The question hit like a bolt of lightning.
It was only then, remembers Shell, she realised that change was something she could actually do.
Shell was always making video games. Shell can't remember a time without video games. She can't remember a time when she wasn't trying to create them.
Some teenagers have diaries. Shell had video games. She ignored homework, ignored school. Video games. Shell taught herself to make them.
Shell spent two years making a video game she never released.
"I just wanted to live there," she says.
Shell made a game about Gods. In her game the Gods created children, but the children were made strange and didn't want to exist. Eventually the children realised their Gods were flawed and misguided so they revolted, disconnecting themselves from everything they represented. The children left home. They were alone in the world. There were no happy endings in Shell’s games back then.
Aged 17, Shell came out as a transgender woman.
Again: no happy ending. Shell's step-father kicked her out of the home she grew up in. The next few years, Shell says, were a blur. Meth-head room-mates and stalkers. House-breaks and heart breaks. Hormones, surgery, abandonment. Transition. Death.
"It is very common for trans-people to die," says Shell.
Many of Shell's transgender friends would commit suicide.
During gender re-assignment surgery overseas, Shell met a 43 year-old woman from Germany. They went through the process side-by-side, the physical trauma, the pain. They said goodbye. Shell went back to Australia and her friend flew back to Germany. Two months later Shell's friend was murdered by three men on the streets.
"She was such a good person," remembers Shell. "She was so incredibly smart and pure.
"She never even got to heal before she was killed."
It is very common for trans-people to die.
Shell once made a greyscale fantasy game. You create a child hero. The game assigns the hero with a tragic backstory. Your mission: rally and fight back against the difficulties of your own personal history.
Shell was always making video games.
Katie Gall stomps around upstairs, making a tremendous racket. "What’s that noise," shouts one friend. "Is there a Stegosaurus up there?”
From that moment onwards everyone called Katie ‘Steggy’.
For the longest time, Steggy thought her Dad was a spy.
“I'd catch his eye and think, ‘you're a spy aren't you’? And he'd stare back and I'd just know he was thinking ‘yeah, but I can't say anything’.”
It made sense. Steggy’s family moved around a lot. Steggy has lived in Australia, the UK, Moscow. All over the world.
But Steggy’s Dad wasn’t a spy. Steggy’s Dad sold cheese — for Anchor, the New Zealand Dairy company. And that’s why Steggy spent a large portion of her childhood on a farm in New Zealand.
That’s where she saw her first video game – Midtown Madness on the PC.
Steggy played a lot of video games; she also read a lot of books. Steggy found it difficult to make friends. She was always the new kid. Steggy found herself on the receiving end of some brutal bullying.
As a teenager Steggy fell in love with early Fantasy MMO, Runescape. All of a sudden worlds she’d read about in books were virtual spaces she could explore. Worlds she could become engulfed by.
“It was like magic,” says Steggy.
Steggy eventually moved back to Australia. The first thing she did: catch up with her Runescape questing partner, a boy she’d never met. The Runescape community was a diverse crowd. Steggy remembers knocking on one door, remembers that door being answered by a short, balding man in his 30s with piercings everywhere. Steggy was, at the time — her words — a 16 year-old bubble-face blonde.
This is the power of video games.
But video games would eventually take Steggy down another path. Years later, post-university, Steggy would co-found a company focused on video game marketing and PR, in the midst of Melbourne’s indie game development hub.
And that’s how Steggy met Kim Allom.
Kim remembers video games. Kim also remembers a cute boy named Levi and a powerful crush that meant video games had to sit by the wayside.
Kim wouldn’t truly fall in love with video games for at least another decade.
Kim was very nearly put up for adoption, by her 18-year-old mother. A woman who herself was put up for adoption as a child. Kim's mother had a change of heart..
Kim’s early childhood: a whirlwind of talent shows and beauty contests. Kim's mother was not the type of parent to introduce her little girl to video games.
But video games happened regardless. In 2007 Kim fell in love; at first sight. In the beginning it was Portal. Her then boyfriend showed her that, knowing Kim was obsessed with puzzles. Then it was BioShock, a game that transformed Kim’s idea of what a video game could be.
“How do you make these things?” Kim remembers asking herself in a hushed state of awe. The rest is history.
The whole thing was Kim's idea. She's to blame.
It was Kim who found the Lyst Summit, hosted in Norway. Kim who became obsessed after realising Lyst way dedicated to representations of love, sex and relationships in video games. Kim who discovered the Lyst summit was also running a 48-hour game jam focusing on those themes. Kim who had the bright idea of recruiting a team to fly all the way from Australia to Norway to take part in the Game Jam.
Lyst's stated goal: to bring "light", "love" and innovation to the subject of romance and sex in video games.
It's a goal worth pursuing. Historically video games have struggled with themes of romance and sex. Too often relationships exist as discrete goals to be achieved. Congratulations: sex unlocked.
That's the reason why Kim contacted her friend Steggy, bustling with excitement and ideas. That's why they recruited Shell. That's why they put together a team of five women with one express purpose: work together, fly to Norway, make a video game about sex and romance they could relate to. And do it all in 48 short hours.
It's a goal that's become a mission statement. A goal that's become a crowd-funding campaign, a website, a high concept and — if everything plays out as planned — could end up becoming a video game and a permanent studio.
The girls have called it Blush Box. And they want to transform the way sex and romance are represented in video games.
The team as it currently stands:
Kim Allom, producer at Defiant Development.
Steggy, co-founder of Lumi Consulting. She runs marketing for some of Australia's biggest indie studios, including Hipster Whale, the creators of Cross Road.
Shell is the team’s programmer. For the past six years she’s taught programming at TAFE and Universities throughout Australia.
Bea Bravo and Lauren Fletcher were brought on board because everyone involved fell in love with their work. Bea Bravo: a Puerto Rican artist who loves Australia's weather but hates our terrible internet. Lauren Fletcher: a Pokemon obsessed illustrator from Western Australia.
Blush Box wants to shake shit up. They want to make something for them.
"I can't find anything for me," explains Kim.
Romance is rarely at the centre of our video game universe, it exists in addition to running, jumping, shooting. A diversion. A plot device. Everyone at Blush Box is interesting in challenging that notion. They want to make video games that focus on what it means to build relationships in a natural organic way.
"Sex in video games is like sex in porn," says Steggy. "It's a cutscene."
"Sex is a trophy," adds Shell, "like killing the evil dragon. It's something to acquire."
"I'm waiting for games that allow us to discover romance and friendship and intimacy as the driving factor," continues Steggy."Rather than, 'hey I made a game about shooting then slapped a theme over the mechanic'."
Shell: "I've never seen an on-screen relationship that made me feel giddy at the concept of going to see my partner."
"Even putting aside sex," says Lauren, finally, "trying to create what we could consider a 'believable' friendship I think is a difficult task."
But Blush Box is willing to try.
At this point, Team Blush Box doesn't have a concrete idea of the type of game they'd like to make.
Steggy is in love with the relationship dynamic between Finn and the Flame Princess in Adventure Time. She wants to make something that reflects that tone.
"I want to make something cute but with mature themes," says Steggy. "But I think Shell and Kim are more on the sexy side."
"I've played Consensual Torture Simulator. That explores deeper, darker curiosities of the mind," says Kim. "I'd like to do that but with sex."
Shell wants to make a game that explores intimacy and what that concept means to different people.
"Everybody expresses love in different ways," says Shell.
The challenge: filtering these multiple perspectives, making a video game that satisfies four completely different personalities.
And doing it all within a 48-hour period.
But Norway, the game jam, the game itself — it's merely a starting point. The girls at Blush Box are determined to take the energy of this project and bottle it. They want to learn from the Lyst Conference and bring those learnings back to the Australian development community. One stated goal: run a Lyst-style Game Jam in Australia.
But the ultimate goal, the dream endgame for most involved is a studio dedicated to the kinds of games that don't normally get made. Not a regular studio per se — everyone involved in Blush Box have day jobs they adore — something a little more fluid.
"I would love for Blush Box to become a collective studio," explains Steggy. "An entity that curates events around these themes and creates games. That would be wonderful, I'd love to facilitate like-minded people meeting each other and making their own games too."
"The sky's the limit," says Shell.
Five women. Working together. Making video games. Considering the dearth of women involved in the Australian games industry, it's an empowering high concept.
But the most powerful part of this project and its genesis: Blush Box wasn't consciously set-up as a female only studio. Both Steggy and Kim insist that everyone involved was brought on-board because they were the most capable, most willing to take part.
"These were the people that jumped to mind with the skills, it wasn't about finding women," says Steggy.
"We all just wanted to work with each other," explains Bea, "it just so happens we're all women."
"I thought we were all lizards," laughs Lauren.
According to Steggy: the current set-up happened completely by accident. She has absolutely no issues with men being involved with Blush Box in the future.
"Bring on the penis I say!"
But for now there is no penis. The closest thing Blush Box has: a strap-on called 'Havel' (named for the Dark Souls character 'Havel the Rock') who has become an unofficial mascot for the team and something of a running joke.
At time of writing, Blush Box is en route to Norway, en route to realising a unique goal. They are on a plane headed to God knows what and only one thing is certain: a video game about sex and romance will be made and it could lead to something spectacular.
Hopefully Havel will make it through customs.
You can support Blush Box at their GoFundMe here.