This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.
This piece carries a content warning for Nonconsensual Sex, Dubious Consent, Sexual Assault, Sissification Kink, Transphobia, Deadnaming, Gender Dysphoria, Age Gap, Abuse, Suicidal Ideation, Blood.
He Fucked the Girl Out of Me is an autobiographical visual novel about a trans woman's traumatic experiences with sex work.
Taylor McCue, creator of the Nuovo Award-nominated work, spoke with Game Developer about the thoughts that went into how to convey and structure this difficult story from her past, the challenges that come up when you're spending so much time and mental effort on exploring traumatic memories, and the extremely complicated feelings that come from putting this much of yourself out into the world for others to experience.
Who are you, and what was your role in developing He Fucked The Girl Out of Me?
My name is Taylor McCue. Explaining who I am is a more confusing question. I know technically what you want is for me to list out my job or degrees or awards but I don’t have a job. I’m a shut-in. I have won many awards for being a game developer but I still feel like I am a disappointment to the people who care about me.
I want to talk more about my personal life but I am not sure I could do it right now without oversharing or being too hard on myself.
My role in developing He Fucked The Girl Out of Me was writing it, drawing most of the panels, and coding it. The game was intended to release with the 2022 Queer Games Bundle and so, despite my best efforts, it ended up being rushed a little.
To help me finish on time, my friend Kimberly Karlsson (visiface) offered to semi-anonymously draw some panels to help me complete the game on time. There is a brief second where when the text box is popping up that you can see her panels labeled with a "K."
These "K-Type" panels mostly appear during the crush and present sections where I was struggling. She designed the little bat/cat looking ghosts who were the crush and the friend designs.
For the game, I hired a professional editor to help with the script since I struggled looking at the script objectively. Her name is Sopheria Rose and she's an accomplished developer in her own right and developed the famous Spare Parts series of visual novels. If you need a pro to help fix up your game’s script then I’d super recommend her.
What's your background in making games?
I had some medical issues. I won’t get into them but they fucked with me pretty hardcore. I was in a lot of pain and taking a lot of painkillers to help with the agony. None of them seemed to work at all; the pain was just as strong. It was a pretty disgusting time and horror movie-ish.
Anyways it lasted a long while and during that time I was thinking "Oh shit everything hurts and I’m in pain and I’m gonna die."
So, sitting there thinking I was dying, I had gone to grad school all smart-like and then gone into the sort of social justice work that you do when you’re trying to save the world. So here I am at what I think is the end. My regret? I didn’t make any ultra cringey art.
All I did was social justice organizing and college and the occasional fanfiction that I secretly hid out of shame. At the end, I realized I just wanted to be a cringey loser nerd who makes some nerdy stuff. So I thought, if I could just live, I would do my best to become a loser. I would be the best, most worthless loser that I could be.
So, when I got better to the point that I could sit up for a significant amount of time, I started making some really cringey games. My first game was never posted anywhere and since I couldn’t draw at the time, all of the characters were made with TinierMe. The game was a mess. But, I mean, I was a mess at the time so it wasn’t really that surprising.
Eventually I realized that I needed to learn to draw if I was ever going to make cringeworthy games. So, I started learning on deviantArt which was an extremely humbling experience because there were so many talented people there including, like, ten-year-olds with godlike art skills. I quickly realized that I had to throw away any ego that I had and design every single word and piece of art with only one question in mind: How do I keep my player interested?
You could spend every second of your life looking at elaborately polished art by professionals, so why should anyone look at what I make? You can have the most elaborate ending and brilliant writing that moves everyone who reads it to tears but if 100% of players quit in the first five minutes before they get there—well then it doesn’t matter what you do.
So I made a series of games. They sucked pretty bad and were broken due to the harshness of their development schedule. I think I made thirteen-ish games that all sucked pretty terribly. Some are still floating around because I love them even if they’re weird garbage that no one plays.
I truly got to live and make cringey games. Eventually, though, I advanced and started at a snails pace making games that weren’t entirely terrible. My first 'serious' game was Saving You From Yourself. In this game, you played as a therapist who decides if someone is transgender or not and if she should get a referral for hormones. The game managed to win the Melbourne Queer Games Awards 2018 Silver medal but also completely bombed.
Both left wing and right wing people hated my guts and wanted to smash my hands so that I’d never make a game again. Both expressed amazement that I managed to piss off people on every part of the political spectrum. Five years later, to this day, I am still getting occasional angry negative reviews from both right wing and left wing people. Even though I got an award for making games back then, I’ll be honest, I almost quit under that onslaught.
I’d spent most of my life trying to be a person who did what society expected: a good person. Suddenly, a ton of people were angry at me. That’s like the sort of shit that, two-hundred years ago would only happen right before you were exiled and died in the wilderness. I legit almost quit but then Nathalie sent me a message on Twitter saying something along the lines of:
"I wanted to let you know I really liked your game but I didn’t want to leave a positive review because that’d be rude."
And I replied that "Uhhhh...No one left any positive reviews on my game and everyone hates me."
Her response was basically “WHATTTTTTTTTT OUTRAGEOUS!” I’m still paraphrasing here. And then she wrote the most aggressive review ever, outlining why the stuff I made needed to exist and why I was a worthwhile developer.
After that, my brain kinda broke and I just shrugged and decided that having people say you suck was the true cost of being a loser. If I wanted to be the best loser I could be, then I needed to accept that being disliked wasn’t the end of the world. She gave me the strength to keep fighting when I needed it most.
After that I made Do I Pass? which was a game about a transgender woman who rips her soul out of her body, leaving her body behind in the back of a bus. She peeks into people’s heads seeing what they think about her.
To this day, I still get edgy people who say "YOU DON’T PASS DIE" or some variation. Every single one thinks they’re a genius and the first one to come up with this. I’m an ugly nerd, do you think I would’ve made this game if I was some beautiful trans goddess??
Anyways, after that I made some other stuff but I kinda realized I needed to get at the stuff that was really haunting me. This lead me to He Fucked The Girl Out of Me.
How did you come up with the concept for He Fucked The Girl Out of Me?
For even my earliest games, trauma was a major part. At first, they were about medical trauma because that is what I was going through the most at the time. Honestly, my medical trauma brought back all of my other trauma. It just hit me hard and I’d have flashbacks and it was nasty.
In Saving You From Yourself, there is this trans woman named "Arle" and her best friend named "Denise." After being rejected for hormones, they go on a long drive to the farm supply store to buy hormones and syringes. At the store, Arle is exposed to castration banders.
Basically, it was like a rubber band pulled back by some metal claw thingy. You pull it out, stick the testicles in them and then the band snaps off and cuts off the blood flow. The testicles die. In young nonhuman animals they just fall off or are absorbed and there’s no problem in ideal situations. That doesn’t really apply to humans, but it’s a complicated messy subject that I don’t want to dive into right now since it’s kinda off-topic.
Although I hid behind fiction, a lot of people called out my game as misinformation. The game was based on my real life experiences that were mushed together to make a game. I really did go to the farm supply store with a friend. They really did have castration bands there.
It traumatized me because, at the checkout counter, someone asked us if we were cat breeders. I’m not explaining this well in an interview but it hurt me deeply. My whole life I’d gone thinking of myself as a human and equal to everyone despite all of the evidence to the contrary. After I talked to her and was forced to lie about it, I realized I wasn’t even human. Even animals can go to the vet, but human doctors aren’t always so kind.
Anyways, moving on, in He Fucked The Girl Out of Me there was a email where the protagonist is offered castration services in a motel. That was a thing that did happen and it, plus another experience, inspired me to do the castration bands plot. I had a friend who was a trans woman who wanted to do it with me. And I don’t mean sex, I mean using castration bands together. I turned her down and she did it in the bathtub alone and was fine afterward.
It struck me how few of us had anything in common with humanity. This was during the George Bush years, mind you, so things are different now. I’ve got some doctors these days. They might misgender me and ignore my legal gender with a shrug to misgender me, but the fact is, I still get my hormones from a real doctor these days. Even if they treat me like shit they still take care of me. I am grateful for that.
If you are curious about the castration band scene from Saving You From Yourself, you can view it here.
Moving on, though, my first draft of He Fucked the Girl Out of Me was going to be a sequel to Saving You From Yourself where you’d play as Arle (who refused the castration bander). Denise was going to shrug and say "Have you tried sex work, then?" and off they'd go on another depressing adventure that was totally 100% fictional. *insert defensive curl here*
I wrote the whole game and felt disgusted with myself because I was hiding myself behind the wall of fiction because of shame. So, I scrapped whole years worth of work and started fresh.
My problem is that video games are all verbs. The whole thing that separates games from all other mediums is that you do something. The past can only happen one way so what is there for you to do? That’s when I played Bagenzo’s Madotsuki’s Closet. It is one of the greatest fanfiction games ever made in the entire history of gaming. If you haven’t played it, I’d advise you to do so.
The miracle of Madotsuki’s Closet is that the past had already happened in it. Madotsuki had jumped off her balcony. This gave me a model through which I could approach my own game design. The past has happened but it’s up to me as the designer to lead them through that past.
I took the approach of using a Disney ride metaphor. They have set show points that the player goes through on their way to the end of the rollercoaster. The game does this as well; you know from the start the protagonist is going to do sex work. The experience comes in seeing how it unfolds and then what happened afterward.
This is kind of a pointless fact, but in the original draft, Sally was going to be named Denise and have the same design as Denise from the previous game. At the last minute she became Sally and her hair turned black and the main character's hair became blonde. The reason for this was even if I was doing pseudo-autobiography, I was worried I’d be recognized if I made the MC’s hair black so I inverted it. My worst nightmare is running into a stranger in real life who has played this game outside of a festival.
What development tools were used to build your game?
For the initial draft, I used Twine 1.4.2 which had the ability to drag and drop-in images. I preferred working in Twine 1.4.2 because it was the last version of the program that you could work totally offline in and drag and drop images.
For the art, I used a combination of Clip Studio Paint and Asesprite. Clip Studio Paint is horrible for pixel art, so everything was finalized in Asesprite but some effects, such as toner, could only be achieved in Clip Studio and then transferred to Asesprite. The engine used was GB Studio version 3.0.3.
My tablet was a Wacom Intuos Pro. I used a Neo Geo arcade stick pro for testing since it had a built-in turbo button that made life easier.
What drew you to explore your personal experiences and feels with a game? What effect did creating a game from your personal pain and experiences have on you?
I’ve answered some of this before in previous questions, but I guess I’ll clarify more. Shame was eating into me over the course of a decade. That was making me crazy and increasingly suicidal.
I felt like I couldn’t communicate with anyone because, if they knew I did sex work, they'd be like "You’re awful." I felt like I could never love anyone for a variety of complex reasons. It was excruciating spend years having my self esteem eroded and being afraid of everyone. It was extremely painful, so the only thing I could do to stop the shame was say what was painful for me. Having that conversation with one person would’ve been traumatic.
Anyways about how the game impacted me, it is better to divide it into three separate time periods.
Creating the Game: During this time, it made me more ashamed, more suicidal, and actually worse. I looked through old writings I did about it, thought more deeply on it than I was comfortable with, and honestly, the whole thing hurt. I saw myself and it was pathetic and ugly and made me so angry at my past self.
I had friends who I cared about who begged me to stop making the game because they could see it was making me progressively worse. I was a more selfish, less kind person. I cried a lot more, I flipped out more. All of my friends asking me to just stop doing whatever I was doing and do anything else.
I had friends who asked me what I was working on in the game that was so upsetting. I told them it was a super violent scary horror game about time travel or something.
Anyways, eventually, I did stabilize. Working on it for a while, I gradually got through the harshest parts and the Queer Games Bundle was coming up. My brain [was] melting, I just stopped feeling anything because I was so desperate to finish on time. I even had a friend, Kim, who wanted to help and finally, in frustration, I just sent the whole script to her because I was so tired and out of it that I literally didn’t care what happened anymore. She read it and then was like "Okay, I’ll help. It's okay, what is in the script," (not a direct quote, I'm paraphrasing).
So, eventually it finished and launched in time for the Queer Games Bundle with around a third of the game cut. I had to think really long and hard about what was worth grinding my fingers into oblivion to create because I couldn’t do everything.
Day of Launch: I was terrified. I kept regretting it and considered taking everything down. Every comment was like a dagger pointed at my soul. I couldn’t stop shaking. I had to wrap myself in a blanket. I did everything I could to distract myself and not look at the comments or the game.
I was 100 percent certain, based off of how my beta readers reacted, that people were going to write callout posts for me or aggressively react. I thought my life was basically over and I was cool with that but also I didn’t want that to happen. It was weird. I think I was like that for a few days.
Longer after Launch: My game had a mostly-positive reception with not that much hate mail or mean comments or anything. It was less than some of my other games, which shocked me since I 100 percent expected an endless stream of hate. Even the hate was less cruel than the things inside my own head that I thought of myself.
People kept saying kind things and, at first, I replied to everyone. Unfortunately, that got overwhelming and I turned into a broken record. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t really address stuff.
People would send me explicit trauma that they shared in common with me. I am mentally weak and not a good therapist. I can barely take care of myself on some days. Sometimes I objectively do not take care of myself. Getting those messages, I didn’t know what to do. It all became overwhelming.
I read every message, but I don't reply anymore because if I replied to one, I feel like I'd have to reply to every single one. Some of the messages make me cry so much. Others are so comforting. Sometimes on a very dark day, I'll get a message that's kind from someone and it's like a lifeline. The messages scare me sometimes because they can utterly change my mood for the next few hours.
I don’t like to talk about negative experiences in my own game development communities, but I accidentally did it in another interview so I’ll mention it here. Some communities of devs didn't want my game ever mentioned in them, even with trigger warnings "to protect the mental health of our most vulnerable users." I'm not phrasing it right since I'm really tired, but the short version was that they needed to protect mentally ill users from anything upsetting and... I don't know... It was weird because porn games and violent games were praised in the same space but...
It was honestly a surreal experience to have safe space rhetoric used as a suppression tool while sexy games were being praised. This isn’t a criticism of sexy games which I think are a positive thing for the world.
If you are curious about the interview mentioned above you can read it here.
IDFA: I got invited to the IDFA in Amsterdam.
People’s words online had moved me and my shame went down so much. At the same time, there was something that just didn’t click.
In Amsterdam, for the first time in my life, I was in a place that felt safe. Really safe. They had a red light district and there were people who did sex work and it was normal.
It was normal.
I wasn’t the weirdest thing there all the time.
I was treated like a human being by people in person. People knew what I’d done and they still treated me like a person.
It's one thing to get comments on the internet, but I can't describe to you what it's like to be treated like a human being by other people while you feel safe and normal in a place. It might have been a delusion. I still had moments where I truly did not belong or fit in. I was still awkward as heck, but I had moments where I felt like I was a real genuine human.
People there treated me like a human being without judgment and I felt safe.
It was life changing.
IGF: After IDFA, I felt that I had done and experienced everything a game developer could ask for out of life. People had played my games, understood me, and some even accepted me as a person. Regardless of if they are loved or hated, the greatest thing a game developer can ask for is to have their games played, but we often never get to see our players in that moment. I even got to see people play my game.
I'd experienced everything that a game developer can ask for out of life. After my medical issues, every single moment I get is a gift, but to get all of those things; it’s unreasonable. I have been so disgustingly lucky.
At this point I had been working on my next game for a long time. The nomination meant that, suddenly, my quiet life was disrupted and I had to do all of the duties required of me to attend IGF and PR again. This meant interviews, anxiety, and many things. I'd like to say I was happy, but instead, it's too much kindness. I don't know how to handle all of this positive attention.
I am scared of it all. It feels like there is a ghost going around whispering my trauma to people and people keep being kind, but I'm not the same person who made the game. I want to move on from my trauma and be a person, so it’s confusing. It'll always be part of me but also [I don't know.]
I am a little scared of the IGF. It's one thing to be a mentally ill fuck up and communicate with the world through the window of a video game. It's another thing to be on a plane or in a strange place or something.
IDFA was cool since it was like the red light district and art people, but I am worried about IGF. It seems a lot more business and professional and I’m not sure how well a mentally ill fuckup can fit into the business world.
How did you deal with having to immerse yourself in these painful feelings and memories in the creation of the work?
Back when I had access to therapy, and I'm kinda misquoting it a little, but there was this desensitization thingy. The idea was that you'd recall the event as vividly as you could and then put it on an mp3 player and listen to it over and over. You’d keep listening to it until you felt bored and it lost its sting.
The way that I write is that, first, I write my draft. Then, the next day, before I add anything more to it, I play through the whole thing again. This forces me to just re-encounter the trauma again and again.
I’d like to say the desensitization technique worked, but it kinda didn't fully work. There’s parts of my game (mainly the guy's apartment) that I flinch at. Sometimes, to cheat at that part, I’d close my eyes and use the turbo button on my controller to skip it.
Most of the time, the reality is that I cried a whole lot. That’s the reason why some panels were more elaborate or funny. I literally couldn’t stop crying so I needed something to help cheer me up. Otherwise it would've just been a depressing grind of one horrible thing after another. It would’ve been unbearable. Through this way, I could keep going but also give the player a chance to breathe too.
The game is straightforward and blunt in its writing, yet symbolic and allegorical in its imagery. What drew you to explore the topic with these two tones?
When I needed to tell players something, I chose to be as straightforward as possible. For example, the inbox section of the game.
When I needed to explain something to players that was more abstract, metaphors served me better. Had I gone for realistic 100 percent of the time, it would have lost the emotional impact. Emotions are not fact based. If humans were entirely rational, we wouldn’t have trauma.
To peel back the curtains on the design of the game, I’d like to break down the opening scene of the game. The player is given trigger warnings and then is immediately dumped into an open area where the final area of the game is visible off in the distance. This is meant to be part of the narrative payoff of the player realizing that trauma is an endless cycle.
Within a few steps they are immediately faced with a decapitated ghost who is currently in the middle of masturbating. The player ghost is drawn symbolically and cutely with no secondary sexual characteristics, but the ghost's body has real human proportions. The goal of this moment is to scare off any player who would be offended or upset by the game's content—especially if they skipped the previous trigger warnings. I needed the player to understand that I am not messing around so that they were fully aware of the content they were about to experience.
The secondary goal was to prime the player to think of sexuality as unsettling. They needed to feel slightly repulsed and off put by the scene to overcome the image of sex workers as sex objects instead of people. I needed to subconsciously turn off the "horny" part of the player’s brain so that they could be in the right mindset for the rest of the game.
Going from pure realism to metaphor is unsettling and pulls you out of the story. By starting in metaphor and guiding the player into realism, it gave me a greater freedom to shift my methods as needed.
What thoughts went into the creation of the visual styles the game uses? In bouncing between stark reality and cartoon-like symbolism?
There are multiple reasons why the visual tones of the game shifted. One reason was that I was extremely upset and drawing silly panels of art made me feel better. Another big part of it was that the game was made over a long time, so the gap between working one day and the next would mean that the panel's tone would drastically shift due to the effect of it being made on a different day. I might be upset and tired on one panel and then the next might be a whole new day and I'm in a happy mood.
I usually could do like 3-4 panels a day, max, so every 4th panel, from my perspective as the creator, was me shifting to another day. For the reader, there is only a gap of milliseconds to seconds between the panels.
The third part is that if I had kept up an endless stream of pain it would have just been one thing after another. No one needs suffering endlessly without breaks. It was designed to give people a breather with some comedy aspects.
Finally, I suffer from borderline personality disorder which means I have a tendency towards black and white thinking. I can go through horrible trauma and be in the blackest pit, then suddenly a switch goes and I'm like "EVERYTHINGS OKAY YAY!" which is probably how I’ve managed to survive. I’ve had a lot of therapy but I’ll always be mentally ill and fucked up. I’ve accepted that.
What made you develop this for the Game Boy and Game Boy Pocket as well?
Originally, the script was written in Twine which is a very user-friendly language that I know deeply enough that it’s now second nature. This was critical because I get really out of it when crying or upset or dissociating. When I get deeply upset, I eventually head into being nonverbal and it impacts my ability to write and think clearly, too. The miracle of Twine is that I could be pretty much out of it, and due to it being second nature, I could keep going.
The game was originally going to be made from the Twine draft into a finished Unity version. This didn’t happen because Unity isn’t friendly to people whose cognitive ability is compromised. Unity needs you to pour your soul into the game to get results. When you’re hanging on by a thread, this just isn’t possible.
Game Boy, on the other hand, has a real easy-to-use development environment in GB Studio. It’s friendly and fun. It’s constrained, but not too constrained, which keeps down scope, too. I could plan what I’d get done that day and then, when my emotions ran high, I could keep on the track and finish. It was easy to troubleshoot what went wrong even when out of it. It was simpler so there was less to break, which is critical for working on emotional stuff like this.
The game takes players through a deeply uncomfortable experience and a realistic look at sex work. Why do you feel it was so important to get this extremely painful, discomforting, but real look at sex work out into the world?
If you look at the Injustice at Every Turn Report from 2015 by NCITE, 11 percent of trans people reported engaging in the underground economy specifically through sex work. That means that, in general, if you’ve got ten trans people, one of them is probably like me.
There is absolutely nothing special or different about my experiences that makes them more remarkable than anyone else's experience. When I showed an early version of my game to beta readers to get feedback on what needed fixing, I had one player who got very angry. Her reasoning was that everything I said was fucked up and she couldn’t understand why someone would write that.
To her, I was putting my trauma and pain into a machine that would then go on to hurt countless people even after I was dead. She was right, since thousands of people have played my game. That means I potentially hurt thousands. Instead of dying with my trauma, it’ll keep on existing and other people will hurt instead of just me. I was inflicting massive psychic damage on a vulnerable traumatized population.
She was correct in her logic. I wasn’t doing this to make the world better. It was pure selfishness that made me act. The shame was making me suicidal. Over a decade, it had been grinding into me. After my medical issues, I was getting worse and worse. Psychologically, it was like rust slowly spreading through my sense of self.
The best way to overcome shame is to face it and tell people and learn it’s okay. Unfortunately, telling one person and having them listen is a grueling experience for both parties. When is it even socially acceptable to say something like that? If you’re afraid of dating because someone will learn you were once a sex worker, then when are you supposed to tell them? For a coward like me, the best solution is to not date at all.
The logistics of explaining my trauma until I was better [were] impractical. Confessions—endless confessions—could be automated. I only had to confess once and then it would be over. So, out of pure selfishness, no matter how many thousands of people I made cry, I made a trauma machine.
I was so suicidal I would've done anything to stop the pain. I am not so heartless to enact the pain of suicide on people who have tried so hard to help me, so I chose instead to create that machine in an attempt to survive no matter how many people I hurt. The urge to stay comfortable leads people to do any and all kinds of evil. What seems like an uphill climb against trauma was actually just pitiful selfishness—an attempt to force it out there.
Now I don’t have to worry if people will reject me for having been a sex worker. Now I don’t have to feel afraid. Now I don't even have to feel the shame. I am a monster for what I’ve done, but it’s easier to live as a monster than it is to live in shame.
Your story can be difficult to work through, but I feel it is an important one to play through to the end, if they can. What do you hope telling your story does for others?
I have no expectation for my game to do anything for anyone else. All that I can hope for is to be understood and accepted as a person by others.