< Content Warning: Today’s session of Digital Diversity contains discussions on mental health, trauma, suicidal thoughts, and other sensitive topics. While these elements are discussed in an accepting and supportive environment please be aware of your own limits if this kind of content affects you. >
Today’s issue of Digital Diversity is a special one; it focuses on a series of interactive novels written by an extremely talented developer who works with topics that few others include in their work. Topics that may be seen as too difficult to portray in a way that feels honest to the content itself or in a way that is communicated clearly.
To find out more we’ll have to talk to the developer…
Kaiju: Welcome to Digital Diversity, a project giving much needed spotlight to games and gamedevs from the LGBTQIA+ community. Today we have Pc0hidq, maker of the Hazel series of interactive novels.
Welcome to Digital Diversity Pc0hidq! Please tell us a bit about yourself and about the Hazel series. What’s it all about?
Pc0hidq: Hi, my name is Pc0hidq. I am a trans person with a very strong sense of shame so I chose this name because otherwise I would not have had the courage to post a single thing online. By choosing this name I could focus on the process of creating and being rather than my shame.
The Hazel series was a set of games made for a deviantart internet tradition called original character tournaments. I really wanted to try doing something like that once in my life. The story and the series are a complete mess as I had no idea what I was doing.
The core story is a fairy who is also a trans woman wakes up in a new place seriously injured and traumatized. She then flails around trying to make sense of what it means to be wounded, emotionally and physically.
She doesn’t get better she just suffers. Ultimately she copes and that is enough for her to be okay.
Kaiju: The storyline for the Hazel series is dark, often deeply confronting and harsh, but also beautiful and meaningful. Going into the project did you know the direction you wanted to take the story and how it would progress as the series continued? Or did you just take it in a way that felt right as you went along?
Pc0hidq: When I started the first game I was very sick. I was in a constant brain fog and hadn’t done anything in a while. I mostly just wrote as I went without any regard to if it was a good idea. I tried as hard as I could with every ounce of energy that I had at the time. The result was a mess.
The second game I was coming out of a fog. I realized the first story was awful and retconned the whole thing. I went through a lot of therapy in the past but getting sick brought back so much violation. I realized at that point that I wanted to have a story and a character who could walk with me a little bit through those feelings. If she could be okay then maybe I could be okay too?
The only direction for the story I wanted was for her to be okay at the end but I didn’t know how to get there. I wrote with what felt right but unfortunately that meant writing a lot of weird trauma stuff. It wasn’t the story I needed. Once I realized I needed a different story things got much better and the writing improved. (I think/hope!)
Kaiju: It sounds like the creation process was as much of a journey as your recovery was, and it definitely shows as the writing style develops along the series.
Were there a lot of personal elements you felt you needed to include in the games? Things that you’ve gone through personally that you wanted to put a voice to, or feelings you have that needed to get out? How much of Hazel is you?
Pc0hidq: This may sound strange but after getting sick I desperately wanted to talk about every single detail of it for a long time. I still do, but it wasn’t safe to talk about it then. Even if it was safe to talk about, I just couldn’t. I still can’t, the shame is overwhelming but also just how vivid it is.
Though using illness as a metaphor is a shitty thing to do for Hazel’s case I did. Her injuries are different from mine and her experience is much more sanitized. To write reality would have been impossible for me then. I hope one day it is possible for me.
Some things in the Hazel games were personal and real but told in a much gentler way. A few times when I was bleeding and I was asleep it would trigger assault. I wrote that with her instead thinking it was a monster attacking her. Ants were attracted to my blood and would eat my injuries so at a few points I woke up to that in the same way you might wake up to ants all over a plate of pancakes. For Hazel there is a single ant and she just kinda lets it go or tries to kill it.
As I said, everything was really sanitized and gentle compared to real life. A lot of it was also rewritten into childish plots because I wanted to write something fun.
Hazel isn’t really as much of a self-insert as Saving You, From Yourself was. Though some aspects of her were based on me, she was very different. She was actively burning and is much more like what I was when I was way younger and going through trauma and really suicidal and hadn’t gotten help except nicer and more likable. She was also an amalgamation of a bunch of anime characters I really liked.
The only real feeling that I needed to get out was accepting that I was never going to be okay in what my past self considered normal and worth living as. I was always going to be significantly more mortal than before, and I needed to face that.
Kaiju: The message of moving forward really does feel like the important element of the series. So many difficult situations are encountered but Hazel always keeps moving, which gives me a sense of hope when I play it.
From a development perspective how did you find working on a multi-part game series? Is it something you want to try working with in the future?
Pc0hidq: My basic assumption when I started is that the first games I make are going to really suck. Hazel was not designed with a gameplay aspect in mind until the last game which made things so much worse. Working on a series is like following a map, a few degrees off for a short distance aren’t a huge deal but over time it adds up. The mistakes I made early on without knowledge led to a lot of huge flaws.
Even as my art and writing improved the number of readers on each game went down. The first game still gets more readers than all of the others. The reality is people look at the first one, rightfully walk away and then the rest are ignored. It led to a huge sense of despair to keep doing sequels knowing that no one was reading but I really wanted the main character to be okay so I kept going.
I had so many painful regrets making these games that I ended up learning a lot. I got the skills that I needed to tell the kind of stories that I want to tell in the future so I guess ultimately everything worked out even if it didn’t for the games themselves.
I have a sequel planned for Saving You, From Yourself and a proper version of No Safe Space which I’ll eventually write under a different name. I don’t think I will make anything like the Hazel series ever again.
Kaiju: Every step in the journey is an important one, right? While it’s disappointing that the readership numbers have dropped I’m glad to hear that you learned what you needed to work on more things that you want to make.
On that point let’s move onto a more positive question about your work. Is there a particular game that you would love to make if nothing stood in your way? The dream project that you want to create if you had the time, money or even team to make happen?
Pc0hidq: Every game project I make is my dream project. My life is worth living every moment I am making a visual novel.
In an ideal world though I would probably continue to hammer away at the Hazel series a bit more until I found a formula that worked. I feel though she really deserves a break and sometimes it is important to know when to end a story so that another better one can be told.
Kaiju: Is redeveloping the Hazel story into one big piece a possibility on the horizon? Instead of having it as four separate pieces of one big story maybe combine them into a collected tome that folks can go through a chapter at a time?
Pc0hidq: I should technically do that. The plot is currently split across 7 games. If I combined them all then I wouldn’t have to keep finding narrative excuses for asking what the guard or the players name is. I could also cut some content that didn’t work too.
I genuinely hadn’t even though of trying that but I might? Thank you? That’s a really good idea.
Kaiju: Haha, I’m all about the ideas here. If it helps attract readers then all the better. 🙂
Let’s move into the wider world of gaming for a moment. Are there any games, be they interactive novels or otherwise, that you particularly enjoy or speak to you personally?
Pc0hidq: Everything by Porpentine, GenderWrecked, Final Fantasy 9/Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Pokemon Pinball, and a bunch of sketchy otome games.
Pokemon Pinball mainly because when I am making a game I limit myself to 16 bit games so that I don’t get obsessed.
Oh gosh, okay also sometimes I just browse http://itch.io‘s indie section and play stuff. There are a lot of great things coming out lately.
Kaiju: So many great games there! How about games that did representation right? Any you felt characterised an aspect of who you are in a way that was done particularly well?
Pc0hidq: Genderwrecked did a pretty good job of gender feelings. Porpentine’s stuff though I don’t always agree or relate to everything in there.
I really really related to that lil bunny, I have never been able to play the game but I watched a youtube video of it and cried really hard.
Kaiju: Can confirm Genderwrecked did a damn good job with the gender feels. I was pretty much in tears by the end of that one.
Well we’re coming up to the end of our time today, so I want to say thank you Pc0hidq for your incredible work with the Hazel series. It’s deeply moving and a heck of an experience and you should be proud of having made something like this.
Are there any last things you’d like to share with us or shout-outs you’d like to make before we finish up?
Pc0hidq: It is deeply fucked up that games where you casually murder people can be streamed or played all over everywhere without anyone blinking but games about the themes I want to write on are considered inappropriate and difficult or impossible to stream or youtube. I hope the world changes into a place where it is okay for difficult things to exist and be seen.
Please consider even if you never play my games downloading them. I don’t know how long I will be around and hopefully it is for a while but we all have less time than we think. Most of my games haven’t even been downloaded once. If the original http://itch.io copies go down they won’t exist anywhere. I may not be around to upload them to whatever future sites happen. Please consider putting them on those future places for me if I can’t. I would be incredibly grateful if my games outlasted me.
Omg also if any of you can help get me access to a console dev kit I would be so grateful. Those things are expensive but I really want to make trans visual novels for consoles. Especially the switch or xbox because those consoles are really cool. Plus people pirate for them and make romsets so I wouldn’t have to worry about my games disappearing as much. Thanks to emulation I could know that they’d exist in a playable format. If you can help me with that please email me at email@example.com
Also omg thank you so much for interviewing me.