It’s not a secret that finding representation for marginalized communities can be difficult, and that’s as true for video games as it is for anywhere else. So, when I stumbled on Kenzie Stargrifter’s game Hardcoded through her art blog, I was immediately taken; here is a game starring a trans woman who dates trans women, told from the perspective of one. It provides a layer of authenticity to the experience that AAA games generally lack, should they bother to include such representation at all.
Hardcoded is a dating sim game set within the cyberpunk dystopia of Pira, where the game’s titular main character goes into hiding after fleeing abuse and exploitation. Your fair warning here, should you want to give the game a try: Hardcoded is an adult game, and an explicit one at that. It doesn’t shy away from depictions of sexuality, which is an important part of the game to my mind; it’s an honest expression of a subject that we, as trans women, don’t often get to address from our own viewpoint.
After playing the demo, I wanted to chat with Kenzie about her process for creating it, and luckily for me, she was open to that idea!
First off, can you tell me some about the genesis of the idea for Hardcoded? What made you want to make this game?
The initial concept for Hardcoded was to make a game which would invite that cis futa-fetish crowd, but then take their feelings seriously and make being a girl seem like a real possibility, if they’re interested. It’s changed a lot since then though. I think I was just bitter about the terrible, weirdly-sexual trans education I had to hack together when I was little. I’m pretty sure that’s a common experience for trans people. Porn that was actually interested in teaching me stuff would have changed my life.
I love this idea, and it’s such a good way to talk about the idea of being trans with an audience who might be but isn’t necessarily ready to openly admit that fact.
Hopefully, Yeah, and for those who aren’t eggs, maybe it will still make a difference to see their fetish portrayed as something that actually exists in real, maybe relatable people.
What made you decide to make the protagonist a synthetic creature? Is this choice in response to or in conversation with depictions of such in other games, or even other media?
Being a droid makes HC feel distant from her friends in a way that I think is pretty healthy, given her situation. She’s just been through this violent transition from being abused by humans to being cared for by other humans, and she has to try to learn to socialize with them or she’ll have nothing. I think I sometimes have a hard time relating to stuff which doesn’t want me to feel cautious of other trans people, but at the same time, I want Hardcoded to be a decently positive, relaxing game. Her being a droid was my way of resolving that. Plus, droids are hot.
This is true, they are. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “stuff which doesn’t want me to feel cautious of other trans people”?
Yeah, I’m referring to a type of media which uses acceptance of a trans girl by the trans community as its emotional payoff. It’s probably early transition media for the most part, but after you’ve been through what HC has (or like, my gf has) it becomes much less effective. Being a droid will always be somewhat of a buffer between HC & complete social connection with her new friends, despite her efforts to assimilate. It’s like an omnipresent disconnect, but it’s also kinda fantastical. I thought this was more conducive to the positive mood of the game then what would likely be true of the IRL version of her experience, but while also maintaining some level of alienation for HC.
Can you tell me about the world Hardcoded inhabits? It has a very lived-in feel. Do you plan on doing more with this setting after Hardcoded is finished up?
A lot of the world design is kind of incidental. I didn’t do concept art or sketches in most cases, I just jumped in and tried to make game-ready art. I hadn’t really done pixel art prior to this, so a lot of stuff has been revised a ton of times and as a result, the city has only gradually taken shape. It’s loosely based of the Flux State from Shadowrun, but in a more distant and apocalyptic future. I always imagined that HC doesn’t have to pay rent because the people of Pira collectively ensure that housing is free by beating back Gelcorp when necessary. The world does feel lived in, but that wasn’t intentional. I imagined the city as feeling a little bit like Rook’s games or Angles Egg, but when it came down to drawing it, I went way more Shadowrun or Futurama. Pretty much everything about the game was bleaker in my head than it turned out in pixels.
That sounds intense—the pixel art itself already reads as pretty bleak. I like the idea of forcibly pushing back against the influence and control of Gelcorp, is that a theme you intend to explore more as you go on? Can you expand some on Gelcorp and what they represent?
I don’t want to give too much away about Gelcorp since it’s so central to the main story, but just being a monolithic mega-corporation looming over capitalism’s ruins has connotations.
Fair! I’m very interested in the choices behind your work on this game. What influenced your decision to dress Hardcoded in cyberpunk themes? What made you decide to go with the color palette you use throughout the game? Is there a specific mood or feeling that you’re attempting to evoke from the player?
I didn’t really put a lot of thought into the cyberpunk theme when I started out. It seemed like a logical choice for some reason. I don’t think a real-life modern setting is viable for a porn game, I think there needs to be some distance from reality for diegetic consent to work. Beyond that, a cyberpunk setting and being a droid both just happen to come with a lot of cool trans feelings, such as like, disposability, alienation, feeling like an impostor, etc.
I can certainly empathize with that myself. On the positive side, HC being a droid gives a very literal feel to the way that HRT can seem like we’re hacking our bodies—she can literally swap out parts as she pursues her self-identity.
What fueled your choice to make a game like Hardcoded, as opposed to telling this story through another medium, such as comics or prose?
Well, I struggle with writing, and drawing makes me feel shitty, so I guess making a game was just the most appealing option in terms of what I was able to motivate myself to do. Learning to program was sometimes very difficult, but I think that’s the challenge that kept me engaged. Hopping between programming, writing, and art was a decent way to keep things interesting and stave off burnout, but I still have some really unhealthy working practices I’m dealing with. It was a lot worse in the early stages though.
It’s good to hear you’re staying aware of your working practices as you go! We at Sidequest definitely have some thoughts on things like crunch time and unhealthy working habits. Can you tell us some about your coding? Are you working with a specific engine, or from scratch?
Learning to program has for sure been the most chaotic part of the process. I’ve rebuilt pretty much every system in the game as I’ve learned more effective ways of doing things. I’m pretty sure I’ve scrapped like 6 or 7 iterations of the simple, shitty, array-based inventories used for clothing and emails and stuff. I feel like I’m getting pretty capable, and I’m excited to learn more and make more complicated stuff in the future. I’m working in Godot engine, which I’m super thankful for. There’s no way I’d have been able to get into game dev without the learning environment it provided.
I’ve noticed that several of the adult scenes explore themes of self-actualization, as does HC’s overarching story. It’s not simply consent that is given in these scenes, but a very conscious and deliberate choice made by the character for themselves, because they have the ability to make it. Can you talk some about that?
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by self-actualization?
Well, I mean the idea that HC isn’t just consenting now to sexual encounters as opposed to being abused before, but she’s also exploring the idea of what sexual expression means to her, what it means to engage in sex with a personal goal of pleasure as opposed to just because she’s supposed to, finding value in these encounters in a way that she wouldn’t have before.
Oh, yeah that’s true for sure. HC has been bound up by stress for so long that she isn’t really sure what to do now that she has the opportunity to be herself. It’s likely that she’s exploring sex as a way of incorporating self worth into her identity. First she will become a person who believes she deserves pleasure and allows herself to seek it, then she will learn what or who makes her happiest.
It’s very gratifying to be playing a game featuring a trans woman who dates trans women. Do you have plans to include other characters who are trans men, or non-binary?
We haven’t gone into it much in game, but we do have NB characters. Cadence and Decima are both transfemmes and Forcier is agender. Since I started working on this thing, being NB has become much more important to me, and it was cool to like, try to write from each perspective and see what it would do to me. I think that as HC learns to socialize, she probably begins to figure out what parts of her gender are most valuable to her, but I haven’t really given her a chance in game to like, sit down and think about it. I wonder if that could be important.
This is lovely to hear! I’m certainly of the mindset that more representation is better, and it’s nice to see more femme identities being represented in cyberpunk fiction, which often can have a pretty masculine-oriented viewpoint. HC and her friends are all living their lives independently. Do you have any plans or ideas to subvert some of those masculine expectations as well, the way that men are expected to perform in society?
Men are always going to have a minor role in the game, just because I’m coming to realize that Hardcoded is kind of a therapy game for me, and they aren’t very relevant. We have plans for a character who’s only just realizing that he’s probably not really a boy, and I’m very excited to write for him, but other than that, I’m not planning on doing anything particularly meaningful to me. I enjoy writing porn scenes with men, so I’ll probably just add stuff based on what I’m horny for.
Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me, Kenzie! I’m extremely looking forward to seeing what else you bring to the table with this game.
Nola is a bad influence.