Writing Trans While Being Cis
Above: an abstract illustration of Detective Grosvenor, a middle-aged, stern woman with plant buds growing out of her face.

Above: an abstract illustration of Detective Grosvenor, a middle-aged, stern woman with plant buds growing out of her face.

Last night, I attended a talk on queer game jams by Kirsty Fraser. Sat next to me were two men who had heard about the talk online and decided to show up with the sole aim of disrupting it. Partway through the talk, one of the men raised his hand. When Kirsty paused, puzzled, he snatched the moment and opened with a “Sorry, but I’m just struggling to understand…” before proceeding to harangue the entire room with the various issues he perceived with the ‘queer agenda’. Several times, the words “well, as a gamer…” were used unironically.

I mention this because it highlights the reason why I feel it is necessary for people who do not identify as queer to show their visible support for people who do. If queer people were met by either hostility or passivity by all non-queers, it would be very difficult to blame them for feeling like the rest of us don’t care about their wellbeing.

Six months ago when Richard and I (both straight, white, cis men) began the conversations which would lead to Ring of Fire, we were both fairly insecure about how to feature characters and do something meaningful for the LGBTQIA+ community. Hell, we still are now to a lesser degree, hence why I’m writing this blog post to give a rationale for our announcement.

At the time we discussed simply avoiding the issue, and talked at great length about how we might be able to do it justice. The easy solution seemed to be “let’s hire a queer person to do the queer bits of what we make”. No problems there, right? Except we couldn’t hire anyone, we had no money, and we were scoping the first prototype to be something that just the two of us could achieve. So we had this problem: without the labour of a person in the community, what can you do with your art to show compassion?

At some point I can’t recall, I decided our protagonist was going to be trans. This was something I really wanted to do justice, and it excited me as a writer because it was outside of my comfort zone, but we knew that we could always chicken out and make her a cis woman or a “default human” man (as the brilliant Henrike Lode described in a talk I attended) if things got iffy. We decided that as soon as we could afford to we would hire a sensitivity consultant to make sure we weren’t being total doofuses, and we still think this is an important thing to do.

As I undertook my research into trans issues and culture, my biggest concern shifted from writing a terribly clichéd trans person (something people like me have a habit of doing) to writing one which appropriated transness for my own commercial gain. I can’t explain quite how I reached it and the thought is certainly not original, but after a lengthy process of rumination, my conclusion for how I might feature queer characters and potentially even queer themes without appropriating was this: just tell the story you originally wanted to tell, with respectfully-written trans people featured in it.

To be explicit, this means that the story isn’t going to be about coming out just because the protagonist is a trans woman. It isn’t going to be about dysphoria, or having part of who you are denied by others.

Therefore in our imaginary solarpunk utopia being queer is normalised, making it feel natural to include  without turning it into a central conflict. We would like it to be a chill little detail for folks to enjoy, and not to be played as a major theme or forced marketing beat (although the highly politicised nature of the topic may well make it a key talking point around the game whether we’d like it or not).

Above: Concept art from Ring of Fire of London in the year 2062 with lush green overgrowth spread out across its utopian skyline.

Above: Concept art from Ring of Fire of London in the year 2062 with lush green overgrowth spread out across its utopian skyline.

Instead, our game is going to be about savage murders in an ecologically sustainable utopia. It’s going to be about how much individual intolerance society can tolerate, and how people become radicalised.

Our protagonist will not be grappling with her transness; she will simply be trans, and that’s that, but her knowledge of transness and queer history might give her unique insights or opinions into certain situations (such as thoughts on extremists). Writing her is going to be an iterative process in which I listen to people who have that same knowledge, and take their advice to make Grosvenor as well-observed as I can.

As Far Few Giants expands and Ring of Fire goes into full production, we would like nothing more than to be able to feature more queer people (and all minorities for that matter) on the team. Certain terms of our funding will put quite restrictive geographical limitations on some roles, which may in turn allow us to do less of this than we’d like, but our diversity goals will be achieved eventually.  We’ll go wrong too; I’m sure I’ll make plenty of mistakes in writing Detective Grosvenor and growing a fledgling team. This is one reason why we wanted to announce what we’re doing early: we're saying this now rather than keeping it a secret so this character is in front of the people she's representing, and we can make this an iterative process of listening and learning. We also have the plan laid out above to mitigate and catch mistakes using sensitivity readers and thorough research, we are dedicated to being open and earnest about our mistakes, and most importantly, we will always listen to and learn from queer people when they tell us we got it wrong.

Perhaps, in this way, we might write a character that is respectful and representative of trans identities, and we might make progress with achieving our company’s diversity goals by the time we’re thinking about our second game.

Oh, and it’ll be a big “screw you” to those guys at last night’s event.

- Tony

Special thanks to Nic Freeman who gave invaluable feedback over the past few months, both during the process of forming these thoughts as well as putting them into the words above.

Bright Future, Dark Crimes — Investigating a Positive, Inclusive Sci-Fi Future in Ring of Fire

This article was originally featured on Only SP by Damien Lawardorn, you can read it here: onlysp.com/positive-inclusive-sci-fi-ring-of-fire/


A bold, utopian future is a vision rarely found in games. However, among the muck of cyberpunk dystopias and war-ravaged landscapes, one indie studio is daring to present a different world.

Ring of Fire is set in a solarpunk London and tasks the player with exploring its dark underbelly in the search for a serial killer. With the game, developer Far Few Giants is aiming to tackle real-world issues while ensuring the accurate and fair representation of people of diverse backgrounds and identities.

Both game and developer seem daring—to say nothing of fascinating—so OnlySP took the opportunity to talk to Creative Director Tony Jeffree and Art Director Richard Tongeman to learn more about Ring of Fire and Far Few Giants.

OnlySP: Ring of Fire casts players as a detective investigating a serial killer, with players engaging with the investigation through a search bar, according to Kotaku’s description. That makes it sound a bit like Her Story. Would that be an apt comparison, and, if so, how are you playing with Sam Barlow’s template to put your own spin on it?

Jeffree & Tongeman: Yes it’s similar to Her Story in that you can search a database, except instead of video it’s text. Imagine you’re looking at the Google results page and getting a preview window of a Wikipedia article. You can look up people, places, countries, historical events, etc. We were heavily inspired by the board (and video) game Sherlock Consulting Detective, which gives you a map, a phonebook and asks you to make leaps of logic and deduction to connect the clues scattered through interviews. In Her Story, from a mechanical point of view, the player inputs their deductions by typing in keywords to search interview transcripts, and similarly in Ring of Fire they do so by entering keywords into either the database or into a SatNav, with correct deductions whisking them away to new locations, clues, and suspects. The biggest way in which the game differs from Her Story is that we are telling a linear narrative. We don’t offer you unlimited choice right from the beginning; you will need to follow our heroes on their journey through the game to unlock certain pathways.

Your announcement also hinted that exploration may form part of the play experience. Is that correct and, if so, what sort of mechanics are you implementing to facilitate that?

Jeffree & Tongeman: Not quite. The game draws inspiration from Subsurface Circular by Bithell Games, in that you are mostly contained to one room (per investigation, at least). It also draws from 80 Days by Inkle in that you can explore outside of that room through text and conversation paths. You can travel through sub-subterranean tunnel systems in your electric vehicle to visit key locations and witnesses, but there isn’t an exploration aspect in an open-world way.

Is there any chance you could provide any more details about the general form of the gameplay that players will find in Ring of Fire?

Jeffree & Tongeman: The gameplay is mostly conversation-based dialogue systems with narrative choices, though we’re not going to offer a paragon and renegade morality system. Instead, the choices will all sit within the juicy grey area where there is no clear wrong or right answer. We’re not going to tell you that a character will remember your choice or give you percentages of players who made the same choice as you; we think that reveals the magician’s trick and it’s better for your immersion in the story if those things remain a mystery. We’re also not entirely making a choose-your-own-adventure game here either, there’s a specific story we want to tell and we want to pace it correctly. We want you to be digging through the crime scene jotting down clues on physical paper, bringing any relevant titbits into the search database, and then acting upon it by using your vehicle to visit those locations. We think this leads to the best simulation of what it feels like to make a detective’s deduction.

The artwork you’ve already shared is impressively clean and eye-catching. What sort of inspirations are you drawing from for the overall look of the project?

Jeffree & Tongeman: The original inspiration came from our tech-artist friend Dickie McCarthy’s personal project, in which he recreated a panel from Hellboy in Unity with a real time lighting system. We immediately fell in love and set out on a path to create a similarly bold game aesthetic. Over iterations, we steered more towards a flat-lit, dark shadow style inspired by the vivid colouring of Watchmen‘s colourist John Higgins. Our creative director, Tony, and concept artist, Darren [Beattie], worked closely to reduce the number of colours in each scene’s palette to what we felt was the absolute minimum that worked in order to make the environment as striking and polished as it could be. We’re really thrilled with the end result.

Ring of Fire is set in an optimistic future, which is at odds with the pessimistic, dystopian themes you often find in forward-looking speculative fiction. What made you decide to buck that trend towards negativity?

Jeffree & Tongeman: A few things triggered this, one was a notion that we hadn’t had a common vision of the future accepted by mass culture since the ‘80s, but we’re now meeting and surpassing the anniversaries of those futures and seeing ourselves withoutflying cars and hover bikes. Our artist, Richard, had sought out the solarpunk movement, neo-futurism and afro-futurism, and watched them develop from afar, captured by the idealistic vision of the future, which aligned with our goals of living sustainably, relying on renewable energy sources and mass greenification of cities. It was one which made sense to us, a vision we didn’t see represented too often in common culture, and we felt we needed to present this vision to a new generation so that they would have something positive to aim towards rather than the glum, bleak futures of Blade Runner, etc. We believe that without a clear vision of a positive future in mainstream culture, if we continue down our current path, the world is just going to collapse.

One of the stated aims of the studio is to tell stories that “examine today’s political climate.” What sort of topics do you plan on tackling in Ring of Fire?

Jeffree & Tongeman: In Ring of Fire we are not afraid to tackle subjects which are hot topics such as race, gender, sexuality, immigration, online harassment. These are topics not covered frequently enough, especially in video games, and we don’t think you’re really telling a worthwhile sci-fi story if you’re not analysing the themes of the current day. We’re definitely not tip-toeing around these subjects, we treat them in the matter-of-fact way that they deserve to be treated with. It’s also important for us to have sensitivity readers who can check that we are representing certain minority experiences correctly when we do not have personal experience with it ourselves.

From what I can tell, Far Few Giants prides itself on being inclusive. Can you maybe describe what that means to you as an individual and as a studio, as well as how that ethos will manifest in Ring of Fire?

Jeffree & Tongeman: So one of the aims of the studio is to match our team composition with the composition of the general public – 50% men, 50% women, with room for non-binary folks, for example, and putting women and minorities in positions of power. We think that if you’re looking to make art which speaks to the audience then you have to start with a team who can pour their own life experiences into the product, and the player-base will reward you for it by enabling you to reach new audiences who are looking for games which reflect themselves. As a young start-up we’re not expecting to realise those hiring goals immediately, but it markedly guides our decision-making.

What’s the development pedigree of Far Few Giants? What are some of the projects that team members have worked on previously that we might know about?

Jeffree & Tongeman: As a team we’re mainly coming from the VR scene and PC development where we’ve worked on projects such as DispatchAbeTin HeartsAugmented EmpirePC Building SimulatorWordhunters, and other unannounced projects. All relatively under the radar, culty projects but as a group we’ve been collaborating for a while and Ring of Fire was a great chance to get together and collaborate on something larger together.

The phrase “Ring of Fire” has multiple meanings—the Pacific Ocean volcanoes, the Johnny Cash song, the drinking game, the result of eating too much chilli, among others. What does it refer to in your game or is that information still under wraps at present?

Jeffree & Tongeman: The answer to that will have to remain a mystery!

LinkedIn tells me that Far Few Giants was founded in 2017. In light of that, how long hasRing of Fire been in active development, and when can we expect to get our hands on it?

Jeffree & Tongeman: Far Few Giants was founded by Richard and Tony; prior to starting Ring of Fire, Richard was working as a contract animator, and Tony as a writer and teacher, both attending game jams and prototyping various game concepts in their free time, so it was mainly a vehicle for that with the end goal to reach a point of developing and releasing a game. After a few false starts on some cancelled prototypes we landed upon the concept that turned into Ring of Fire, which started out as a few art test scenes in Unity and a Twine prototype. We picked it up to develop full time in December when we managed to secure some regional funding from Northern Ireland Screen to start working on it full time. We’re hoping to have something released to the public in 2019 or early 2020 at the latest. We’re taking it one step at a time to ensure that the end product is something that we can be proud of and something that the audience will enjoy but we also want to share the production process in an open way so that people can follow our journey and hopefully learn something from it.

Do you have any other comments or details that you would like to share with our readers?

Jeffree & Tongeman: We’re still a relatively young company and near the start of our journey with Ring of Fire, so we’d like to encourage you to follow us on Twitter and, when the time comes, wishlist us on Steam. Honestly every little thing helps at this stage of getting the word out—if our mission as a team connects with you or you like the sound of the game, any way you can share it will be incredibly valuable to us. We’d also love to hear from readers interested in our game, Richard and Tony are both reachable on Twitter and are down to chat about anything, really. We have a public facing email address: Contact@farfewgiants.com.

Richard Tongeman