Women’s History Month Spotlight: Abby Sherlock

Jason Martinez

Abby Sherlock is currently a 2nd year graduate student at USC Games’ Interactive Media & Games graduate program. She has been focusing on producing and collaborating with actors, narrative designers and audio designers. Abby, co-creator of the award winning game Heirloom, was recently awarded the 2021 Activision/Blizzard King Aspiring Womxn* in Games Scholarship.

Here are some highlights from our talk with Abby, edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you tell us about the game Heirloom?

Heirloom would be nothing without my co-creator Kathryn Yu, who’s fantastically talented. Kathryn was the lead programmer, UX/UI designer, and co-writer. I was the producer, co-writer, and director. I also voice acted in the game.

The game was really born of Kathryn and my strengths. Kathryn comes from a strong escape room and immersive theater background. I was a theater BA at UC San Diego with a focus in theater and acting – so a strong narrative and a puzzle escape room then became our basic constraints. 

In terms of the game’s location and places, we both were very interested in “retro but not retro,” since the story takes place in the 90s, but also harkens back to events that happened in the 70s and the 80s. I’m originally born and raised in South Carolina, so that inspired the game’s setting in the rural American South. The story is about a southern woman and her family. It was born of my love for the South and how I missed the things I thought were special.

What’s your favorite creative medium?

Probably still games, especially theatre in games. I think both theatre and games are conduits of empathy. With theatres, you get to see these actors and become immersed in a performance. This type of interaction does not happen in movies or TVs. With games, it’s similar to theater: you physically have to do something, or else you’re going to start on the title screen and not do anything. I think the level of participation of the player, of the audience, is very similar. 

Games also present the innovation of technology, and with the strong storytelling mixed into the concept, there couldn’t be a better medium in the world.

Can you share your experience as a female game developer? 

I was a child actor and I grew up in very female-friendly places. I saw lots of good role models at a young age. The theatres I was a part of had a lot of female directors and creators.

When I got involved with my e-sports gaming club in my undergrad, we would be lucky to have three women in a room of 400 people. It’s very hard to find role models that look like you. I’ve always loved games but never knew games could be a career because there wasn’t a lot of visibility on female game professionals. 

Seeing role models was really important for me. It was a challenge, as there are so many comments about women in games facing harassment, doxing, and stalkers. It can be scary, and that’s why I think I’ve been so attracted to programs and initiatives that support marginalized people within the space. I think having a place that offers mentorship is so vital, especially for marginalized people. Having those people in your corner to help, guide, shield, and teach you is essential.

What inspired you to study game production at USC Games?

When I was looking at graduate school, I realized I needed those technical skills and portfolios to have a career in games. I actually got waitlisted for the USC Games program at first, and got off the waitlist in April. The program offered everything I wanted to learn about – programming, engines, UI/UX design and much more.  

Did you always know you wanted to make games? 

No, I didn’t. I wanted to be an actor for the majority of my life. It started mostly when I felt so welcomed and supported in my undergrad’s e-sports club. It made me feel like I could be all aspects of myself being around people who love games. 

When I was graduating from undergrad, I had some choices to work in publishing at games companies instead of development; but I wasn’t feeling right about it. I chose to go to graduate school so I could get into game development and production. I knew that I wanted to work in those fields but did not have the skills yet for them. Now I do. 

Do you have a USC Games favorite project you’ve worked on?

It’s not really a project but more of an experience. Last summer, I was a fellow for Girls Make Games last summer, which is a girl’s summer camp that teaches young girls about coding and game design. We didn’t really teach games as much as we played games together. Spending time with that group was just incredible. As mentioned earlier, I have seen very few role models growing up in games; so it’s awesome to be there and let them see it’s possible to achieve what they want, and that their voice would be much appreciated. I am very proud to have been a part of that. 

Image Source: Girls Make Game where Abby worked as a fellow in summer 2020. 

Do you have a favorite memory at USC Games?

I’m really proud of Heirloom. The awards and recognition it got have been really validating. The story is about women, created by women. We tried to make the story impactful for all kinds of people, specifically those who don’t play games. People typically think of games as shooters and violence, rather than an artistic medium; so the experiences and impacts Heirloom creates is very rewarding and awesome. 

I’m also super excited about my thesis project. I’m probably going to end up doing a project that deals with women in games, specifically competitive sports and streaming. I’m very stoked for that. 

Can you share more about your USC Games thesis project?

I’m thinking of creating a harassment simulator that takes the player through the experience of being a woman in games. I’m going to be doing interviews with folks, to get real words that people have heard in games used against them. I’ll compile the information to make it a trackable journey of what happens to a female character as players experience the game. 

Any advice for fellow women game developers?

There are lots of resources, programs, and organizations that provide support to female developers in the game industry. Find them and use them to help you grow.

Connect with Abby on LinkedIn and learn more about Abby’s game, Heirloom. View the whole interview on USC Games’ YouTube channel here