Potions: A Curious Tale almost got buried — until its creator pushed back

Renee Gittins started mixing the ingredients together for Potions: A Curious Tale nearly 10 years ago, documenting the highs and lows of game development in vlogs on her YouTube channel, which she produced throughout the making of Potions. She did this as a means to inspire other girls interested in game development, which she also did through her former work as an executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). She told Polygon in a recent interview that she “wanted to share the experience with others so they could see what the journey would be like if they pursued it themselves.”

She ultimately decided to release it on International Women’s Day — March 8, 2024 — to celebrate girls everywhere and remind them that anything is possible despite the discrimination and obstacles we all face. Her thought was also that the first quarter of the year was generally a safer time for releases, with fewer games typically coming out from larger publishers. It was the perfect day to release her first solo game — until it wasn’t.

Electronic Arts happened to randomly choose International Women’s Day to rerelease Command & Conquer, SimCity 3000, and half a dozen other classic games on Steam, burying Potions: A Curious Tale on the New Releases page and lowering the chances of most people discovering it. Discoverability can make or break a game, especially indies, so Gittins was crushed when she spoke about it on social media.

The response she received — and continues to receive — has been mixed. Her reaction went viral on TikTok, later being picked up by news stations because of how touched people were to learn about Gittins’ journey. Some people discovered the game as a result of the coverage, but she’s certainly received her share of hate in comment sections and in Steam reviews for her game.

“Honestly, putting myself out there with those videos was very intimidating,” Gittins said. “I did not want to be seen as weak or incompetent, but I also knew that sharing that vulnerability was exactly what others needed to see to encourage themselves and understand they weren’t alone in their self-doubt and worry, nor in feeling triumph over their small successes.”

At the time, I was actually scrolling through Steam’s new releases, and I remember thinking, Oh, this witch girl potions game looks cute and different. I hope people still find it under all these classics EA just rereleased. I was so happy when the game went viral — and when Gittins agreed to speak with me about her journey in developing Potions: A Curious Tale.

Gittins said Potions: A Curious Tale started with “the idea to create a game where the hero isn’t rewarded for slaughtering every fluffy bunny they see. Using your resources to craft potions to use as spells felt like a great solution and sparked the idea of it being a witchy game, with a focus on wit over brawn.”

She added that she “grew up fascinated with myths, legends, fairy tales, and folklore” and thought, “Potions could be a perfect medium for sharing these tales from across the globe.”

Emily, another witch, sneeringly addresses Luna (the main character of Potions: A Curious Tale) outside a cottage, saying, “Go back home to be coddled and let a more worthy person be her apprentice.” Image: Stumbling Cat/Hawthorn Games

The purple-haired witch heroine of Potions: A Curious Tale stands next to another character who is in a cage, Nearby, an old woman named Baba Yaga says, “Good, then this deceiver is free to go. She is lucky you will bring balance here.” Image: Stumbling Cat/Hawthorn Games

Gittins got to work on the game while also learning the ins and outs of game development. Sometimes things worked out; Gittins noted, for example, that many aspects on the game dev side were not as hard as she thought they would be. “I think architecting the complex system interactions was easier than I expected,” she said.

But she also made the game while going through everything a person goes through in life along the way. One of the reasons that development took around a decade was because she was “trying to manage [her] time, mental health, and creativity” along with burnout, which she said made her feel “guilty.” She learned to aim for smaller and more manageable goals, which helped her “feel accomplished without being too overstretched.”

A black-and-white photo of Jason Lentz, a man with long back hair, smiling at the camera
Jason Lentz
Photo courtesy of Renee Gittins

However, the hardest thing Gittins experienced during the development of Potions was when she lost a team member and a friend.

“Jason Lentz was one of my best friends,” she said. “He created the logo for Potions: A Curious Tale, as well as various other graphics assets, in his role as the game’s graphic designer. It took me a while to get back on my feet after his passing, but I arose with more determination to finish the project and share his work with the world.”

Despite the challenges, though, she knew she was making something special almost right away.

“When I first demoed Potions at GeekGirlCon, my booth was swarmed by interested girls and parents,” Gittins recounted. “One girl, dressed as a witch, pointed at Luna [the game’s main character] and exclaimed to her parents, ‘That’s me!’ Another girl’s parents came up to me and explained that she had been bullied in her second grade class for enjoying Minecraft as a girl. She thanked me for making a game for her, and personally for being a hero she could look up to as well.

“After seeing how passionately girls responded to the concept, I wanted to make sure the story, mechanics, and overall design did all it could to encourage them to enjoy games, pursue their dreams, and recognize their own personal strengths.”

Luna, the purple-haired witch girl who stars in Potions: A Curious Tale, stands in a forest casting magical bubbles, accompanied by a yellow cat Image: Stumbling Cat/Hawthorn Games

The video game industry has never been an easy space for women to exist in, on the developer or player side of things. As a developer, Gittins faced “subconscious sexism” from others, saying, “I like to joke that being a woman in the game industry is +2 to opening doors and -2 to being taken seriously.”

As a gamer, Gittins says she has “faced every possible issue, including harassment; unsolicited sexual messages; death threats; doxxing; and all sorts of verbal abuse.”

“I had mostly avoided that kind of harassment as a game developer,” Gittins said, but posting her TikTok “turned that all upside down.”

She said she’s not ever surprised how often girls decide games aren’t a safe space for them, “because [she] was made to feel extremely unsafe, many times.”

But she continues forward. Female representation in games was “extremely lacking” when she was growing up: “I remember appreciating Rose from Legend of Dragoon, but I don’t believe I played any games with female protagonists until I was in college. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why I feel so passionate about providing that for the next generation.”

A screenshot of the potions crafting screen in Potions: A Curious Tale, depicting multiple ingredients and a completed potion in a glass bottle labeled Greater Sandstorm Potion Image: Stumbling Cat/Hawthorn Games

Luna, a witch with purple hair, faces towards a puzzle composed of six-sided dice in various orientations; a dialog box on the screen describes the puzzle with a poem that reads, “Numbers grow in each row’s domain / Spin them ‘round and harmony regain / Embrace the challenge, let uncertainty fade / Conquer the puzzle, remove the blockade.” Image: Stumbling Cat/Hawthorn Games

Luna faces a stone gargoyle-like statue with antler horns. A dialogue box reads, “In lantern’s glow, secrets unveil / Shadows whisper, light prevails / Ignite the flame, see what’s concealed / In its warmth, the truth revealed.” Image: Stumbling Cat/Hawthorn Games

Gittins said that when she was first looking for resources, she realized that she couldn’t find anyone covering their own journey, and she recognized how important that is for people just getting started, like she was.

“While there were tutorials, postmortems, and interviews from accomplished developers, there was very little content I could find to relate to as someone just getting started.”

For women and others who want to pursue game development, too, she shared that “there are countless resources available online to start learning the basics, so definitely find a tutorial, video series, or other material that’s compelling to your preferred learning style to start.”

She also emphasized the social nature of game development, saying it “benefits most from insights and advice from others.” She recommended networking and building a community of “friends, peers, and fans to share your ideas, get feedback, and cultivate your skills and motivation.”

Sinbad — a man in a turban, a low-cut white shirt, and green pants — stands on a boat in front of a massive pink octopus, saying, “Get back, devil fish! I shall have your tentacles hung from the main yard like the slimy —” Image: Stumbling Cat/Hawthorn Games

A short character named Sun Wukong with tufts of brown hair and red glowing eyes says, “I have license to smite you with my staff! I’m Sun Wukong. I am the great sage equal to heaven, the handsome monkey king, and a disciple of Tang Sanzang.” Image: Stumbling Cat/Hawthorn Games

I’m really enjoying Potions: A Curious Tale, so I also had to ask Renee Gittins what’s next.

“I plan to work on porting Potions: A Curious Tale to consoles next, and providing a free content patch/DLC for both the console and PC versions,” she said. “I would also like to turn my focus to creating more general game development content for others, particularly girls, to refer to on their own game development journey. I want to create content that uplifts and inspires others.

“I’ve experienced both AAA and indie development in my career now, and I truly enjoy getting to wear multiple hats as an indie developer. I may be tempted by another role, but I currently hope to work on prototypes for a few ideas I have knocking around, and take some much-needed rest.”