At the beginning of last year, Shura was gearing up for a packed festival season off the back of releasing her second album. After Forevher came out the previous August – a wonky-pop record that skews vintage sounds into new shapes – the summer of 2020 presented a crucial opportunity to win over new fans in reams of muddy fields. Then, of course, we all know that life had other plans.
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When the pandemic hit, closing down the live performance industry overnight, Shura found herself in the same boat as virtually every other musician in the world, suddenly stuck at home unable to earn essential revenue through gigging, and unable to go into the studio. “My entire job just ceased to exist overnight,” she says. At the time, the British artist was living in New York, and when the city went into lockdown “I was stuck inside playing video games. I didn’t have anything to do,” she says, “like everyone else I was just in shock.”
As a kid, Shura had always been into gaming – when she was seven, her older teenage brother got a Nintendo 64, and she was immediately fascinated by it. Growing up, the attic room in their house became a dedicated hide-out for playing after school with their mates. Gaming has always crossed over with the artist’s creative world, too; eagle-eared Shura fans will have spotted a smattering of references hidden in her music already. Conceptually, her debut album Nothing’s Real is inspired by Mass Effect, while Gustavo Santaolalla’s melodic soundtrack for The Last of Us influenced her ten-minute epic White Light.
When part one of The Last of Us was released eight years ago, Shura watched her twin brother play it, occasionally from behind her hands – “it was a bit too scary for me,” she laughs – and was gripped by the vivid storytelling and its “baby gay in-the-making” character Ellie. The sequel came out just before their birthday last year, and originally, Shura had planned to fly over to the UK for another traditional viewing party. “When it became apparent I couldn’t get that flight I was like, I can’t not see what happens!” she says. In the end, Shura ended up enlisting her girlfriend for moral support, and they played the game together in New York. “I’d throw her the controller when it got really really scary, and she would throw it back when she kept dying and rage-quitting.”
Shura inhaled the story over one weekend and found herself screaming at the screen in the intense and emotionally conflicting moments that see the main characters pitted against each other. After searching out explicit queer representation in games and largely drawing blanks, the characters and plots in The Last of Us 2 “affected me a lot more than many of the queer movies I’ve seen”. At the same time, she was also increasingly frustrated by certain responses. Shortly after its release, director Neil Druckmann posted a series of screenshots showing the vile transphobic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic abuse he’d received online after including gay and trans characters. “I was like, oh fuck this,” Shura says. “We have one game! One game with a lesbian lead and an incredible trans character, and fuck you!”
In recent years, LGBTQ+ representation in games is steadily increasing. The likes of Assassins Creed and Mass Effect give players the option to follow queer storylines in certain games, and generally queer characters are becoming more prominent after historically featuring as either minor characters or punchlines. It’s a start, and yet there is a long way to go. As of three years ago, just 83 video games featured playable LGBTQ+ characters according to an in-depth count by GamesRadar, and in most instances, these come with both straight and queer storyline options. Just eight games featured a character who is explicitly queer.
“It’s great that there are queer options you can play with if you want,” Shura says. “There are a lot of independent people making [LGBTQ+] games like Dream Daddy – but in terms of the big, triple-A games, we need more characters that are explicitly queer. Whenever that does happen,” she adds, “there’s still going to be so much crap about it on the internet.”
As a closely related example, she cites the introduction of women’s teams to Football Manager. “In some of the responses, people would be like ‘great, 5 people are going to be excited about that’. Even if it is only five people, thank fuck. Women, queer people, non-binary people, Black people, play games. It’s not just for you, and it never has been. We’ve just been terrified of entering the spaces that you dominate, so we just play The Sims in our attics and have affairs with lots of women in the game. Now we’re encroaching on that space, and that’s where you see it. Fortnite recently did a bunch of rainbow skins for Pride, and while a lot of reactions were super-positive, a lot weren’t. A lot of people are ok with us being gay as long as it doesn’t encroach on them. Look, I fucking love Red Dead Redemption and Arthur Morgan, but every character looks like that. Joel from The Last of Us is the same. Here’s this white man from the south with a beard, who is a bit gruff but soft inside. It’s been done! Give me an Ellie, a Dina, or literally anything else, please.”
Eventually, the musician decided to create her own community instead. After ordering a £15 ring light, and cobbling together a basic Twitch set-up on a “rickety mezzanine” above her bed, the Shuniverse was in business. “I’m going to stream [The Last of Us 2] and play it and invite a bunch of queer people who don’t want to see all this shit on the internet, and have a really nice place to enjoy one of the best games ever made,” she remembers thinking. A year on, donations have allowed her to build a bespoke gaming rig, including a self-built gaming PC with rainbow fans.
How it started. How it’s going pic.twitter.com/KHWvWm0cZJ
— shura (@shura) December 27, 2020
Shura’s Twitch took off almost immediately, watched by a mixture of existing fans who knew her as a musician, and curious passersby who had no idea who they were watching. “There’s so much in music that you want to do, all the time, and it’s just not feasible or possible because it’s expensive to tour or make a record or ask this person to do a remix,” she says. “There was a freedom in this. It is like doing a gig, I get the same high after a stream. You’ve been with an audience and they’ve fed off your energy.”
Growing up, Shura often avoided MMOs for the precise reason that she decided to begin streaming on Twitch. “I never wanted to play them because I was like: I don’t want to go here, this is a place full of horrible people saying horrible things to each other,” she explains. “Super homophobic, misogynistic stuff.” She was always wary of Fortnite – which faced criticism earlier this year after briefly banning and then reinstating a well-known creator over homophobic comments – after hearing rampant homophobia in the voice chats of games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.
Over the course of the last year, however, Shura’s begun enjoying these kinds of games with her Twitch community. “Over the pandemic I’ve become friends with Shannon Woodward who plays Dina in The Last of Us, and [New Zealand musician] Ladyhawke. Shannon’s a huge Fortnite fan, and she was like Pip, Shu, come and play. I was like, fine, for you I’ll do it. I was just really surprised about how fun it was! I became obsessed with it and then my Twitch community got obsessed with it. It was nice to see. A lot of people, like me, would never have considered playing it because the environment is so toxic. Now they have a safe space to do it, and that was really fun.”
Over a year later, several thousand people watch Shura play games ranging from Life is Strange and The Sims to Mass Effect 1 and Resident Evil 2. In some ways, her Twitch community has been a lifeline: “Being brutally honest, people subscribing is how I’ve survived this year and paid some of my rent,” she admits. Connecting with gaming fans in an isolated time has also helped her through the last eighteen months. “It really has saved me,” she says. “Perhaps saved is a bit dramatic,” she adds, laughing, “but I am an artist, so there you go.”
The stream’s chat section is a lively corner where fans egg Shura on, cracking jokes, and commenting on her latest snack choices. Occasionally, during crucial chapters, the artist will dress up as characters from the game.
Part of the appeal is that these walkthroughs aren’t a lesson in meticulously-honed skill or razor-sharp reaction – in a recent stream of The Last of Us 2 (which she’s currently replaying in grounded mode) Shura’s caught unaware by a zombie while chatting away about her childhood aversion to mushrooms. “I’m not good at games, and you don’t have to be to have fun,” she points out. “With a game like The Last of Us, it has really incredible accessibility settings so you can really play it and just be here for the story. I wasn’t interested in being ‘good’, I was interested in the world that it built. Gaming has always been my favourite pastime outside of music because it was somewhere I could go that was like a movie – but you’re using your brain and affecting it. Gaming was super social for me growing up.
“For me, Twitch is like a digital version of the attic room in the top of my house,” she says, “the place where the grown-ups aren’t allowed, and we all just sit on a sofa with our ice cream, popcorn, and we’re playing together. I joke about it and call it a giant sofa in the sky, but that’s what it is.”
You can catch Shura streaming on her Twitch channel.