Haikyū!! is originally a volleyball manga by Furudate Haruichi, serialized between 2012-2020 in weekly Shōnen Jump (My Anime List, 2020). The fourth season of the anime, To the Top, aired recently. Haikyū!! has a large following outside of Japan, and what I will be discussing are aspects of the english speaking fandom, which consists of people from all over the world.
Fan creations as playful communication
In the article How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love being Otaku (Duffy, 2016) the author claims that the difference between otaku and maniacs is that otaku make the works they love into their own, by examining them thoroughly and building upon them. He writes that: ”According to Tamaki Saitō, ‘Being an otaku means being able to play around a little with the works you like; if you sanctify and worship them too much, you’ve fallen to the level of a mere maniac or fan.’” Secondary creations such as fan fiction, dōjinshi (fan comics), and AMV (anime music videos) could be seen as ways through which fans communicate with each other (Goosh, 2008) about the works/worlds that they love.
Shōnen for girls
It’s hard to find demographic data for the Haikyū!! franchise, but from browsing the fandom online I think it can be said to have a rather large following among teenage girls and young women. Some of the reasons might be traced to the phenomenon of ”shipping” (it can also be called slashing or pairing, but the term currently most used in this part of the fandom seems to be shipping). According to Wikipedia, the term “ship” is a short form of “relationship” and is used to describe the relationships, romantic or sexual, that fans make up between fictional (and sometimes real) characters. The word ship can be used both as a noun (a ship) and a verb (to ship). In the original works, those relationships are often described as friendships, but fans expand upon them and build community around specific ships.
Many of the fan creations within the Haikyū!! fandom revolve around shipping characters. Since the relationships are not described as romantic or sexual in the original works, those works can not be considered as BL (boys love), but the fans are making them into their own BL works. Ōtsuka (2010) describes the same phenomenon, then revolving around the soccer franchise Captain Tsubasa. Shipping male characters is mainly done by female fans (Hemmann, 2015), but not exlusively. Kris P Natz’ Youtube channel with the video series Boy Loves Boys Love is an example of when this phenomenon can involve queer audiences as well. And boy, does he do shipping: the video The 69 Best Haikyuu Ships (2020) is a list of his favorite ships from the Haikyū!! franchise.
Playing with content, expanding the
Doing fan creations could be seen as creating small narratives within a grand narrative, or executing new programs based on the original code of the grand narrative, as proposed by Ōtsuka (2010) in his essay, World and Variation, originally written in 1989. The fan creations are narrative fragments, part of the grand narrative, but also existing in their own merit. But as a result of the development of the internet and the communication opportunities it offers, Azuma (2009) argues that the grand narrative has been shattered, and superseded by a database model of consumption. Whether you fully agree with that or not, it’s probably safe to say that narratives have become increasingly affected by and connected to cultural fragments from various sources.
The playful approach described by Duffy (2016) as a prerequisite for being otaku could also play a part as an element in fan creations. Playing is described as being free movement within a more rigid structure (Salen & Zimmermann, 2003). When stepping into the magic circle of play, the participants move freely within a world whose boundaries and rules they’re agreeing upon (Huizinga, 1938), but also continuously elaborating on. While creating new narratives, fans are both playing with each other and with the works themselves, by altering them to fit their preferences and seeing how other fans will react to their creations. The playful element can for example be seen in the Haikyū!! AMV:s based on the song There Right There from Legally Blonde The Musical (2007). According to Know Your Meme, this song has been used for AMV memes since 2008. There are many versions about Haikyū!! characters: Is Tsukishima Gay or European?Or is Oikawa Gay or European?Or might Kageyama be?
The database consumption model proposed by Azuma (2009) might be applicable here. Fans are connecting pieces of different narratives together, which bring meaning to them in this very specific context. If the work was shown to anyone outside of this part of the fandom, they might not understand much of it.
The fandom is what’s keeping me here
Sometimes the fandom and its secondary creations is what’s keeping the fans attached to a work, rather than the original content itself. The comments below are from Kris P Natz’ Youtube channel, where fans are discussing the latest season of Haikyū!!, which has been a disappointment to some fans, due to changes in the production.
“i think the new art style and the narrative of season 4
dented the show a bit for me personally but the fanart makes up for it.”
“It’s weird to say but I actually like the fandom more than
the anime I don’t know why but I just do.”
For the fans speaking their
minds here, the center of the fandom seems not necessarily to be the original
work, but the world that is created around it, consisiting of the users’ communication
and creations, as much as by the original creators’ narrative.
Bibliography and references
Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s
Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
O’Keefe, Laurence and Nell
Benjamin. ”There Right There”. Legally
Blonde The Musical, Ghostlike Records, 2007.
Eiji. World and Variation: The
Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative. Translated by Marc Steinberg. In
5: Fanthropologies, edited by Frenchy Lunning, 99–116. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play:
Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press, 2003.
Descending Stories – Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (~Showa and Genroku Era Lover’s Suicide through Rakugo) is a work of fiction by Kumota Haruko that is originally released as a 31 chapters long manga series (2010-2016) and then adapted into two seasons of anime (2016-2017). It’s a very complex story, one that has had me thinking more about its meaning and content than almost any other before. There are many reasons for that, the main being that both its theme and the storytelling itself resonated with me, and affected me deeply.
My writing will revolve around the main themes and my thoughts about those, then I’ll delve deeper into the story’s love triangle, and the sub-text and implicit storytelling surrounding it. I will also write a little on how this form of storytelling resembles interactive storytelling.
I will analyze the story in its entirety, so there will be spoilers. Though I will try to warn about them in advance, especially those that might affect the experience, the best thing would be if you had already taken part of the story when reading this.
I’ll call the work Descending Stories throughout, regardless of whether I’m speaking about the manga or the anime. There are some scenes added in the anime, as well as some taken away, otherwise the story is very similar in both mediums. But there has of course been interpretations made, for example by the team working on adapting the manga to anime, as well as by those who have translated the works into English. There might also be cultural context that I’m missing, or that I’m not fully understanding, affecting my reading of the story.
First, we need to know a little about rakugo. Rakugo is a japanese form of comedic storytelling performed by a lone artist: kneeling on stage, using only a fan and a special handkerchief as props. An important part of the storytelling is playing and narrating different characters. Rakugo is known to have existed as an oral tradition since the 9th/10th century, practised first by buddhist monks. It became a more common form of entertainment during the Edo period (1603–1867). The rakugo stories have been passed on from master to apprentice through centuries.
[Spoilers ahead] There are three main arcs in the story, in the manga they are named Yotaro’s Odyssey, Yakumo and Sukeroku and Sukeroku again. Yotaro’s Odyssey starts when a very straight-forward young man begs the rakugo master Yakumo the 8th to let him become his rakugo apprentice. On a whim, Yakumo takes him in and swiftly names him Yotaro (~fool).
Yotaro’s got some resemblance to Yakumo’s very close friend and co-apprentice Sukeroku, who’s now dead.
In Yakumo’s care is also Konatsu, Sukeroku’s daughter, who has been living with him since she was five years old, when her parents passed away in a devastating accident. Their relationship is affected by the fact that Konatsu partly blames Yakumo for the death of her parents. As Yotaro joins their household and becomes a Zenza (the lowest rank of rakugo artist), Yakumo starts telling the story of what led up to the couple’s deaths.
Yakumo and Sukeroku is Yakumo’s own story, told to Yotaro and Konatsu from his memory . The story starts when Yakumo – then called Bon (~kid) – is left in Yakumo the 7th’s care, to become his apprentice. At the same time the child Shin – later Sukeroku – is taken in as well. As they’re both abandoned by their parents, they develop a close relationship, although they’re as different from each other as two people can be.
Yakumo is shy and timid, as well as somewhat rigid, while Sukeroku is charming, extroverted and careless. Sukeroku is the one with immediate talent and a great passion for rakugo, while Yakumo has to struggle to achieve success as a rakugo artist. But when he starts loving rakugo, it’s for life. His strong feelings of jealousy and sometimes hatred towards Sukeroku are mixed with feelings of love, and a joy that only Sukeroku seems to be able to evoke within him. When they’re both about to reach a bit of fame, the geisha Miyokichi enters the story. She falls head over heels in love with Yakumo, and reluctantly he starts seeing her. But when their relationship for various reasons is broken off, she runs away with Sukeroku, pregnant with Konatsu. A few years pass. Despite having told himself that he’s better off alone, Yakumo finally decides to go after Sukeroku. But this event, meant to bring Sukeroku, Miyokichi and Konatsu back to Tokyo, ends in tragedy, when Miyokichi and Sukeroku fall to their deaths from a balcony.
The Sukeroku again arc shows what happens after Yotaro has learned about the background of Yakumo’s and Konatsu’s misfortune. His good-humored presence and the relationships formed around him, both with Yakumo and Konatsu, who he marries, become the starting-ground for a healing process. Yakumo finally gets the family he once yearned for… but maybe it’s too late. He’s torn between the past and the present, unable to decide if he wants to live, or if he’d rather pay the price for his actions, by dying and taking rakugo with him to the grave.
The Main Themes
The japanese term “shinju” means double suicide or lovers’ suicide, and this is a recurring theme throughout the story, as well as a common trope in japanese media (as well as in rakugo). The tragedy that has formed Yakumo’s and Konatsu’s lives resembles a lovers’ suicide. A coping mechanism for Yakumo has then been the thought of committing double suicide with rakugo: taking his own life and letting rakugo die with him.
But his commitment towards the people he loves has been standing in his way, stopping him from getting the peace he longs for – as well as from seeing “the God of Performance”. He’s torn between the living: Konatsu, Yotaro and their child Shinnosuke, and the dead: Sukeroku and Miyokichi, as well as the guilt he has to carry as the one who survived.
Innovation and Tradition
Another main theme is the tension between the old and new, innovation and tradition. Sukeroku is adding something new och personal to rakugo, while Yakumo’s rakugo is about perfecting, but also conserving, the art form. As he grows older, Yakumo doesn’t see a future for rakugo as it is, but he doesn’t want it to evolve further either. Part of the story is set in a post-war Japan that is developing at a furious pace. Sukeroku is the one who keeps wearing traditional clothes, while Yakumo wears more modern clothes. When Yotaro later comes in as a “stand-in” for Sukeroku, he is the one who helps bridging the gap between the old and new, encouraging Konatsu to perform rakugo even though Yakumo is heavily against it.
Secrets as Information Advantage
The third big theme is the role of having secrets and withholding information. That this is an underlying theme is hinted at at several points in the story. There are also major turning points in the plot connected to this theme – more on that later.
A Complex Love Triangle
Descending Stories is probably one of the most complex love triangles I’ve experienced in fiction, and I think that this is a deliberate choice from the author. The author has chosen to leave many blanks for the readers to fill in for themselves. There is also a lot of sub-text, things that are not explicitly shown or told – instead the reader pieces the puzzle together from many small bits of information. The result is an interpretation that will vary a lot between readers, affecting the entirety of the story.
[Spoilers ahead] The love triangle involving Yakumo, Sukeroku and Miyokichi could be seen as a classical love triangle where Miyokichi is at the center, being the object of desire for both Yakumo and Sukeroku. Another way of seeing it is that it’s more complicated, and that the people involved all have different and conflicting desires and wishes.
Yakumo has a very close connection to Sukeroku. Sukeroku is the first person that he opens up to, and for a long time he continues to be the only one that can make him smile. But he also envies him to the point of hatred.
Reading Yakumo’s body language, he is physically close to Sukeroku in a way that is never mirrored in how he’s acting towards Miyokichi (and is only similar to how he’s acting towards Yotaro later on in the story). But that doesn’t mean that he can’t have feelings for Miyokichi too.
Sukeroku seems not as conflicted. He loves and covets Miyokichi, and views Yakumo as a close friend, a brother. Sukeroku is prepared to do for Miyokichi what Yakumo is not: choosing to live with her regardless of the cost, leaving everything else behind.
Miyokichi partly chooses to elope with Sukeroku to get back at Yakumo for breaking up with her, but in reality she has more in common with Sukeroku than with Yakumo, and I believe she has a more honest conversation with him. But even after they’ve run away, she keeps yearning for Yakumo. His resistance encourages her, and she never stops hoping that he’ll change his mind. After their breakup, Miyokichi puts her love for Yakumo on a piedestal, not wanting to let him go.
There are many scenes I inperpret as having a queer sub-text, or where I believe Yakumo is being queer coded, but his sexual orientation remains a mystery throughout the story. It’s up to the readers themselves to decide what they think. Considering the context of the story and Yakumo’s possibilities, being more or less dependent on Yakumo the 7th and on the rakugo world, I don’t think it would be a strange decision to keep one’s sexuality a secret, if it were to differ from the norm.
If Yakumo decided early on that homosexuality was not an option, and that he was not going to tell anybody or anything about his eventual desires, that was a promise he would keep all throughout his life.
Scenes showing Yakumo choosing to be physically close to Yotaro (in the manga) and to Sukeroku (in the anime) are presented early on, and therefore shape our impression of Yakumo. It’s made with such a delicate touch that it’s easy to miss for those not looking for queer sub-text, since it’s made up of a combination of inner monologue, body language and a certain amount of queer coding (such as presenting Yakumo as effeminate).
The Relationship with Miyokichi
So where does that leave Yakumo and Miyokichi? Their relationship is complex and sometimes hard to understand – I’m not sure Yakumo himself is entirely sure of what he wants from it. On the night of their breakup, Yakumo tells Sukeroku that he loves her, and is only breaking off their relationship because Yakumo the 7th isn’t approving of it. This contradicts almost every action he has taken up until that point. Yakumo has generally been reluctant towards Miyokichi, backing off as she makes advances – but maybe his feelings towards her changes as he gets to know her better. Miyokichi at least sees him, she even loves and cares for him, and she gradually persuades him to get closer. But in the end, Yakumo isn’t prepared to fight for his relationship with her; he’s not prepared to give anything up for her. He chooses rakugo.
The breakup with Miyokichi also results in a breakup with Sukeroku as he tells him to move out. Yakumo decides that it’s better to be alone – that’s what he thinks he’s best suited for. And so Sukeroku and Miyokichi end up together.
As time passes, Yakumo understands that rakugo alone will not suffice. He decides to go after Sukeroku. He harbours feelings of guilt towards Miyokichi, and bringing her back with them is something he can tolerate, because Sukeroku loves her. He’s prepared to take a step back, regardless of what his own desires might be, for the sake of having his loved ones around.
During the short time he spends with Sukeroku and Konatsu in Miyokichi’s hometown, it becomes clear that Yakumo wants them all to live together as a family back in Tokyo. In his mind, this would be a way to resolve the conflicts and heal their relationships.
The Ghosts of Miyokichi and Sukeroku
After the tragedy, the ghosts och Sukeroku and Miyokichi become Yakumo’s companions. He is haunted by both their ghosts, and they are mainly malevolent. The ghost scenes are filled with complex, mixed-up emotions of love, hatred, guilt, and the desire to be forgiven.
Yakumo believes that his emotions can only be reconciled through his own death, but the living are keeping him from leaving this world, and almost against his own will, some of his wounds are healed through those relationships.
The Ending ‘Revelation’ – Story as a Construction
[Major spoilers ahead] So, does it matter what feelings and desires Yakumo actually had towards Sukeroku and/or Miyokichi? Well, apart from affecting what the reader thinks about Yakumo’s life choices, it also does affect the turning point in the end of the story: The journalist/biographer Higuchi proposes in a conversation with Konatsu that Yakumo might be the biological father of her child, Shinnosuke, who she’s raised together with Yotaro. It’s an absurd suggestion, and it’s rather easy to dismiss – everything that has happened up until that point speaks against it – but depending on how the reader has interpreted Yakumo, the proposition will sound more or less believable.
As a revelation made in the last episode/chapter, it’s easy to think that it’s there because it’s true. It’s rather uncommon for a story to propose something to the reader that isn’t. We are used to stories presenting us with “what really happened”, and when a revelation comes in the end, it usually means that it’s the truth. In Descending Stories, it’s not that easy. One premise in this story is that it’s hard to know what the actual truth is, that the truth varies depending on who’s telling the story, and that people have their secrets.
But in a way, the ending revelation can also be seen as putting the readers to a test: In what way did they follow the story? What assumptions did they make about Yakumo, Konatsu, and Yotaro? Did they pay attention to the interactions between, say, Konatsu and the Yakuza boss’ son? In this part of the story, I think the construction shines through a little too much. The ending revelation tempts the reader to think back on what has happened before, making the story come through as a construction with clues placed here and there. That is fine when it comes to e.g. a detective story, but in a drama it can take away from the experience.
On the other hand, I love a story that has me thinking, and this one really did. I had to form my own opinion from the bits and pieces I was given, and while doing so, I found that many people had interpreted the story very differently from me.
Implicit Storytelling and Interactive Storytelling
That also made me think that this kind of implicit storytelling has things in common with interactive storytelling. In a story based game, the player also gets to piece the story together from small bits of information. Those may vary from player to player, in a way that is not corresponding to that of a more linear story, but the ‘putting together information from story pieces’ part is the same. Most stories are told in a manner that prevents readers from making misinterpretations, but in an implicitly told story, the opportunity for readers to make different interpretations is a deliberate choice. In the same way, the interactive story is constructed to be pieced together differently each time the game is played. The opportunity for different interpretations is what’s common between the two.
Is it okay for fictional characters to keep their secrets?
We all want to know “what really happened” – and I think that one of the gifts that stories (just as well as games) can bring us, is temporary order in a complex world. Stories bring relief to a world consisting of things we can’t fully comprehend. But stories can also ask us questions, such as those I’ve been working on in this post. I admire the way the author Kumota Haruko has let the characters own their stories, and decide how much they want to tell each other, as well as the reader.
Descending Stories shows us that relationships are multi-faceted and not always easily pinned down. That is also the essence of queerness: not being able to tell exactly what anyone or anything is, letting identities and relationships remain fluid and changeable. The fact that the story is not explicitly queer doesn’t make it less valid as a queer experience, if that’s what you choose it to be. This also shows us that implicit storytelling has a value of its own: it gives us the opportunity to make our own decisions and interpretations. And lastly: Characters in stories don’t owe us anything – they’re allowed to keep their secrets.
What “the truth” is, is something that is up for discussion in this work, and it presents us with the idea that having secrets can be a way to keep some control over your own life – your own story.
Tonight at the A MAZE. Awards we won the Long Feature Award for Knife Sisters! We are honored and humbled! 😀
THE LONG FEATURE This is the award for complex games and developing virtual reality worlds. Those are the ones, who challenge your life by offering immersive storytelling and much more than 2hrs gameplay.
Last year, on April 24th, me and my team released Knife Sisters, a story-based game about love, manipulation, relationships and sex. We had been working on it for 2.5 years, but the creation process had been pretty straight forward – something that could not be said for the process of distributing and marketing the game. From November 2018, when we carried through the game’s Kickstarter campaign, and onwards, it gradually dawned on me how bumpy that road would become. Because of the game’s content, which includes sexual and BDSM scenes (mainly in written form), it was impossible to buy ads on any social media channel, the game was hidden away behind walls on Steam, among other hurdles, which I describe more closely here and here, and that Svampriket also does a great job of explaining in this video (in swedish).
I was naive…
The whole process of not being able to show the game to the world in the way I wanted too made me deeply disappointed. I had thought, as I guess many others, that the Internet and social media were phenomena that would make the world more progressive, not the other way around. Now it was shoved in my face that I had been wrong, I had lived in a bubble: one where it would be okay to discuss sex with teenagers and let them try things out in a safe setting – even things that they might not want to do in “regular life”.
The online platforms, both social media and distribution channels, as well as marketing channels and people, told me this was not okay. The clash between what I now thought about those platforms, and the requirement for me to be there to market my game – on the very same channels – became something I could not really handle.
Sayonara Angel City
In June we got the amazing opportunity to showcase Knife Sisters at the IndieCade Showcase at E3. That was a fantastic experience. We met and talked with so many people who tried and liked the game. I brought micro fanzines in which I’d written about the process, and had planned to make a whole blog series about it. At the same time, there were things going on in the background…
This was our third time to Los Angeles in just two years, visits that I had enjoyed a lot, but there were also things about L.A. that gave me a sense of looming disaster. We went to Chinatown and saw street after street with empty premises, and when we rode the bus we saw heartbreaking poverty through the window. All I could think about was Late Stages of Capitalism and that it would all soon be over. Me and Pixie said our goodbyes to the City of Angels during that visit. Maybe we’ll be able to go back some day, but already at that point we thought that it might not be possible. So we said sayonara to Little Tokyo and the wonderful mochi there (hoping it will prove to be auf Wiedersehen).
Fighting until you drop
When we got back from L.A. something happened. Up until that point I had been very energetic, meeting the obstacles head on. All the time, I’d had ideas about what the next steps would be – but after E3 the energy was not just gone, it was obliterated. The will to fight wasn’t there anymore, even though the experience had been great. I’ve been through burnout before, but this wasn’t like anything I’ve experienced previously. All my creative energy was depleted, and I could not see any reason for it to ever come back.
Possibly because of the state I was in, the things that had been going on in the background now surfaced. I got acutely aware about the state of the world, about climate change, extinction of species, water shortages and all the related issues. I felt a huge urge to understand what was really going on, and what it would actually mean for humanity – and for me. I read many, many books and articles, culminating with me finally reading Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas, a book I had wanted to read since it came out in 2007, but had been wary about, since I was afraid of what it would say. Now I finally read it.
To be honest, at that point, making games just didn’t seem meaningful to me anymore. What difference would a game make, in the context of the world going up in flames?
Exhaustion and existential crisis
Event though this crisis seemed more like an existential crisis than exhaustion to me, it was actually both. During the coming six months I slept almost ten hours each night, and was still tired when I woke up. I tried to keep on working even though it seemed meaningless. I had a new project in the making, and before the crash I’d been excited about it. Now, I just worked on it because I had too.
But because of my thoughts about the world, the orientation for this new project shifted to encompass some of the themes I was thinking about, which was a good decision. I worked very slowly. I cut down on using social media, but kept my accounts and sparsely posted things. Eventually, I deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone, and installed add-ons for my browser to make both channels as minimal as possible, taking away a lot of the buzz. I think I’ve now cut my social media use by 85 % – and that’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
When 2020 came around I was starting to feel a little better. Energy was slowly coming back, I still didn’t know if making games was what I really wanted to do, but I at least started to sleep normally again and was able to work a little more. I started writing a new novel. Then you all know what happened. For me, Covid-19 took over everything already from the 23d of January, when I heard about the lock down of Hubei. In my mind it was clear that China would not shut down a region with 60 million people in it, if there wasn’t a very good reason. I’m not going to go into how much time I spent reading about Covid-19. But in a way, the virus opened up something new to me.
I had already been very interested in Japanese culture and curious about all of East Asia, but I didn’t have a good way to access more information about it. Because of Covid-19, I found newspapers to read, channels to follow, and I learned a lot. After a while, the huge interest for the virus transformed into a much wider interest in Asian culture as well as aesthetics. I consumed so much anime and manga that I’m almost ashamed of it.
To understand the works better, I read books about Japanese/Asian culture and religion. And somewhere around here, things started coming together again. Because through those works of fiction, I understood that there is always meaning in fictional works – the fact that the world is changing and people are facing hard times just makes them all the more meaningful.
It’s safe to say that my life has changed a lot in the last year. Maybe it’s not that visible from the outside, but inside of me I’d say that everything is different. (Though I’m probably not the only one who feels that this last half year has been as long as a couple of regular years.) I do think I know where I’m heading now. I’ve understood that art and stories are important things in my life, and I will keep creating, but I will not keep destroying myself in the process. I will let some other, also very important things, take up time and space as well.
I’ve started a nerdy project in which I’ll analyze how storytelling and visual expression in manga and anime can influence visual novels. I’m working on two games, one is a micro game or “VTVN” – Very Tiny Visual Novel, that I will use to experiment with in the aforementioned project. And then there’s Truer than You, which I will tell you more about in time.
Expression and storytelling
I will write some posts on my thoughts about the storytelling and visual expression in selected manga, anime and visual novels, as well as how they relate to each other. Because that’s what I want to do right now! One work I will write about is Descending Stories – Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, by Kumota Haruko, which is a fantastic work of art, in all its forms.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to write those blogs that I promised more than a year ago, about what I learned during the release process of Knife Sisters. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But the game is still out there. A good thing with released works is that they are stubbornly doing their job, even when I can’t be with them. I think Knife Sisters is doing fine. In July they will be part of the A Maze festival, and we are nominated in the A Maze awards.
This year has been longer than any other, and I’m pretty sure that the world, at least for me, will never go back to what it once was. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing – especially since creation, art and storytelling will be there in some form, whatever happens.
I’m using the process of publishing our dark, emotional, and erotic visual novel Knife Sisters as a starting point for this discussion.
One of the Last Taboos
Sex seems to be one of the last taboos in our society, which leads to us trying to separate it as much as possible from everyday life. (Some might argue that that is not the case anymore, that we are sexually liberated, and that sex is everywhere… and there might be some truth in that. But if you dig a little deeper, what we see around us is rather about living up to sexual ideals and following norms, than actual depictions of or discussions about sex.) When it comes to content, this separation leads to a big divide between the content that is considered ‘natural and safe’, and that which is sexually explicit (and somehow considered harmful). Due to being pushed towards the edge, outside of the norm, the sexual content tends to become more extreme in its expression (think mainstream porn).
In between those two poles, a large dead space appears. This space could have been populated with less extreme/explicit content that still includes sex as a topic, but since society (platforms, legislators, funding bodies etc.) will try to push the content into either one of the two poles, the space between gets abandoned.
Publishing an Erotic Game on Steam
I have this firm belief that this division is harmful, both for consumers and creators who want to experience and explore sex as a topic – and therefore I was happy when Valve in June 2018 announced they were going to open up the Steam platform to 18+ games. Because, without distribution, the content dies.
In the statement, Valve said that “we’ve decided that the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.”
The challenge is that this problem is not simply about whether or not the Steam Store should contain games with adult or violent content. Instead, it’s about whether the Store contains games within an entire range of controversial topics – politics, sexuality, racism, gender, violence, identity, and so on. /…/ The harsh reality of this space, that lies at the root of our dilemma, is that there is absolutely no way we can navigate it without making some of our players really mad. – Erik Johnson, Valve
So, they concluded that the user would now decide whether they wanted to see sexual och violent content or not. (How they’d handle all the other topics they mentioned above is unclear.) Therefore, a Mature Content Survey as well as a Mature Content Description was added for each developer to fill out, to determine how their content would be filtered out, as well as described for users, when approved by Valve. In September, the first Adult Only game was released on the Steam Store.
That was the same month we published the Steam Store page for Knife Sisters, and filled out the Mature Content Survey ourselves. The process was easy, but pretty arbitrary, since it consisted of very few guidelines. And with few guidelines, there will always be ambiguity.
We interpreted the brief guidelines as that Knife Sisters would fall into the category Adult Only since it “contains sexual content that is explicit or graphic”. Explicit is the word that made us choose to tick this box – there are very few graphic depictions of sex in Knife Sisters, but there are explicit descriptions in writing. With no guidelines, it’s impossible to say exactly where Valve intended to draw the line.
Adult Only means Invisible
Being marked as Adult Only means that Knife Sisters will only be shown to people who are logged in (to prove they are over 18), and that have ticked a special box in their settings. What this actually means is that the game will get very low visibility. For many people, it will be as if the game doesn’t exist on the store at all, since the checkbox for viewing adult content is unticked by default. If you leave it that way, and search for the game, the game doesn’t show up in the search results at all.
Don’t forget to tick the box…
Otherwise you won’t see Knife Sisters – only the game’s soundtrack!
When a user who is not logged in tries to visit the store page for an Adult Only game, they will see an error page, with a small text saying that you have to log in to see the content.
ERROR – You’re not 18!
I guess that many users will never really understand that those content settings are there, if this process is not given a little more thought, design-wise.
Steam is Doing the Right Thing – But in the Wrong Way
When Valve decided to allow 18+ content on the Steam Store and give the user the power to decide which content to view, I applauded their decision. I was happy that our game could be published there – because there are many platforms where it can not be sold at all. But they are doing it in a way that makes me feel they aren’t really standing up for their decision.
In Sweden, we have a saying that goes a bit like “to wear both braces and a belt”, which means that you’re taking so many precautions it starts to become ridiculous. To me, it seems like that’s what Valve is doing: They’re trying so hard not to offend anyone, that it comes across as cowardice.
ARE YOU REALLY SURE YOU WANT TO SEE THIS?
Shying Away from Responsibility
Relying too much on the users as moderators can become problematic, if that means you’re shying away from responsibility – by simply handing it over to the users. Saying that we “allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling” is not enough (especially if you’re not going to stand by it); something that was proven when the publishing of Rape Day was debated. If Steam would’ve had a clearer content policy, and clearer guidelines, they wouldn’t have had to use a statement as lame as saying that “‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam“. (In my opinion, they could even have used their own trolling argument and said that “Rape Day seems to be made just to stir up controversy and test our limits, something we regard as trolling and that is not permitted on Steam”, but they didn’t… With a clearer content policy, they wouldn’t have needed to, either.)
I still think Valve has made the right decision to allow 18+ content on Steam, but there is a lot to be done to get it right. They need to evaluate the whole process of letting users become their own content moderators, as well as how well that is communicated. Functionality-wise, I think that when a user searches for an 18+ game by name, that game should be shown in the search results, but marked. When a user tries to view the Store page without the right permissions, they should see a stripped down version, prompting them to log in/change their settings, and not an error page. In the case when the content is not permitted, the same stripped version could be all you see.
Bridging the Gap
Allowing 18+ games onto Steam could be a step in the right direction toward bridging the gap between “regular” and “extreme” content when it comes to sex, and could open up possibilities for creators who wants to explore topics outside of the norm. But this needs to be more thought-through and based upon clearer values and guidelines. Otherwise, the risk is we’ll just keep repeating our old, boring, stereotypical ways of viewing the world.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Steam though, because they’re one of few platforms where we can actually publish Knife Sisters. Since the big war on internet sex started, fewer and fewer platforms online allow any references to sex at all. I do think Steam has chosen a better path than many others, but I hope their standpoint and guidelines will be clearer in the future.
Knife Sisters has been out for a little more than one month. The reception has been very positive, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the ones we aimed to reach. Here are some impressions:
*inhales* If you want to explore queer relationships, empathic BDSM scenarios and wonderfully written trans and enby characters + enjoy a good mystery *exhales* Then go play! – A Steam reviewer
“A visual erotic novel about love, obsession and unconventional relationships. A unique plot, art, musical content, the mechanics of choice and the depth of emotions make the game a real masterpiece!” – Reviews Online, Steam Curator (translated from Russian)
All in all, 34 Steam Curators featured the game, of which 26 recommended it, 3 did not, and 5 were purely informational.
The diversity of the cast is a genuine delight. Modern day gaming has dropped the ball when it comes to queer representation. It’s very rare that I’ll see people like myself or my friends in the media we consume. But that’s certainly not a problem Knife Sisters faces. Characters of every kind take part in this story. – Hailey McKay, Checkpoint Gaming
I’m really impressed with the lovingly crafted detail throughout “Knife Sisters”. I’ve talked a lot about the narrative, but even the subtle animations used for facial ticks and expressions are able to cover a massive amount of ground in creating an almost fluid sense of movement for a medium that is largely static. Meanwhile, the sound cues are delightfully matched to moments representative of atmosphere shifts, with the game appropriately scored as well.
– Weird and Wonderful Game Watch
Before the game was released, we wrote this artistic statement:
As creators, we want to make a game that portrays our world, coming from a community where being queer is the norm. We want to address things such as BDSM and non-monogamy in a playful way. We want queer people to be able to see themselves in the game, but we also want people who aren’t that used to queer environments to view them as something completely commonplace, and get drawn into the game by the story.
In my humble opinion, it seems like we succeeded in doing just that, and that warms my heart!
The reach for the game has been limited (although it’s very popular with pirates), for reasons I’ll be touching upon in this blog series, but that is something we came to expect quite a while before the release. The game has always been seen as an experiment on our behalf: We wanted to be able to take risks and tell this story straight from our hearts, without restricting ourselves – and that has led to us experiencing some hurdles. But since parts of the development was funded by the Swedish Arts Council, through Kulturbryggan, we were able to make exactly the game that we wanted, and that is something we will never regret!
On the 24th of April we released our dark, emotional, and erotic visual novel Knife Sisters on Steam and Itch.io. In a series of posts, I will look into what happens when you approach the commercial markets with a game that explicitly aims to explore sex, power and consent.
Knife Sisters is set in a contemporary world, populated with believable characters, progressive values, and proudly represents people of different genders and sexualities. Players can explore emotions, consent, power and dependency in a safe setting, and test their own boundaries regarding sex, relationships, kinks and BDSM, to see what they are comfortable with, and not. The game contains erotic scenes, which aim to entice and arouse the players. Depending on their preferences, that might happen or not. (Read this review in Checkpoint to get the perspective from someone who enjoyed the game but wasn’t all that comfortable with the erotic/BDSM scenes.)
I have been part of the indie game scene for quite some time now, working in the games industry since 2006. During this time, an enormous shift has taken place in the discourse around games, that has encouraged me a lot. We have been discussing how games can be made more diverse, both in their content and mechanics, and how they can address experiences and topics outside of the norm. We have seen a movement of queer and autobiographical games, and events such as Lyst, Heartbeat and QGCon (among others) bringing up the topics of romance, love, queerness and sex in games.
But what happens when you take the plunge and actually approach the commercial markets with such a game?
The fact that I’m from Sweden, where we have a rather liberal view on sex, surely affected my views and expectations on this. I could never have imagined how the game would be seen from the outside. I have previously written novels and short stories that explores sex and sexuality in a similar manner, sometimes targeting teenagers and young adults, and that has never been questioned in any way. So I was rather taken aback when I, during the Kickstarter campaign for Knife Sisters, realized how differently a (predominantly text-based) game would be received, compared to written fiction, and how hard it would be to get exposure for the project. I wrote a little about that here.
Knife Sisters was always an experimental venture, and apart from the resulting game itself, one aspect of the project has become to explore boundaries in the outside world, to see how our society measures up to its alleged goals of inclusion, diversity and acceptance.
During this blog series I will make comparisons to see how sex as a topic is handled in different media. I will look into questions around how we are supposed to discuss consent and sexuality with young people, when those topics are banned from online platforms and hidden behind 18+ walls. I’ll comment on stores such as Steam and the age rating process by PEGI. I’ll also look into the fear of the unknown, and how people might want to distance themselves from topics that could result in shaming from others. I haven’t decided on everything yet, so let’s see where this leads!
In the next post I will look into Steam, and the divide between “adult content” and “regular content”. Stay tuned!
Knife Sisters was released on the 24th of April on Steam and Itch.io, and now we’re celebrating that the game has reached players all over the world – in countries where being queer is not as accepted as in Sweden.
Join us at DevHub, Torggatan 2 in Malmö, the 31st of May from 18.30.
We’ll provide drinks and snacks (but eat dinner before! 😉 )
During the evening, Bobbi will present the ideas and thoughts behind the game, and the team members Douglas (music), Niklas (sound design) and Pixie (programming), will provide the musical entertainment.
We’ll have a lottery where you can win Knife Sisters merch, and you can buy the tarot deck that was developed for the game.