Knife Sisters

Dark, cute & queer – inspirational sources

January 29, 2019 • By

I’ve been posting pictures on Instagram from inspirational sources for Knife Sisters, and it made me want to sum it up here as well, in a little more detail. First, the origins of a project are of course a multitude, from events in one’s own life, people you’ve met, experiences that are kept in the back of one’s head … but there are also sources of inspiration that are easier to track down, and those are the ones I’d like to talk about here.

When I started working on designing Knife Sisters about two years ago, there were two works specifically that affected me: Ladykiller in a Bind by Christine Love and the Wet Moon series by Sophie Campbell.

Ladykiller in a Bind – Christine Love, 2016

The lovely queer game, about The Beast who has to impersonate her own twin brother at a school cruise, came into my life at a point where I was struggling with how to tell the story of Knife Sisters in a game format. Ladykiller in a Bind offered an answer to that. Not only was I inspired by its theme and storytelling, but also by the functionality. I knew I had to be able to tell a complex, character driven story, but I also wanted to include game elements such as meaningful choices, and stats that could affect the players’ decisions. Ladykiller in a Bind was the perfect example of such a work, and I analyzed it thoroughly.

Ladykiller in a Bind – The Princess

Wet Moon – Sophie Campbell, 2004 – present

About the same time, I worked on concept art. I’d known for a long time that I wanted to do the art in black & white – because I’ve always loved that. Around then, my friend tipped me about the Wet Moon series, and I got all of the (then) six parts from the library, reading them in just a few days. I got very inspired by the diversity of the characters, something that affected me in the character creation for Knife Sisters, having me redesigning some of the characters.

Wet Moon characters Cleo and Trilby

But I’d worked on this project for quite some time before I even stumbled on those works. Early on, I stated the tv-series Skins as one of the inspirations, along with other British tv-series such as Cucumber and Banana. There is a certain roughness to them that I really enjoy. They are bold when it comes to showing sexual content and they don’t shy away from including heavy subjects.

Skins – Jamie Brittain, Bryan Elsley, 2007-2013

What I especially love about Skins is that the young people in the series are giving the mandate to sort out their own problems, without the adult world interfering a lot. Sometimes that is of course not realistic, but as a young person struggling to find your way, that’s sort of what’s on the agenda: trying to form a life where you yourself is in charge.

Skins series one characters Sid and Cassie

Shortbus – John Cameron Mitchell, 2006

I was also inspired by Shortbus, a movie about a number of characters in New York City, that all come together at the queer sex club Shortbus. The movie got a lot of attention for being sexually explicit, without for that sake being porn.

What I think Shortbus does is bringing sex into a story as an important thing in people’s lives, showing sexuality as a force to be reckoned with, something that actually affects us a lot. That’s something I want to do too. I oppose the way that sex is treated as separate from ordinary life, as though it should be handled privately and never really spoken about. I think that does us harm.

Shortbus

Long before that came another work that affected my drawing style and storytelling a lot, and which I think I always carry around as a profound inspiration, namely Love & Rockets.

Love & Rockets – Jaime Hernandez, 1981-present

Love and Rockets is an influential comic magazine created by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez in 1981. Though loving both Gilbert’s and Jaime’s works, I was especially inspired by Jaime’s stories about Maggie and Hopey, the two punk girls who became lovers as teens, and who we then could follow into their adulthood.

Those were stories about queer punk kids, and since I was one myself, they meant a lot to me. My drawing style was already somewhat similar to Hernandez’, and his stories inspired me even more to come up with my own stories and characters.

Maggie and Hopey, Love & Rockets

As I said, it is almost impossible to know what has really inspired you, since your brain does a mix of everything you’ve ever experienced and creates an output from that. But the sources I mentioned are those I know have affected me, and which I can see direct effects from in my work. I’m very thankful for having encountered them at points in time when I really needed them. They gave me keys to the future!

Knife Sisters

Symbolic and Logical – The Tarot Cards

January 16, 2019 • By

I’ve always had a great fascination for tarot cards and other similar meaningful/figurative cards, such as the Kille card deck. As an eleven year old, I created my first divination game, based on my own cards.

I’ve since worked on many projects that incorporated divination and tarot cards in different forms. One example is the board game prototype The Fortunate, where players created a prophecy for their own future (similar to a horoscope) by collecting tiles.

The Fortunate – game prototype

In the unreleased Ozma project The Silent Town, tarot cards were an important part of the mechanics. They were used to determine the fate of the game’s characters, in a tarot play session inside the subconscious.

The Silent Town – Concept Art by Steffi DeGiorgio

In Knife Sisters, the tarot cards are not part of the game’s mechanics, instead the main character can do a tarot reading at an event in the game’s Occult shop. I finally got to illustrate my own version of the Major Arcana for use in the game.

It wasn’t until I was about to write the tarot scene in Knife Sisters that I actually researched more in-depth what the individual cards meant. Up until that I had mainly been interested in them as concepts, as game design components, but also a bearer of some elusive, magical meaning.

I think some games have a quality that is rarely talked about, but very important, that is just that: They stand for the magical, the mysterious, the things we cannot explain. In a way that’s the complete opposite of what most games are built upon: logical systems. But it’s not really a contradiction. A logical system can be made to contain and enhance more esoteric phenomena, and that’s exactly what a tarot layout does. It’s also what makes games so fascinating: they can incorporate both the logical and the fantastic.

I’m not sure that I personally will continue using tarot cards for tarot readings, but I do see why you’d want to. They can definitely serve as keys to find personal meaning, to view things in a new light, and to connect to emotions that might be hard to grasp. My fascination for combining logical systems with components that have symbolic meanings will probably never diminish.

Knife Sisters, Update

The hurdles of marketing a game with adult content

November 26, 2018 • By
So, the Kickstarter campaign is soon coming to an end! During this campaign I’ve learned so much that will be invaluable when the game launches this spring, and for that I am very grateful. But some of the things I’ve learned are a bit bitter to swallow …

When I started this project, I didn’t think that much about how it would be received. That is a necessary starting point for me to be able to create things straight from my heart, saying exactly what I want to say, not thinking about how people will react. So I’ve been telling the story I wanted to tell, in the way I wanted to – and that means it has explicit sexual content in written form, it has some strong themes, and a little nudity here and there. The players who have tested the game have not had any complaints about that though! 🙂 I wasn’t totally naïve – I knew from the start that I might not be able to sell the game on the biggest platforms such as the App Store and Steam. But I didn’t want those kinds of things to stop me from doing what I wanted.

I’ve always been interested in challenging norms, but maybe my being from Sweden (which is a pretty progressive country when it comes to how sexuality is viewed), made me not fully understand how different the view on sex is in other parts of the world. I’ve published four fiction novels, some of which are targeted towards young adults and include sexual content and no one have had any complaints. I’ve written erotic short stories aimed at teens and young adults, that will be published in an anthology by RFSU Malmö (an organization that engage in sexual politics) and those stories are just as explicit as anything in Knife Sisters. In Sweden it’s totally fine to write serious stories about sex. I’ve now understood how privileged we are to be able to do this.

Since the development process of Knife Sisters is coming to a close in a couple of months, I’ve since autumn started to reach out a bit more with the project. About that time, Steam changed their policy to allow for adult content, which I of course think is a good thing – but they’ve made it very hard for people to actually find that content. If users haven’t checked the box for wanting to see adult content, the game doesn’t show up in search results – even if the users themselves were looking for it. It’s as if the game doesn’t exist. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad that I can sell it on Steam at all.)

Friends of mine who’ve tested the game and who I’ve told about this get rather surprised. They don’t view the game as porn. But right now it feels like everyone else does. No, there’s one exception: Kickstarter doesn’t! They’re allowing me to do this campaign and I’m very happy about that. The problems arise when trying to market it. Facebook and Instagram doesn’t allow for marketing posts that refer to the game, since it includes adult content. It doesn’t matter if the post itself is super clean. Twitter takes it even further, not allowing my account to market any posts at all, since the account is associated with content that goes against their marketing policies. Anyone who’s seen my Twitter account I think can verify that there’s not much porn going on there … but that doesn’t seem to matter.

After trying to market posts on Instagram a few times, to see where the limits are, they’ve now blocked me from following people. I don’t know if that block will last, but if it does, I think I can see that Instagram account as pretty much dead. It doesn’t matter that much, because I haven’t got many followers, but I’ve been posting there since I started the project, so it has some sentimental value to me.

I understand that platforms want to have rules, I understand that they don’t want their users to get explicit sexual content and porn shoved in their faces … but this is far from that.

In a way all of this makes me feel that what I’m trying to do is more important than I originally thought, and that this is much more of a political thing than I thought – and that’s spurring me in a way. But in another way, I just want the people who might like my game to be able to find it. And that seems like a big challenge right now.

Knife Sisters, Update

On ethical dilemmas in games

November 24, 2018 • By
Yesterday we we’re at SpilBar in Copenhagen, showcasing the game and listening to great talks about moral choices in games. I of course support the idea that games can be much more than entertainment (not saying that entertainment is anything wrong, though).

Jordan Erica Webber presented ideas from the book “Ten things Video Games can teach us about Life, Philosophy and Everything”, by herself and Daniel Griliopoulos, and Miguel Sicart talked on the topic “Choices That Matter: Games Through the Lens of Ethics”. Tomasz Kisilewicz gave us his thoughts on the processes of making This War of Mine and Frostpunk.

In Knife Sisters I’m also dealing with ethical dilemmas and the question of how far you are willing to go to be accepted by someone you love. Most of us want to make the right choices – but how do you actually know what’s right? That’s up to you to decide, while playing the game.

Update

Focus group for Truer than You

November 8, 2018 • By

Our next game has the working title Truer than You. It’s a game about what it means to be true, especially in relationships. It’s also a game about shame as a driving force in social situations.

Yesterday a small group of people who are interested in relationships gathered to ideate for the game. We did a workshop in the creative environment of the city library of Malmö.

We started with the exercise to draw a subway map of our lives, which we then presented to each other. Then we continued the ideation based on the game’s premise and its main character Rin. It resulted in more than ten situations and scenarios that can be used in the game, as well as many more ideas to develop further. I’m super impressed that so much can come out of just 1.5 hours of workshopping!

Rin has recently moved to a large city and knows noone …

Article

Playing with Power – BDSM in Games

October 15, 2018 • By

How are BDSM and power dynamics represented in games, and what can that teach us about love, life and games?

In this blog post I’m exploring what BDSM and games have in common, and how BDSM and power dynamics are represented in indie games. It’s based on the talk “Explicit Power Dynamics – BDSM in Games”, that I’ve given at Lyst Summit 2017, and at QGCon and IndieCade 2018. A video recording of the talk from QGCon can be found here.

BDSM is about playing with power dynamics

BDSM is an umbrella term for a number of sexual or erotic practices. The abbreviation stands for Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, and Sadism/Masochism. It’s often also grouped together with fetish culture, from the outside often characterized by fetishized materials and clothing, such as latex and PVC, uniforms, and bondage-like harnesses, but what which can be so much more than that.

Within the subgroups of BDSM there are an almost infinite number of expressions that BDSM can take, all having something to do with playing with power dynamics. There is shibari, japanese bondage, edge play, involving for example blood and other body fluids, there is role-playing, for example age play and pet play. For the uninitiated, some of these practices can seem a bit scary, but for those practising them, they are considered positive and are often empowering for the individual.

BDSM is still outside of the norm. For a long time it was considered a mental illness, but the last couple of years this view has changed a bit. BDSM has become part of popular culture, for example through the book series 50 Shades of Grey by EL James and the feature films based on the series.

Flavors of BDSM is kind of a common ingredient in manga and anime, especially in boys’ love, and in anime ships – fan works in which fans pair up characters from anime, manga and games. And lately we have seen fetish expressions take a place within fashion. In fashion-based subcultures such as pastel goth, no-one raises an eyebrow if someone wears a harness or a choker, especially not if it’s pink. BDSM has also become part of some games, for example Ladykiller in a Bind (2016) by Christine Love, where it’s an integral part of the narrative. This is also a game I’m heavily inspired by in my own game creation.


Ladykiller in a Bind by Christine Love

Why is BDSM interesting from a games perspective?

BDSM actually has quite a lot in common with games. When I’m asked to speak about what games are, I often state that games require clear boundaries, clear rules, and clear feedback, among other things. These requirements are also part of the play of BDSM. Because make no mistake: BDSM is play, albeit sexual play – and play has as you might imagine a lot in common with games.

In Homo Ludens (1938) the philosopher Johan Huizinga defines play as:

… a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life’.”

That definition rather does apply to games – but it also applies to BDSM. In BDSM the rules are essential. Consent and communication is crucial. The power dynamics are visible, and clearly laid out for everyone involved. The players of BDSM often have specific roles, and within a play session a number of (often beforehand negotiated) actions can take place. All players join voluntarily and have the power to cancel actions they are not comfortable with, and break the play at any time – sometimes through the use of safe words, and sometimes through participants checking in a lot with each other. But this is of course a matter of communication, and as everyone knows, the art of communication can be a tricky one.

Can power dynamics in relationships be explored through games?

Games are interactive and as an interactive medium, a game’s primary expression lies within its mechanisms, and how those are designed to evoke reactions and feelings within the player. Avery Alder, a game designer from Canada, who designs storygames and table-top role playing games, held the, for me, eye-opening talk ”Imagining Ourselves: Queer Mechanics and Queer Games” at Proud & Nerdy, Malmö Pride, a couple of years ago. A video recording of this talk can be found here.

Alder said that:

Games aren’t slideshows. Games are systems. Systems aren’t objective or neutral. Games present us with the designers’ biases. All mechanics reinforce worldviews & politics. We’ve been playing straight games!”

What I think Alder means is that it is important that we, as game creators, take responsibility for what we present in our games, both topic- and character-wise, but even more so, in the mechanics of the games. Because the game mechanics are the real heart of the game – it’s essence, so to speak. One way of taking responsibility for the games’ essence is through introducing norm-challenging game mechanics. Alder presented in the talk six possibilities for queering games, with concepts such as The fruitful Void and Character Non-monogamy.

Explicit Power Dynamics

Another of the mechanisms that Avery introduced is Explicit Power Dynamics. Explicit power dynamics is about making power structures visible, and to let the players explore or even change them. Power dynamics are often taboo – since talking about power might make people request change … and that makes them even more taboo to play around with. Through making power dynamics visible, we can become aware of how they function, we can process them and learn about how they play out in our relationships – and thus we can also start to challenge them – if we want to.

In Robert Yang’s game about consent, boundaries and BDSM, Hurt me plenty (2014) you get to spank a guy who is standing on all four on the floor. He does like spanking, but he, as every human being, has his boundaries – and you better respect them. But as a player, you have the power to do whatever you like. You can spank him harder than he enjoys, but it won’t go unnoticed. If you surpass the receiver’s boundaries, the game will end and you might even be banned from playing for a while.


Hurt me Plenty by Robert Yang

When playing, I did this, and the feeling of violating another person’s borders was uncomfortable, a physical feeling of cringe, and I felt disgust towards my own actions. Without saying aloud what I would take away from this game, it got to me, simply through my own actions and how they made me feel.

Somewhat similar but very different is the Consensual Torture Simulator by Merritt Kopas (2008). It’s a completely text based game which let’s the player explore how to take on the wish from their girlfriend to be spanked until she falls into tears. It’s a soft-paced game that let’s the player think about how to set up a session and also how and when to end it. Just as in Hurt me plenty, the player is in control over the situation and has quite a lot of power towards the receiver.


Consensual Torture Simulator by Merritt Kopas

Another game that uses the mechanism Explicit Power Dynamics is the tabletop role-playing game Hot Guys Making Out (2013), by Ben Lehman, which Alder also uses as an example in her talk. This game centers around the forbidden passion between two main characters, Gonsalvo and Honoré, who have very different traits. Gonsalvo is very shy and timid, and has a hard time getting his emotions through. Honoré is the opposite. He is decisive, always taking action, and succeeding with what he takes on. In the game, you play one of the characters, and you use regular playing cards to perform actions. Every time Gonsalvo gets to play a card, he gets to tell about his emotions, and express his inner monologue, but he cannot take any actions (except for the special case when a heart is played). For Honoré, the opposite takes place. He only gets to perform actions, and can never explain or talk about his feelings, except as well, when a heart is played.


Hot Guys Making Out by Ben Lehman

This game is not about BDSM per se, but I think it might be the most clear example on how you could work with power dynamics as a game mechanic, letting power differences between the characters be conveyed through mechanisms. Since the power dynamics are so uneven in the setting, it’s also very easy to introduce BDSM play into the game, if you’d like that.

The games that want to be disobeyed

Since games have rules and give players instructions, and players most often voluntarily comply, one might argue that games are inherently dominant and players submissive. In her 2016 Kill Screen article The videogames that want to be disobeyed, Elise Favis exemplifies games that give contradicting instructions, or where players need to decide for themselves which “orders” from the game to obey and not.

One example of that is Tale of Tales The Path (2009), in which at the beginning the player is supposed to go Grandmother’s house and explicitly told not to stray from the path. If you do as the game tells you, the game will end in minutes. It’s first when you do stray from the path, you get to experience more of the game’s narrative.

Another example that Favis brings up is the indie platformer Loved (2010) by Alexander Ocias, in which the game’s narrator gives players rather arbitrary orders, which they can disobey if they want to. The narrator responds to player choices by praising them or harshly dismissing them.


Loved by Alexander Ocias

Favis writes that:

Loved’s confrontational mechanics of obedience and disobedience resemble dominant/submissive BDSM power dynamics and sexual practices. It places you in the shoes of a submissive by putting you under the spell of the narrator’s dominance. Even if you disobey, there’s an impression that you are nonetheless being led by the narrator’s leash.”

The games that challenge obedience gives another mechanical approach to working with power in games. By being self-aware of their mechanisms, they force the player to become aware of those too – and as Favis concludes, thus invites the player to set aside their comfortable routines.

The game and the player

The relationship between the player and the game is by extension also a relationship between the player and the game’s creator. As the one in charge of what the game will demand of players, I as a creator will be part of a negotiation. Putting (negotiated) power exchange and sometimes even violence upfront sometimes poses questions about fiction versus reality, and the players’ own limits.

One of the large advantages with fiction is that we can experience things in ways we otherwise wouldn’t, and therefore the boundaries within fiction can (and should) be a bit freer than in everyday life. In the end, that is one of the main points of play: getting the possibility to perform actions you wouldn’t normally do … to get to explore who you are, when you take a step out of the box. But that of course comes with the risk of players getting uncomfortable. And that is why we most often use content warnings and give players the opportunity to opt out. But even when given a choice to do or don’t, players might transgress their own boundaries, since deciphering and understanding one’s own limits can be very hard.

That said, I don’t think that feeling uncomfortable is necessarily bad when playing games. It might even be the goal, as in Hurt me plenty – you are supposed to feel uncomfortable violating the other person’s boundaries. The power is put in your hands, and you should use your agency wisely.

So, what can all this teach us about love and life?

Something that both playing games and practising BDSM can do for us human beings is offering the opportunity to try out new roles, new ways of acting, as well as making experiences that we wouldn’t get in everyday life. All of this can lead to expansion of the self, opening up for new possibilities. The experiences made in a safe setting, such as in play, can be transferred into everyday life, empowering the person.

To be able to expand and develop as a person, the playing-ground needs to be safe, and the communication with others needs to be clear, as well as based upon respect and trust. It requires a lot of guts to be clear towards others, revealing your secret wishes, fears and desires. This is something most of us try to achieve, failing and succeeding, over and over, in different situations and relationships, throughout life.

One way of practising communication and role-taking can be through playing games. Another way could be through practising and experiencing BDSM. A third – and in my opinion perfect – option is through playing (and making) games about BDSM.

Update

Let’s talk about power, baby … and games … and sex!

September 19, 2018 • By

How is BDSM portrayed in games, and what can this teach us about love, life and games?
I will be speaking about this at Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) in Montreal on September 30, as well as at IndieCade in L.A. on October 11. The topic is “Explicit Power Dynamics – BDSM in games”. Knife Sisters will also be shown at the Arcade at QGCon. I’m looking forward a lot to test the game with this crowd, and hope I will have the time to attend some other talks as well.

Games and BDSM actually have some things in common, they are both examples of play, and therefore have some similar structures, such as requiring clear boundaries, clear rules, and clear feedback, among other things. But games are also great ways of addressing power, since they include mechanisms that you can play around with. During the talk I’ll take examples of how BDSM is used in games, but also how negotiations take place between the game and the player.

I hope to get a chance to sum it up in writing later this autumn!