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.
💖 /Bobbi and the Knife Sisters team
Facebook Event here.
This game means a lot to me, since I see it as the essence of what I’ve been doing artistically since I was a teenager. I’ve been working in the games industry since 2005, and my aim has always been to explore what games are and could be, in different forms. Parallel to that, I’ve been writing and publishing stories about queer emo kids, or if you’d rather: about relationships, identity, sexuality, mental health and self expression.
In Knife Sisters,
the graphic expression from the punk fanzines I created as a teen,
the stories I made up back then about friends I didn’t have,
the queer kids I’ve been writing about in my novels,
and the games I’ve been making throughout my years in the industry
are all coming together.
I hope the game will do its job in reaching people who are lonely teens just as I was, people who live in countries where being LGBTQ is not as accepted as in Sweden, people who wants to see themselves represented in games, and people who just like a good story.
Knife Sisters is created by me (art, game design and story), Pixie Johan Anderson (programming), Niklas Ström (sound design), and Douglas Holmquist (music), with support from Kulturbryggan (The Swedish Arts Council), GaymerX, and our lovely Kickstarter backers. Without you, this game would never have been made. 🖤
Now, wish the game luck on its continued journey!
We are happy to announce that we are approaching closed beta for Knife Sisters, and we are looking for story game enthusiasts to help us test the game! The beta period will take place from the 11th of March to the 4th of April. You can apply for your beta key HERE!
You are also welcome to join our Discord server through this link: https://discord.gg/g3QcHcc
In november 2018 I did a Kickstarter campaign for the visual novel I’m working on, Knife Sisters. This was in part an impulse move, which I will get back to, and it was instigated by meeting a representative from Kickstarter at IndieCade in L.A. in October, who told me he thought the project could do well there. But it was also because I had the idea of doing a printed tarot deck for the game, and for that I would need some more funding. Those two things made me decide to give it a go.
To be able to keep the deadline of releasing the game in spring 2019, I soon understood I had to do the campaign pretty much straight away. The tarot cards would be part of the game, and I needed time to implement them, after a potentially successful campaign. Doing a campaign in December wasn’t an option, and in January it would be too late, so I decided to go in November.
The campaign was launched on October 30, just about 2.5 weeks from when I decided to do it. This, my friends, was not a well thought through decision.
The campaign was successful, but not until the very last days, and it brought me a lot of headaches, stomach-aches and also many surprises. Below I’ll go through what I learned, and what I think is important to know and do before launching a campaign. Some of these things I managed to do well, some not that well, and some of them I didn’t do at all, but wish I had.
0. Don’t do a campaign on impulse
So, there, I said it. Just don’t do it! Crowdfunding campaigns are too complex to be done on impulse. You’ll see why below.
1. Do your research
And then I really, really mean: DO YOUR RESEARCH! I didn’t do enough. Partly because I had been part of two successful campaigns previously, so I thought I already had some insight into the workings of Kickstarter. But those campaigns were for other types of projects, and they were done in 2012 and 2015 – and since then, a lot has changed.
I did look into some campaigns for other visual novels before starting my own, but I didn’t do it enough. I did the mistake of looking mainly at successful campaigns, when I should have been (also) looking at those who didn’t succeed. If I had done that, I would have known to set my funding goal a little lower. Here are some interesting statistics about visual novels on Kickstarter, and here are some about games in general. The lesson learned is that it’s important to know the difference between different kinds of projects.
I’m not a forum person, but I should have forced myself to become active in the forums surrounding VN:s before starting the campaign, because just hanging out there made me learn a lot about campaigns for this specific medium. I started taking part in them only after I’d already launched – and at that point it was too late to change anything.
2. Plan as much as possible ahead
This I knew from having taken part in campaigns before. When doing the campaign for Words of Oz, me and my then business partner planned almost all of the content for the updates ahead, and I repeated that process for this campaign. I planned to update every third day, and this worked out well. I was generally pleased with the campaign page and everything around it – here I think my experiences from previous campaigns paid off.
The reason to plan updates, as well as all the other marketing and communication content and actions, in advance is that when the campaign launches, you will be completely absorbed by just doing everything (for example writing messages to everyone you know), and then doing creative things, such as creating interesting content, can be overwhelming.
3. Market in advance
With only 2.5 weeks between decision and realization, I had no time to market the campaign in advance. This was a mistake, and showed that I relied too much upon how Kickstarter had been working in the past. In 2012, pretty much the golden age of crowdfunding, you could do a campaign without marketing it in advance. You could also do a campaign without already having an audience. This is much harder today, and from what I know now, I wouldn’t recommend it. You need to have at least 2-3 months to market the project and the campaign beforehand.
If I would have done that, the hurdles I ran into while trying to market the campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (read more about that here) wouldn’t have come as a surprise. I did only try to buy ads for the campaign when the campaign had already started, and it turned out to be impossible, since the game includes adult content. This kind of game needs to be marketed differently, something I had too little knowledge about. Not being able to buy ads on social media I think affected the outreach of the project quite a bit, and if I had taken that into consideration, I might have lowered the funding goal.
I should also have contacted the press beforehand, trying to make sure to get some coverage. I put too little time into communicating with the press, both before and during the campaign, relying too much on social media, which I in the end couldn’t use as I’d expected.
4. Test your rewards
One thing I worked really hard on before launching was the rewards and the whole look and feel of the campaign. I was happy with the content, and we had some really nice rewards, especially the physical tarot deck, but they proved to be too expensive. People told me afterwards that they really wanted the tarot deck, but couldn’t afford it. I should have asked for feedback on the reward tiers before launching. Once again, this can’t be done if you’re in too much stress to launch, which I obviously was.
5. Don’t do it alone
Last, but not least: team up with someone that can help out with some of the actions that have to be done during the campaign. It’s very stressful to do all of it by yourself, especially if the campaign is not working out as intended. Share the work and the worries with someone, not least if it’s your first campaign. I did have help with some tasks, such as shooting the video, and I definitely had some good support from team members and people in my network, but if I’d go again, I’d try to share the workload even more.
Looking back, I still don’t regret doing it.
In the end, the campaign succeeded, despite me making some mistakes. The project has definitely benefited from everything that happened, and I learned many things that will be valuable when the game launches. The project reached new people and got some well-needed attention. But if I would do it again, I’d do a lot of things differently … and I’m not sure I ever will, because of how stressful it is.
But if I do, I won’t do it on impulse.
(Please, please, please brain, listen carefully now: don’t do it on impulse!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.