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.
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!
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. 🖤
EDIT: The spots for our closed beta are now filled! Keep an eye out for updates about the game by following us on Twitter, Instagram or Discord.
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!
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.
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.