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!