What does it mean for a game to let you consent?
Does consent mean offering “Yes” and “No” options? Is it enough for the player to consent, or does the player-character also get a say? If so, will it destroy the player’s sense of agency to give the player-character enough agency to disagree with their choices?
I don’t have the answers here. It’s actually something I’m struggling with in my own role as a narrative designer for KO_OP Mode: Can a character be their own person? It’s intriguing, the idea that the player and player-character could be two separate identities, with two separate senses of agency and decision-making.
Often, they are one and the same: The player tells the player-character to do something, or say something, and they will. But in many narrative games, sometimes the player-character has a personality already, and they know what they do and don’t like. You couldn’t tell Geralt from The Witcher to go around killing innocents, for example, although you could shag a lot of them.
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In Transcenders Media’s recently-released BDSM visual novel Knife Sisters, available on Steam and itch.io, the player-character—a non-binary person called Leo—lives in a vegan commune with a bunch of stoners, witches, and flakes. It’s possibly the most accurate simulation of a certain subset of millennials I’ve seen in games. Everyone is some combination of polyamorous, sexually adventurous, risk-taking, and involved in community. It’s actually quite touching to see so many mid-twenties characters who are open to exploration and self-discovery, even if it’s not a lifestyle that totally appeals to me.
Leo is quite self-defined already. They don’t like physical intimacy, they are skeptical and mistrusting of others, and they fuck up a lot. So does everyone else, though. In your first couple of weeks as Leo, you can help them come out of their shell, or you can keep them guarded. Neither is the right or wrong answer, but both open you up to different possibilities. It does, at times, get frighteningly hippie, as a woman named Dagger undresses in front of you and performs a ritual with your own blood and an animal skull, but like Leo, you can stay skeptical, or let yourself be drawn in to the story.
Dagger asks you to stop overthinking things, which is tied to the main mechanic of the game: much like the similarly sexy visual novel Ladykiller in a Bind, Knife Sisters gives you dialogue options that fade out if you take too long to decide. “Let yourself feel,” says Dagger, and I find myself waiting longer, letting options fade if they don’t seem right, letting the best option come to me.
There are some sex games you play to get off, and there are some sex games you play to explore, to feel, to learn. Knife Sisters is not just about penetrative sex—although that can be a part of it—but also about intimacy, and the sensuality of touch and closeness. There are scenes that involve nudity and strap-ons; there are other scenes that involve caressing someone, or playfighting until you both run out of breath. These scenes are no less sexy, no less sensually-described. Leo’s openness to exploration and experimentation is the main driving force of the story, and this means trying weird stuff a lot of the time. Even if that stuff involves blood and animal skulls instead of nipples.
Leo decides how they feel about the world, but you, the player, decide how they interact with it. Yes, Leo is scared, that much is clear; but whether or not they do something despite their fear is up to you. Sometimes, in a chosen relationship, Leo takes the lead. Other times, they play the submissive role. It’s interesting to get to role-play both sides, to see both aspects of this pre-defined character. Will you be the sweet, loving dominatrix? Or the rough, possessive kind? Will you give your partner what she needs, or take what you want?
I won’t spoil too much of what Knife Sisters is about. At the beginning, I thought perhaps it was like most other sexy visual novels I’d played; but by the end, I was getting Oxenfree vibes, the sort of story that sends a shiver down your spine, that makes you think hard about every decision you’re making, and every one you’ve made so far. Knife Sisters could have been another exciting, kinky game, but through its inventive, intimate way of exploring relationships and social dynamics, it manages to be so much more.