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Kisekae has become a mysterious beast amongst graphic artists. Once a well-known artform amongst online anime and manga fans, KiSS sets - that is, interactive data sets made for the Kisekae Set System - have declined in popularity over the years, largely replaced by more accessible Flash dressup games and "character creators" which appeal to artists and non-artists alike. Most younger artists, anime-inspired or otherwise, have no concept of what a "KiSS Doll" is - or worse, think the term is synonymous with pixel "dollz", or represents low-quality anime-styled pixel art.

KiSS has not, however, been forgotten. A significant community of fans and creators still exists, mostly grown out of OtakuWorld and its Big KiSS Page, and their forums. Recently, there has been a renewed push for activity and recognition from within the community, including the idea that the KiSS community needs to exist independently from OtakuWorld while still supporting it.

Thus, the presence of such artists on deviantArt is increasing steadily, awarding KiSS renewed exposure and appreciation. However, thanks to having become quite obscure in its silence, KiSS is now the subject of much confusion and misconception. It is this obscurity that I hope to do away with, by clarifying exactly what KiSS is - and what it isn't.

Like most artforms, KiSS has also generated some jargon of its own, which can be confusing to outsiders. The curious can find a glossary of KiSS-related terminology at the end of this article.

So What is KiSS?

KiSS sets are interactive digital art; that's the simplest way to explain it. While they are traditionally described to newcomers as "digital paper dolls", this is a tremendous simplification; KiSS sets traditionally take the form of dress-up dolls, but they can also be games, puzzles, make-your-own-critters, virtual pets - almost anything. For more information about KiSS and its origins, you can check out the Wikipedia KiSS article or visit OtakuWorld's Big KiSS Page.

KiSS sets require special "viewer" software to be opened. Because KiSS stes do not use proprietary formats (formats which are owned by any single person or company), a number of programmers have made their own KiSS viewers for different operating systems. They also vary in system requirements; as with most types of software, some are simple and can run on vey low-end computers, while others give greater functionality but require better machines. Most available viewers have been summarised and linked by the KiSS Club.

The Heart of KiSS

Have you ever looked at the "source code" behind a web page? If you haven't, try it right now. Right-click on this page somewhere (not on an image or a link) and select "View Page Source" or "View Source", depending on your browser. The mess of text you see is what the person who made that web page actually created; that's what the page is. The way you see it on your end depends on your browser, which takes that text and interprets it according to a certain set of rules.

The configuration (.cnf) file which holds a KiSS set's data works pretty much the same way as a webpage. Oh, sure - the browser is called a viewer and it's displaying images rather than (mostly) text, but it's all the same principle. A .cnf file is actually nothing more than a series of text instructions, using specific keywords and symbols to tell the viewer where to find the images and palettes that make up the KiSS set, how to display them, and how the user can interact with them.

Ultimately, it's this structure which is the "guts" of KiSS, and that's what makes a KiSS set unique. There is no other file type or program which uses KiSS, and that's why things like Flash objects and Java applets can't be KiSS sets, even if they have similar functions. Any graphics program can be used to draw a dress-up doll, but KiSS is KiSS because of how it is coded, displayed and interacted with, and that includes its own unique structure and language.

A KiSS set is always...

  • ...interactive digital art.
  • ...made up of a group of images called "cels", and a configuration file (to tell the viewer how it should be displayed), as well as one or more palette files (to define the colours used by the cels) if necessary.
  • ...made up of files using the same specific formats - .cel for images, .kcf for palettes, and .cnf for the configuration file.
  • ...made for the Kisekae Set System, with its unique configuration file structure.
  • ...opened with purpose-built "viewer" software.
  • to be made with free software and non-proprietary file formats.

There are no exceptions to these rules. These factors are what make KiSS, KiSS.

KiSS History and Traditions

The Kisekae Set System (derived from "kisekae ningyo", a Japanese term which refers to playing with dress-up dolls) was originally developed in 1991, by a Japanese programmer known as MIO.H. The original goal of the system was to bring paper dolls into the digital media - and, as such, the "traditional" type of KiSS set (and still the most common by far) is a character doll with a wardrobe, which can be dressed/undressed by the user. The subjects of such sets are normally popular anime/manga characters, or original characters created to show off their wardrobe. Many also focus on particular fashion movements (punk, goth etc.) or costume themes (medieval, character cosplay, etc.).

Traditional KiSS sets also carry the legacy of older digital art. Most sets are still drawn as limited-colour pixel art not out of necessity - modern KiSS viewers and computers are well able to handle full-colour ("Cherry KiSS") KiSS sets, and even palette-colour images can be tooled with stunning results. Rather, it is felt that the colours and styles of the original KiSS sets were part of their charm, and many modern artists choose to continue in this style simply out of personal preference.

A major innovation following the release of KiSS was French KiSS, a scripting language specific to KiSS which allowed for a variety of special effects such as animation, music and an array of new functionality. FKiSS was not part of the original KiSS viewer or sets - in fact, it wasn't added to KiSS until about 1996, when it was developed by a programmer named Yav, and showcased in a doll by Dov Sherman - one of the first non-Asian KiSS artists, and the person largely responsible for popularising KiSS outside of Japan via the Big KiSS Page now hosted at OtakuWorld. FKiSS, as well as its later updates, FKiSS2 through FKiSS4, enable KiSS artists to make surprising and creative sets beyond the simple "fashion doll" model - and to make their doll-type sets all the more interesting by adding features like colour-changing, snap-to, changing facial expressions, blinking animations, changing hairstyles, and a great deal more.

A KiSS set is usually, but not necessarily...

  • ...pixel art.
  • the form of a doll-like "playset" you can dress up in various clothing items, called a "KiSS Doll".
  • limited/indexed-colour format.
  • ...made with at least a few minor special effects (for example, a simple animation which makes the character appear to blink, or a function which makes clothing articles "jump" to their correct position on the doll), coded with the FKiSS scripting language.
  • ...packaged as an .lzh archive.
  • ...copyrighted by the artist, but made available as freeware.
  • ...NOT intended to be used as a character creator or "dollmaker" (see below).

A KiSS set doesn't have to be any of these things, however! Sets that don't fit this mould are still KiSS, as long as they fit the criteria described in the first list.

A KiSS set might also be...

  • ...made with a variety of more complex special effects such as detailed animation, colour changing, sound effects, mathematical functions and other "events" much like those seen in other scripting languages.
  • art of a favourite anime/comic/film character.
  • ...drawn in a highly stylised form, like an anime or cartoon illustration.
  • ...made using a base or template provided by a different artist.
  • ...made as a collaboration between numerous artists.

These are simply trends, however! They aren't necessarily true even for a majority of KiSS sets, let alone all of them. All types of sets are equally valid KiSS artforms.

So What Isn't KiSS?

The production and development of KiSS boomed alongside the explosion of anime in the US, particularly as series like Sailormoon grew in popularity. Unfortunately, however, it also experienced a lull afterward, and is now little-known even amongst anime fans and anime-inspired artists. By those outside its community, KiSS has been mistakenly described as everything from "pixel dollmakers" to "those crappy un-shaded anime dolls" here on dA.

Of course, these are narrow and incorrect views of what KiSS actually is - what constitutes a KiSS set has been addressed above. But if you need to be assured, here's a review of things that are definitely not KiSS!

A KiSS set is NEVER...

  • ...coded in Flash, Java, or any other program/language than KiSS configuration files and FKiSS script.
  • ...a single image such as a "pixel doll".
  • ...a movie.
  • ...a physical paper doll.
  • ...a dollmaker-style screenshot you have taken of somebody else's KiSS set in action and posted as if it were your own art/character. That's not KiSS, it's a copyright violation!

Despite popular misconception, KiSS does NOT mean...

  • ...dollmakers (see below). Some KiSS sets are specifically designed for making characters, but a vast majority are NOT to be used as such.
  • ...dressup/fashion dolls. Yes, KiSS sets are most often dressup dolls, but this is by no means the only kind of KiSS set. The term "KiSS Doll", however, does indeed specifically refer to dress-up dolls made with the Kisekae set System.
  • ...Flash dressups. KiSS uses a specific language and format, and cannot be made in Flash.
  • ...dolling/pixel dolls/dollz. A KiSS set is a collection of files, not a single image. Images such as pixel dolls, even if they are animated, are not KiSS.
    • ...anime-styled dolling. Though it originated in Japan and carries strong anime/manga influences, KiSS comes in all sorts of artistic styles.
    • ...bad/lazy dolling. KiSS creators represent a huge variety of skill levels, talent and experience. Like any other artform, the quality of a KiSS set simply depends on the artist producing it.
    • ...hentai/pornography dolls. There are certainly some KiSS sets which are erotic in nature, but they are a minority overall. Others depict anatomically correct characters but are non-sexual. Either way, KiSS does not exclude adult material, but nor is that what it means.

    • ...3D virtual dolls. Some KiSS sets feature images made with 3D modelling software, but KiSS uses 2-dimensional images for cels, not 3D models.

KiSS vs. Dollmakers

Perhaps the most common misconception about KiSS - so common that I've given it its own section - is that Kisekae is synonymous with "dollmaker". Dollmakers, or character generators, are programs - or more often these days, Flash objects - which allow you to make your own "doll" image by cycling through various body and/or clothing options. As a KiSS artform is often a playset involving a character doll with an array of clothing, accessories and hairstyles, it's easy to see why a newcomer to KiSS might think that their favourite KiSS doll is simply a dollmaker.

Indeed, it's true that there are a variety of "make your own..." Kisekae sets out there, which do much the same thing as dollmakers. Some notable examples include various Sailor Senshi generators, a magical girl creator, a My Little Pony creator and (to give a "non-character" example) a coat-of-arms creator. However, these sets are the exception to the rule, and in most cases a KiSS set is not a dollmaker.

This is an important distinction because, while dollmakers are designed to generate an  image you can screencap or export for later use - often for the sake of an online avatar or character reference - a KiSS Set is not. Doll-type KiSS sets are designed to be dress-up toys, just like owning a physical doll. If you take a screenshot from your favourite KiSS set and post it as "your character", you are almost certainly violating that KiSS artist's copyright - as surely as if you had stolen a drawing or photo straight out of their dA gallery.

To use a (hopefully intuitive) simile, a dollmaker is a tool for creating something, like a model kit you put together and paint, making a finished product of your own. A KiSS set is a completed toy you can interact with, like owning a "Barbie" doll - you might dress up the doll and style her hair, but that doesn't make her your art or your character.

Above all, remember to use dA's doll categories responsibly; this is addressed in a previous news article in particular. KiSS are not dollmakers, the two have this much in common: images you make with them are not your art, even if you've made some minor edits afterwards. It might seem that taking screenshots of a KiSS set and posting it as your own "doll" is okay, it's not. You're stealing somebody else's art, and filling the doll category with such theft.

Glossary: KiSS Terminology

Here's a quick rundown of KiSS-related terms, as members of the community use them.
  • Aberrant KiSS: A term used in the early days of KiSS to refer to sets which did not follow the traditional "dressup doll" format. Famous non-doll sets include Tamagotchi-like virtual pets, side-scrolling arcade games, dating sim games, puzzles like the Tower of Hanoi, and a highly-detailed "build your own battleship".
  • Base:
    • A template on which a KiSS set can be built (much like a pixel doll base).
    • The "character" object in a doll-type KiSS set (e.g.: "The clothes snap onto the base").
  • Cel: An image, or part of an image, to be displayed in a KiSS set. Cels are usually created as images (usually .bmp or .gif) and converted to the required .cel format with a freeware utility. Cels are always part of an object when they are displayed in the set, and each object is usually made up of mutiple cels to allow for layering.
  • Cherry KiSS: Refers to KiSS sets made with full-colour images rather than indexed/palette colour images. The first KiSS viewers did not support Cherry KiSS, and later viewers introduced "experimental" support for it; though it still considered experimental today, most modern viewers have no problems displaying Cherry KiSS sets.
  • CNF: A KiSS "Configuration file". This is simply a text file with a different extension, and can be created/edited in any simple "Notepad" type utility. This contains simple text data telling the viewer where to find the cel and kcf files for the set, and how it should display them. The CNF also contains any FKiSS commands the set uses.
  • Cookie-cutter: A set which features many items which are simply re-coloured or slightly altered copies of other objects (a typical example would be a fashion doll with seven shirts which are only differentiated by colour). "Cookie-cutter" is often said in a derogatory sense, as people tend to find such sets less interesting, but not everybody considers it a bad thing.
  • Direct KiSS: The newest and most progressive KiSS viewer, created by Dov Sherman of Otaku World. Direct KiSS can interpret FKiSS4, making it a popular choice for current KiSS artists. However, because it uses Direct X, it is only available for Windows systems, and has been known to have a number of problems on low-end systems.
  • Doll:
    • A complete set following the "dressup doll" model.
    • The "character" object in a doll-type KiSS set (e.g.: "The doll is fixed in place, but the clothes can be moved freely").
    • A KiSS set (this use is technically incorrect, since not all sets are dolls, but is still common).
  • Enhanced Palette: A mostly-obsolete term referring to KiSS sets which use multiple 256-colour palettes, instead of the original 16-colour palettes. Viewer support for Enhanced Palette was experimental at first, but it is rare now to find viewers or computer systems that can't support Enhanced Palette.
  • Fix: By default, all objects in a KiSS set can be dragged around the play field by the user, via mouse movement. To prevent an object from being moved, the artist can specify a fix value. A very high value (the exact value required depends on the viewer - usually 99 or 999) prevents the object from being moved at all, while a low value like 2 or 3 means that the user must simply "tug" at the object a certain amount of times before it will move.
  • FKiSS (French KiSS): The event-based scripting language used to create "special effects" in KiSS sets. FKiSS is most commonly used to create simple visual effects (such as animations, showing or hiding cels or making a cel translucent) but can perform a wide variety of functions including saving and loading data, time-based triggers, and mathematical functions. Like the configuration data, FKiSS is stored as text data in the CNF file, and can be edited in any word processor.
    • Numbered variants of FKiSS (FKiSS1, FKiSS2 etc.) refer to ongoing updates to the language, fixing bugs and adding/changing functionality. The most recent standard is FKiSS4; most current FKiSS dolls use either FKiSS4 or FKiSS3.

    • KCF: KiSS Colour File. This is the file format in which palette data is stored for a KiSS set.

    • Layering: The process (when creating a KiSS configuration file) of placing different cels "above" or "below" each other to create the illusion of depth. For example, in a doll-type set, garments are placed over a base doll so it appears to "wear" them. If the artist draws the backs/insides of garments, they are placed in a separate cel "below" the doll, so they will be hidden by the parts of the doll which overlap them.

    • LZH: A file format for archives - similar to .zip or .rar, but non-proprietary. LZH files were never particularly common in the West, but the format was popular in Japan, and thus became the preferred format for distribution of KiSS sets. As a rule, the pieces of the set do not need to be taken out of the archive - viewer programs open the archive itself - but a set can also be accessed when it is uncompressed and placed in an ordinary file folder, by using the viewer to open the CNF file.

    • Mirror Doll: A rare type of fashion doll set which depicts the character standing in front of a mirror. The objects in the set are drawn twice so they can be "reflected" in the mirror while the user plays.

    • Object: A single entity in a KiSS set, made up of a group of cels. For example, in a doll-type KiSS set, the doll (an object) may be made up for four separate cels: the torso, the head, the arms, and the legs. The cels which make up an object move as a group when dragged by the user, just as if they were a real physical object.

    • OtakuWorld: The biggest library of KiSS dolls on the web, this site fostered most KiSS artists and fans in KiSS's heyday. It maintained its popularity for a number of years even after becoming a subscription site, but waned along with its community as KiSS became less prominent. It forums are still quite active.

    • Palette:
      • A set of colours used in a KiSS set, stored as a .kcf file. Cels in a KiSS set do not include colours themselves, but rather a number value for each pixel in the image. The palette tells the viewer which colour to display for each number value. Some artists prefer to make one large palette containing all the colours in the set, while other prefer to use many smal palettes to keep filesizes low. Similarly, some artists plan their palette out in advance, while others add colours as they need to.
      • A set of colours used in a limited colour image (as normally used in graphic art).

    • Set:
      • A complete KiSS artform, including the images, palettes, and cnf file. Usually packaged as an .lzh archive.
      • One of the "pages" within a KiSS artform. KiSS configuration files can specify up to ten such pages - each one able to feature different objects, positions, and so forth - which the user can switch between while playing with the set in their viewer. These pages can have as much or as little in common as the artist wishes, but changes made by the user are generally kept separate in each one - if the user drags and drops an object on the first page, the same motion will not happen on the other pages.

    • Snap-to: A simple and extremely common form of FKiSS script. Snap-to moves one object into a certain position when it touches a second object - for example, a garment may "snap" into its correct position on the base doll, regardless of where on the doll it is placed.

    • Template: A base upon which a KiSS set can be constructed (much like a pixel doll base).

Sealed With a KiSS

In conclusion, you should now know enough about kisekae, its form and its origins to distinguish it from similar artforms (dolls) and related utilities (dollmakers). Maybe you've even gained a new appreciation for this unique artform, which boasts fans everywhere from Asia to America to Russia. Maybe you'd even like to experiment with making KiSS yourself - it's not as hard as it might seem. For the less experienced, it's also a great way to expand your knowledge of image formats and colour depth, and even introduce yourself to elementary scripting.

If you want to explore further into KiSS, the KiSSClub right here on dA is a great place to start - it endeavours to collect all KiSS sets posted on dA, so they are easy to find and browse. You might also like to visit The Invisible KiSS Links for many KiSS sites in a multitude of languages, OtakuWorld for the biggest KiSS archive online, or The KiSS Café for many sets and resources.
Add a Comment:
otherunicorn Featured By Owner Jul 11, 2017
I introduced Dov Sherman to KiSS :)
mimiru Featured By Owner Jun 23, 2011
Oh man what a nostalgia trip! XD I used to play with these back when I was in highschool. I had a ton of Sailor Moon KiSS dolls, and wanted badly to make my own, but I couldn't comprehend how to do it even with OtakuWorld's help. Maybe now that I'm older I'll understand... I feel the urge to try now. :)
foxlee Featured By Owner Jun 23, 2011  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I did write a tutorial on the subject, if that might help :3 [link]
mimiru Featured By Owner Jun 24, 2011
Oh, awesome! :D thank you!
FoggyPebble Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2010
Can you submit this as a nonfiction deviation so I can :+fav: it?
foxlee Featured By Owner Dec 31, 2010  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Is it a problem to just fave the article instead? ^^; I don't really want to re-submit it...
FoggyPebble Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2011
Erm.. how does one :+fav: an article?
tenchibaka Featured By Owner Mar 16, 2010
^^ thankyou, this is very helpful
MasterInsanity Featured By Owner Jun 15, 2009  Professional Writer
I don't get it.Why go with something thats harder then pressing a few buttons on Flash?
foxlee Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2009  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
There are plenty of reasons, beginning with the fact that KiSS sets use bitmap art, which (generally) looks quite different to vector art. It's also a much more efficient format for bitmap art - Flash files tend to be bigger and include unecessary information. Like choosing file formats, different tools are better for different purposes, and Flash is quite wasteful if all you want to do is display/move around bitmap images.

Also, Flash costs money! If you have no other reason to buy it, there's not much cause to go with an expensive industry-standard tool when you can make a KiSS doll with your favourite graphics tool and notepad utility.

As I understand it, proper layering is also pretty hard to do in Flash. Most dressup Flash sets I have seen don't draw in the backs of garments, mostly because (as it has been explained to me) layering takes much more complicated coding than the usual click-and-drag. I could be wrong about that, it's only what I've been told.

Lastly, many of us prefer to use raw code than a program like Flash. Just as many web designers prefer to manipulate html in a text editor, rather than a WYSIWYG program like Dreamweaver, many KiSS artists appreciate a format where they work with code in text format.

There are probably other reasons that I'm forgetting, but these are some good ones to start with. Of course, most are a question of preference, but I hope they help you see why KiSS artists still prefer KiSS.

(Sorry for the late reply - I've been absent from dA for some time ^^; )
MasterInsanity Featured By Owner Jul 28, 2009  Professional Writer
Hm.I should switch when I get better at HTML
kjbrasda Featured By Owner Oct 18, 2010
the coding for kisekae is actually a lot easier than HTML in many ways, if you make a standard doll. The more complicated fancy stuff can get confusing, but not many dolls use that.
MareKat Featured By Owner Feb 23, 2009
omg. This is amazingly fantabulous.

Until I got on DA I really thought noone knew about KiSS anymore! >.<

you are rather amazing :heart:
Ladyadokenai Featured By Owner Jan 20, 2009
I've loved KiSS dolls for as long as I can remember, probably since i first began on the internet. I've always been afraid to try to make one because I suck at digital art and coding. now that KiSS's popularity seems to be smaller than previous years, I might try my hand at it.

thanks for a great article!
ahowa Featured By Owner Jan 9, 2009
*godly heaven noises*

i need to
add this
Sesshoumaru-lover Featured By Owner Dec 23, 2008
I love you ~ :heart:
Awesome report, Fox ~ 8D

I hope a lot of people read this ~ ^w^
CrimsonTranquility Featured By Owner Dec 21, 2008  Student Traditional Artist
i want a interactive pet *lol* >>"
funny how people make assumptions that "this is that" and so on because of their ignorance.
hardcoregoth88 Featured By Owner Dec 14, 2008
Very informative! I have been a fan of KiSS for over five years now, but I still learned a lot from this article. Thanks, foxlee!
Add a Comment:

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