More than a year has passed since Valve announced it would allow “everything” except illegal and “straight-up trolling” content on the popular Steam game distribution platform. But some adult game makers are discovering that there are a few seemingly unlisted exceptions to this policy.
Graphic story Taimanin Asagi is the latest game to be taken off the platform this week apparently without warning. First listed on Steam last month, the “eroge” visual novel series had all four episodes out of service by late Tuesday, according to tracker SteamDB.
If Steam still had explicit standards against adult content, Taimanin Asagi is definitely the kind of title you would expect to be censored on the platform. The game’s overarching story of ninjas and demons battling for the fate of a futuristic Tokyo society quickly morphs into a character who is “captured and trained/transformed against their will into a sex slave,” according to a synopsis. Extreme scenes of non-consensual sex and torture are apparently numerous; Sankaku Gamer (NSFW) commented that the game is known for its “colossal amount of rape scenes”.
While other uncensored adult games have found a home on Steam under Valve’s “allow anything” policy, Taimanin Asagi is not the first erotic title to have problems with the service. Back in January, the developer behind the puzzle-infused dating sim HuniePop 2 tweeted that it would censor the Steam version of the game because “Valve said it was okay, but it’s since become pretty clear that it isn’t.” Graphic story Hello Goodbye was also removed from the platform in December, although it came back four months later with “a lot of adult content…cut out,” according to one review.
But those and other removed Steam titles may have run into trouble for including children (or visually childish characters) as romantic interests, possibly in violation of child pornography laws in the United States. That doesn’t seem to be a problem with Taimanin Asagi, which focuses on adult characters. Using rape as a plot point also doesn’t push the content into the “illegal” bucket, as numerous examples in other media have shown.
and unlike rape day-a lame visual novel that Valve removed from Steam in March during controversy – it would be hard to argue that Taimanin Asagi is also “straight up trolling”. Since its original Japanese release in 2005, the game has inspired a number of sequels, spin-offs, anime and manga versions, and even a card battle RPG.
Specialty site LewdGamer (extremely NSFW) went so far as to give the series a “[piece] of art that arises[s] above the rest as a face for the genre… a series that has become a flagship for both Lilith and eroge visual novels as a whole.” Explicit content or not, this is clearly a legitimate narrative work and not a gross attempt to troll for attention or controversy.
grope for the line
Of course, Valve doesn’t have to allow this kind of adult content on Steam, as much as it’s a “flagship” for the adult visual novels subgenre. In May last year, the company even took steps to remove similar erotic visual novels from Steam, reportedly holding back approvals until developers added black “censorship” bars to certain in-game scenes.
But it was opposition to those moderation decisions that seemed to lead to Valve’s decision, just a month later, to announce its current moderation policy, which “allows[s] everything on the Steam store, except things we decide are illegal or just trolling.” In response, Valve stated it’s “not the taste police,” as Valve’s Jan-Peter Ewert put it last June.
That’s a defensible position for an online storefront, even if it comes with an implicit value judgment about what kind of content Valve wants associated with its storefront. But taking a hands-off stance on moderation requires really keep your hands off adult content that some might find offensive. Failing that, it should at least mean clearly communicating why certain games are being removed from the service and highlighting the line between what kind of content is and isn’t allowed under the current rubric.
Valve has not responded to Ars Technica’s request for comment on this issue, so we (like many adult game makers) continue to act like Kremlinologists guessing at the inner workings of Valve’s Moscow. For now, it seems that in theory Valve will “continue to allow everything”, while in practice certain games are still not allowed, with no clear standards by which to decipher those decisions.
Update: A source within a visual novels localization studio shared the following take on Steam’s moderation issues. The source, who asked for anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, gives an interesting insider’s look at how Valve is dealing with these issues.
First the construction of HGB that was submitted to Valve did not originally contain adult content. It was for all ages, and all [Hentai] scenes were deleted. The only things we can even speculate that made them ban it was a CG of one of the characters (Suguri) being walked in while she was changing. She was in her underwear, but it’s tamer than a lot of other things you see in regular stuff. The other we think was the problem was a naked character but covered in a blanket in a post-sex scene (the sex scene itself was deleted). That was it, there was nothing else. That was apparently enough to get Steam to ban it.
And therein lies the real problem today. The problem isn’t that they ban porn games, which they don’t anyway. The problem is that they are completely contrary to what they do and do not prohibit. They banned games for all ages that had no lewd content at all (unless you count a bath scene where you couldn’t see anything anyway).
The main factor seems to be that they ban many games based on characters wearing school uniforms. There is no other common thread that we can find. And it’s completely random. Some steam reviewers seem to approve almost everything without a hitch. But others are super industrious and forbid anything with anime art where girls wear school uniforms.
This inconsistency and lack of clear guidelines, especially since most of these games contain 100% nothing “illegal”, they only feature anime girls wearing school uniforms, is the real problem. No one knows what Valve’s vague rules will and won’t erase. It’s complete nonsense, and makes it very difficult for publishers when it’s basically a coin toss whether something gets approved or not.
And not to say too much about it, Steam releases are critical to the commercial success of most visual novels as it is by far the largest platform with the largest user base. If anything, things are actually worse now than they were before they started allowing adult content. Before that, visual novels of all ages could be consistently approved on Steam without any issues. Since then, they’ve taken on VNs of all ages, seemingly for no reason other than anime art making characters look young, and they’re wearing school uniforms. Even if there is no porn at all.
And as you mentioned, Valve is completely opaque and it’s impossible to get any information from them as to why a game was banned. They don’t even give you a chance to fix it. They just send you an email with the generic “we found your game contained prude images of minors) and ban it. No warning with information on what the problematic content was, just ban and move on.