The Suffering Of Larina.
If at any given moment you visit the Steam store's front page, there's a strong chance you'll get an eyeful of exposed skin from some lewd adventure or action game's listing. Steam doesn't allow pornographic games, but in the Steam Direct era, they keep appearing on Valve's service anyway -- until they're taken down, that is.
Steam's rules prohibit porn, but earlier this year, a game called House Party -- about whipping your dick out, getting people to strip, and starting fights (sometimes by whipping your dick out) -- appeared on Steam containing depictions of full-frontal nudity and sex. You could even jerk yourself off in front of people, if you wanted.
After this was brought to Valve's attention, the game was temporarily yanked from Steam, with Valve asking the developer Eek to censor or remove the explicit parts before it could be re-uploaded.
At the time, Eek criticised Valve for what he saw as a double standard: "There are many games with nudity, and there are also games with sex scenes as well, including really popular titles, so it's all rather confusing and I don't know exactly where the line is."
Nobody seems to know where the line is, but in House Party's wake, several more games have definitely crossed it. Other games like visual novel The Suffering of Larina, risque fantasy game Valortha, and "erotic thriller" Strangers In A Strange Land pulled off similar feats, showing up on Steam with exposed genitalia and full-on sex scenes before being removed. Sometimes, the game's developers censor the naughty bits and re-upload the games, but sometimes they stay down for good.
Image: Strangers In A Strange Land.
You're probably wondering how this keeps happening. Well, despite being in charge of the biggest PC game store in the world, Valve runs a pretty loose operation when it comes to selecting which games will appear on its platform.
Earlier this year, the company wound down its Steam Greenlight service that let users vote on which games they wanted to see appear on Steam, replacing it with Steam Direct. This allows anybody to submit a game to the store if they pony up $US100 ($130).
Valve checks the game out to make sure it maintains a baseline of functionality, but it seems to be an extremely low bar. So while Valve technically doesn't allow explicit pornography, there did not seem to be any checks to prevent it: Many games have been posted, then taken down, rather than prevented from going up in the first place.
Despite how at-odds with Steam's guidelines these games might seem, the developers' presence on the Internet exists primarily, sometimes entirely, within Steam's ecosystem. Take Ryuvscloud, the developer of the aforementioned Valortha, as well as similar, albeit less gratuitous games like Sayaka and Himiko.
Ryuvscloud does not appear to have a web presence outside a private Steam account that lists no contact information. Moreover, it doesn't seem too interested in the fate of its games: After some were removed, the studio's Steam forums were full of confusion about what happened and if the games would be coming back. Ryuvscloud never made a peep.
The Suffering of Larina.
Larina's developer SexuaDarka takes a similar approach. When the game, which is a visual novel story with a thin plot about thievery that's a setup for some very aggressive and extremely explicit sex scenes, was removed from Steam, the studio didn't patch it, and just released a new, similarly explicit, game a month later.
The developer behind Strangers In A Strange Land, a point-and-click adventure set on a farm where strange things (and also sex) are happening, does have a Patreon, but otherwise makes itself difficult to contact directly.
It's hard not to wonder whether these developers are intentionally breaking the rules, knowing their games will be removed. On one hand, having your games removed from Steam doesn't seem like an amazing business strategy, but on the other, the prestige of being on Steam even for a brief moment draws attention to these developers, whose games would otherwise just be one of many porn games available on platforms that allow them.
Games don't get much time front-and-center on Steam anyway, so it's not that bad of a trade-off when you consider that Larina managed to stay on Steam for nearly a month, and Valortha didn't get removed until it'd be available for nearly eight months.
Evidence seems to speak to the idea that developers like SexuaDarka at least understand that their actions might have consequences. One month after releasing Larina, SexuaDarka launched an extremely similar game called Kayalina, which was also removed from Steam shortly after its launch.
A thread in Kayalina's Steam forum titled "this guy again :3" contains responses from a handful of people saying they will buy it because they liked Larina so much. Perhaps this is the plan -- leave the last game down, but put up another game knowing that fans will rush to buy it before it disappears.
Strangers In a Strange Land was re-uploaded to Steam with censorship, as seen above.
Some porn games have tried a different tack: Put uncensored game on Steam, wait for it to be taken down, re-upload a version that censors all of the explicit content, and then provide a link in a Steam news update to an "uncensor patch" that removes the censorship.
As of this week, though, it seems like that's no longer allowed. Dharker Studio, developer of a sexy visual novel called Galaxy Girls, claimed in a forum post on Sunday that "Steam reps have told us that they no longer allow any information or links to the uncensored patches on steam, so they all had to be removed".
Dharker added that it would be updating its own, non-Steam website with information on how to download an uncensor patch. Dharker Studio did not reply to our request for further comment.
Since then, multiple other developers, including visual novel powerhouse MangaGamer, have chimed in with similar claims. Speaking with a website called LewdGamer, MangaGamer said it received a notice from Valve instructing it to remove all mentions of uncensor patches from its games' pages on October 27.
That came as a surprise in light of a discussion the publisher had with Valve in late April, in which Valve apparently said uncensor patches were OK.
"Valve has not yet given us a reason why this policy has changed," said MangaGamer's PR director and head translator John Pickett.
Valve did not respond to Kotaku's repeated requests for comment and clarification on this matter.
Image: Ladykiller In A Bind.
Valve and uncertainty go hand in hand, and this is just the latest example of the trend. Triple-A games like The Witcher 3 get a pass on full-frontal nudity and sex scenes. There have been a handful of Valve-approved uncensored sex games on Steam since the end of 2015, like visual novel Kindred Spirits On The Roof and BDSM sex comedy Ladykiller In A Bind.
The former did not depict genitalia, but the latter did. Meanwhile, games like the notoriously raunchy HuniePop series display bare breasts, but characters still wear underwear that can only be removed via uncensor patches.
R-rated content, then, seems to be acceptable in some situations, but genitalia and sex scenes don't fly… except when they do, as in Ladykiller's case. Valve has never stated where it draws the line outright, leaving developers in the dark.
In addition, games that use sex to make headier points about identity and culture -- Robert Yang's dick pic game Cobra Club, for example -- have had difficulty getting through Steam's front door, even though they use genitalia to make a point, rather than being explicitly pornographic. It's worth noting that, as Kotaku columnist Amanda Cosmos once pointed out, Valve seems especially "dick averse."
It's confusing for developers and Steam users alike, but for the time being, it seems like Valve's gonna Valve. At least that will never change.