These days, anything goes on Steam, but not anything anything. If games are "illegal, or straight up trolling," Valve says it'll send them packing. In the past, that's meant low-effort games with titles like Big Dick and MILF, achievement spam, and certain sex games.
Now, according to some developers, Valve is going after games that feature themes of "child exploitation," which it seems to define, at least in part, as games with sex scenes or nudity where the characters are in high school.
Over the past few weeks, the company has removed the store pages of several visual novels, including cross-dressing yaoi romance Cross Love, catholic school adult visual novel Hello Goodbye, "story about the love between siblings" (yuck) Imolicious, and cat girl game MaoMao Discovery Team. The developers of these games all claim to have received similar emails stating that their games could not be released on Steam.
"While we can ship most titles on Steam, we found that this one does feature themes of child exploitation," read the email received by Top Hat Studios, makers of Cross Love. "Because of that, the app has been banned and cannot be reused."
There are a couple ties that bind the games in question: 1) Cross Love, Hello Goodbye, and Imolicious feature school settings, and 2) all four of the aforementioned games contain adult elements and centre around anime-styled characters who appear young — in some cases uncomfortably so. However, their developers have taken to protesting the bans on social media, saying that their games have been misunderstood. They all claim they've reached out to Valve since receiving their bans, only to be met with silence.
Cross Love's developers say they've taken great pains to ensure that their game demonstrates, on multiple occasions, that its students are of age. This includes scenes where they peruse 18+ manga and are ID-ed before being allowed into an adult bookstore.
"These scenes aren't there to be artificially shoehorned in, and while they do exist as further proof of characters' ages (beyond the disclaimer in the beginning that explicitly states them as being 18), the real reason they're there is to further many of the themes in the story," said developer Top Hat to Kotaku in a Twitter DM, pointing out that it's tried to contact Valve with this information six separate times, to no avail.
"A large chunk of the story is about accepting who you are, being comfortable with yourself, and altogether similar themes within a type of coming of age-style love story, which isn't really seen in most yaoi games."
Other games are more questionable. Imolicious' developer claims there aren't "any children" in the game, but it revolves around school girls. When I pointed out that most school girls are, by definition, children, developer Yume Creations replied in a DM: "High school students aren't children, they are teenager[s]."
Most teenagers in high school are still minors, so that rationale doesn't really hold water. The developer also noted, however, that "in [the] case of Imolicious, I added a disclaimer that all characters [are] over 18 like you can see in most visual novels."
They're not wrong: This is a trend among visual novels featuring adult material — and more broadly among "loli" anime, which tends to feature suspiciously young-looking women who are said to be over 18.But while some take these declarations at face value, others view them as obvious (and creepy) fig leaves.
"Having a disclaimer stating that a drawing is of consensual age or not is a ridiculous thing to rely upon," said one user in a Steam forum thread discussing MaoMao Discovery Team's legality. "At the end of the day, it is a fictional drawing that does not have an age. If you think they look too young, then they are too young. A bit of text saying 'this person is 20' changes nothing."
Which brings us to the heart of the matter: It's Valve's store, and what it says goes. If someone at Valve decides characters look too young, then they're too young. Top Hat, however, believes there's a double standard at play here, not unlike the one some developers felt they'd fallen victim to before Valve officially allowed uncensored sex games on Steam.
Other games that feature young-looking characters, school settings, and romantic/sexual themes, like Nekopara Extra, Sakura Sakura, A Piece Of Wish Upon The Stars, and Material Girl, are all still on Steam, Top Hat pointed out.
Kotaku reached out to Valve to ask about the rationale behind banning certain games, but has yet to hear back.
Imolicious developer Yume Creations says it's given up on trying to get the game on Steam, opting instead to release an uncensored version on internet hentai capital Fakku. In a Steam post, MaoMao's developers made it sound like they, too, are throwing in the towel. But while Top Hat has put Cross Love up on other stores like Itch.io and Nutaku, it's still giving Steam the old hopefully-at-least-university-age try.
"Steam is a major service, and we had hundreds of players looking forward to buying the game there upon release," Top Hat said. "The game had wishlists in the thousands, and the community group had several hundred people in it. This is a very large userbase to lose out on, and it hurts us pretty bad. It's not world ending, but it is quite the end of the year blow."