If you've paid any attention to the "Popular New Releases" tab on Steam, you might have noticed that lately, there's been a big influx of anime games on the distribution platform. Featuring 2D babes, these games often let you romance and seduce scantily-clad characters.
Known as "eroge," the anime games that are now finding a home on Steam are a part of a genre known as Japanese pornographic video games. Many of these games have been released on PC prior to Steam—and players have been able to enjoy them in their full glory. But on Steam, the version that developers are releasing don't include nudity. At least, not the sort of nudity that the original release features.
Warning: this post contains graphic sexual images which are not safe for work.
Take Nekopara Vol. 1, a game about cat girls, for example. While Steam does warn the player about the material in the game before they can visit the game's store page...
...and while the tags for the game also list the game as a "mature" title with "nudity" in it, and while the game even lets you adjust for the "chest bounciness" of the characters...
...the version that Steam players can purchase has still been altered and toned down from the original release. To give you a quick example, here's the Steam version of a shower scene:
And here's the original version of the same scene:
The scenes are largely the same—the context is still lewd and suggestive, but you can't see the character's breasts anymore.
Nekopara is not unique in this censorship, either. Games like Huniepop have also altered certain scenes for the Steam version:
— HuniePop (@HuniePop) August 30, 2014
And so has Cho Dengeki Stryker. Here's the Steam version of a certain scene:
And here's the uncensored version of the same scene:
[Photo: The Otaku's Study]
These are just a few examples of censorship that, while arguably minor, only seems apply to a certain type of game—other games that feature nudity or sex, like The Witcher or Dragon Age, are not censored in this way. According to eroge developers, these types of tweaks are the only way they can get these games onto Steam in the first place.
"At the request of Steam, adult content [has been] disabled," Soviet Games, the developers behind a visual novel called Everlasting Summer, announced on Steam. "Steam does not allow games in which a big part of the focus behind the game is sex," reads the official FAQ for Nekopara on Steam. As a result, developers who upload anime games featuring or focusing on sex often call the tamer Steam version the "all ages" version of a game. For veteran eroge lovers, the practice probably sounds familiar: in Japan, it's not uncommon for a raunchy game originally released on PC to get a censored, "all ages" version for consoles, or which have stricter limits for what developers can and cannot show. Western releases of erotic Japanese games can sometimes be censored, too.
For example, a raunchy PlayStation Vita game called Criminal Girls: Invite Only, which originally released in Japan, saw some alterations on its western release.
"These decisions are never made lightly, and whenever we do make them, it comes after working closely with the various rating boards as well as the developer," a representative from NIS America, the publishers behind the title, said last year. "Making the changes necessary to release some of our more niche titles in the West is not, and never has been, an attempt at making the game more appealing to a larger audience. We know that censoring a game would lose just as many fans as it may potentially bring in.
"Ultimately, our goal is to make games available to our fans in the West, and to keep those same games as close to their original as is possible. Regrettably, without changes, some games would not be able to be released here."
On Steam, players are finding workarounds for censored titles. Community pages on Steam for games like Nekopara and Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius have posts by people that instruct other players on how to get their Steam version of the game running with the content that's been stripped out of it. It's not difficult to find YouTube videos dedicated to the same thing, either, and less patient players can simply browse through pictures on Steam to see the money shots, too. Alternatively, it's always possible to buy the original versions of certain eroge games off of websites like Manga Gamer, or a game's official website. Helpfully, some developers actually have pages dedicated to getting the "Hentai patch" working on Steam copies of their game—while Valve can limit what gets uploaded to the service, they cannot stop players from altering the game post-purchase. However, some of these patches require dropping some extra cash for the erotic content.
For some players, the fact that games like these are censored doesn't matter: it's a long-standing cliche in the visual novel community that some people play raunchy anime games, not for the sex scenes or indulgent nudity, but rather for the story, writing, or mechanics (much in the same way that some people genuinely read Playboy 'for the articles'). But if the sex can be stripped out or toned down so easily, why is it there in the first place?
While discussing the issue with a representative of Sekai Project, the publishers behind Nekopara, I was told that they hoped that we don't "have the impression that all visual and kinetic novels are chocked full of nothing but mature, 18+ content—a majority [of visual novels] are quite engaging, have captivating stories to tell, breathtaking artwork, and fantastic voice over work too!"
"We know that censoring a game would lose just as many fans as it may potentially bring in."
Still, in spite of the fact that the games are more than just nudity, having these games censored at all irritates some players, just based on principle.
"I felt like.. cheated.. don't know. I suppose that I bought a product and, as a consumer, I expected the full experience," one gamer wrote on a Steam page.
"Heavily Censored, don't bother," another gamer advised others on Steam.
"Why must visual novels be censored?," a different player asked on Steam.
And at least one developer isn't happy about the way Steam handles erotic games.
"Please remind the people at iOS or Steam that if the public can handle gruesomely violent video games, they can probably handle illustrated pictures of people having sex, thanks!" the developers for Coming Out on Top, a gay visual novel that can't release on Steam due to its erotic content, wrote on a FAQ about the game.
Thing is, if developers want to get a game in front of the largest possible PC audience, they have to bend to Steam's will—even if it means toning down vital aspects of a game.
"Over the last year or so we have found that there is a rapidly growing audience for kinetic and visual novels," the Sekai Project rep said. Getting on Steam has been a benefit. "Thanks to Steam we have been able to introduce kinetic and visual novels to a large audience who may have otherwise never had the opportunity to discover these types of games/experiences."
"There [is a] English-literate audience who want[s] these adult JP games, but [the] publisher/translator can't access [the] console market, so they have to rely on PC and create their own distribution channels," Fiohnel Fiver, an artist on Katawa Shoujo, told Kotaku via email. "However it's tough to distribute products globally...piracy is rampant. The taste for visual novels without adult scenes...[is] actually more profitable as they're allowed to be digitally-distributed internationally via Steam," he explained.
Eroge games aren't the only games affected by Steam's stance on sex. In 2012, a sex game called Seduce Me was pulled from Steam Greenlight. "Steam has never been a leading destination for erotic material," Valve's chief spokesperson Doug Lombardi told Kotaku at the time. We contacted Valve for this story, and will update it should we hear back.
"If the public can handle gruesomely violent video games, they can probably handle illustrated pictures of people having sex."
"Many people still view games as 'for children' in spite of the fact that the average gamer is 30 years old," a press release from the developers of Seduce Me stated, in response to the game being pulled from Greenlight. "The gaming establishment is fine with violence and gore but is uncomfortable with sexual themes."
Steam also isn't alone when it comes to its treatment of certain sexual content. Notoriously, Apple is rather strict with what developers and comics publishers can upload to iOS. Likewise, it can very difficult to find printing houses in America that are willing to make pornographic comics. Last year, Comics Alliance reported that creators of sexually explicit comics have run afoul of printers who ditch a pornographic printing job at critical times, or of situations where printers take advantage of people who have limited choices when it comes to printing their erotic material.
The practice of making different versions of a product is not unique to video games, either. Many albums on the iTunes store often release an "explicit" version and a "clean" version of the same album, with the latter stripping out any supposedly offensive words featured on tracks. Movies released on video will sometimes sell an "uncut" version that includes all the raunchy parts that couldn't be included in the theatrical release, too.
And more importantly, it's not as if Steam isn't within its right to dictate what gets put on its service. But as the leading PC game distribution service, Steam's choices carry much weight. Even if you're not a fan of the way these specific eroge games handle sex or gender, the way Steam treats them sets a precedent for all other games that heavily feature sex, too. Obviously, sex is a sensitive subject but just as games that are approved on Steam give players the option to tone down extreme violence, finding ways to mitigate the sexual content of a game at a player's discretion shouldn't be a problem.
While the censorship issue isn't unique to Steam, unlike most distribution platforms, Steam is very audience-driven. That's why people can vote for things on Steam Greenlight: it seems that in Valve's ideal world, there isn't much that gets in the way of letting people play the games they want to play, regardless of a game's content. So far, this has worked well for Valve, because it's an approach to distribution that keeps the service stocked with the kinds of games that make players happy—unless players want erotic games, that is. When it comes to sex games, players might have to make some concessions to enjoy the games they want on Steam.
Image by Tara Jacoby.