Steam bans adult visual novel months after release, raising censorship fears (updated)

Valve’s gaming platform Steam this week once again banned an adult visual novel from its platform. The circumstances around the ban are particularly troubling, as Bokuten—Why I Became an Angel was released seven months ago and apparently subject to an internal back-and-forth over its adult material.

Developer Overdrive and publisher MangaGamer revised their adult visual novel specifically for an all-ages Steam release, only for their product to be removed from the platform. It remains unclear why Bokuten was removed, as the developers say they have not received a notice from Steam explaining the removal, nor did the team add any additional material to the game since its release last December.

“The entire Bokuten team put countless man-hours into both the adult and [all-ages] versions of the game, and to see it getting banned with no notice was a huge punch in the gut,” one developer, Kaitsu, tweeted. “Bokuten was our baby & it deserved better. Please grab it from the official publisher.”

MangaGamer Steam Banned

Steam is the biggest digital distributor for PC, Mac, and Linux video games, making developers’ presence on the platform essentially mandatory. Adult visual novel developers commonly work with Steam to reach a compromise that allows adult games onto the service with 18+ material removed or censored. While this takes additional development time for games where sexual content is integral to the story, companies see cooperation with Steam as a bargain worth making. Inclusion on Steam boosts sales from exposure to a larger audience, and creators can always host off-site 18+ patches to reinstate adult material.

“The [Bokuten] team spent months getting the game sanitized for Steam, cutting all nudity, rewriting/skipping [scenes] and anything explicit, it passed [Steam’s] harsh review, and it just vanishes with no notice or explanation,” Doddler, one of the game’s programmers, tweeted.

Released games are generally considered safe from Steam censorship as the product in question has become available to consumers. Given Valve banned Bokuten seven months after release, Steam’s actions raise questions about adult material’s future on the service and whether developers can trust Steam to keep their promise to host all-ages versions of adult games.

“Gutted to hear about Bokuten being removed from Steam. It was always assumed that once you were on, you were safe. If a game passed their approval process once, the least they could do is send word that their rules have changed and allow you to make edits,” Meru, the CEO of English localization company Love Lab, wrote on Twitter. “The problem seems to be with Valve deeming any anime-style characters to be ‘underage’ and then not allowing these ‘underage’ characters to even make a risque joke… or something along those lines. I honestly don’t even know at this point.”

Bokuten Steam NSFW Ban

Some visual novel fans believe Steam may be purposefully targeting not just adult visual novel titles, but MangaGamer in particular. Games journalist Benny Carrillo claimed Steam pulled yuri (or woman-loving-woman anime) visual novel The Expression: Amrilato by misleadingly claiming the game “sexualizes minors.” While Carrillo acknowledged the game features a censored topless bath scene with a 17-year-old character that could technically meet Steam’s rule against material that “sexualizes minors,” other games with similar or more explicit sexualized depictions of underage characters—such as Gal*Gun and Akiba’s Trip: Undead & Undressed—have not faced removal from Steam.

At the time, MangaGamer implied the issue was rooted in homophobia against lesbian relationships. “[T]he only conclusion we can draw from the feedback we’ve been provided with is that Valve now considers chaste romance between two women inherently ‘sexual’ and thus inappropriate for all audiences outside an adult context,” MangaGamer public relations director John Pickett said of the situation, according to Carrillo’s article.

Steam has a history of not just targeting adult visual novel creators but contradicting itself on adult material. The Expression: Amrilato was later reinstated and is now available again on Steam. Earlier this year, Valve put queer visual novel Errant Kingdom through a bureaucratic nightmare over whether the game was or wasn’t an “adults only” title.

While it’s unclear why Bokuten was banned, it appears a similar internal issue is at play. An overview of Bokuten’s Steam listing history on SteamDB shows Steam repeatedly labeled, and then pulled the label, for Bokuten as “adult content.” This back-and-forth began prior to the game’s release during November 2019 and continued over the past year. The game’s Steam statistics were temporarily pulled on July 10 and reinstated on July 14, before the game was permanently removed two weeks later.

Unlike Errant Kingdom and The Expression: Amrilato, this may be for good. Bokuten has an “exceedingly low” chance of returning to Steam, Kaitsu told fans.

Consumers can still purchase Bokuten from MangaGamer, but for now, Steam’s direct competitors Epic Games and Gog are out of the question for hosting the adult visual novel. “Epic won’t take visual novels and GOG hasn’t had a chance to review the title yet,” Doddler told one fan.

Update 8:47pm CT, July 31: When reached for comment, MangaGamer’s PR Director John Pickett told the Daily Dot that the publisher received an email from Steam several hours after Bokuten was removed from Steam. The representative with Steam responsible for the ban claimed MangaGamer had “added sexual content” to the game “that would not have passed our content review process,” according to Pickett. Pickett refuted this claim by stressing that no material was added to the game since its release on Dec. 19, 2019.

After contacting Valve for comment, Valve’s Vice President of Marketing Doug Lombardi said Bokuten was removed after discovering an external patch that activated adult scenes with underage characters. “In our initial content review, we missed content hidden in the game’s depot that features adult content with underage characters,” Lombardi told the Daily Dot. “While not accessible in the game itself without an externally acquired patch, we were distributing that content depot through Steam, therefor[e] the game would not have passed our content review. We’ve notified the developer, and improved our content review process to avoid this in the future.”

Pickett called Lombardi’s statement “incorrect,” as Bokuten’s adult material must be added externally, which he compared to downloading an adult Skyrim mod. “We took painstaking care to ensure that there was no adult content in the all-ages edition distributed on Steam and Discord [Store]. There is mature content befitting a mature title, but there is no adult content in the build provided by Steam,” Pickett said. “Our company does offer an adult-patch, and adult content is contained in the patch available solely on our own website and our servers. No adult content is distributed through Steam servers for Bokuten.”

Pickett also denied that the game’s 18+ patch activated scenes involving underage characters engaging in sexual acts. He argued Lombardi’s allegation was “a serious claim,” albeit “not the first time Valve has made such as false claim, as demonstrated with The Expression: Amrilato.”

“At present we’re hoping this issue can still be resolved amicably and we can see Bokuten restored to Steam,” he told the Daily Dot, “but this does give cause for all visual novel developers to worry when Steam can make such a claim and take such action after a title has been reviewed and cleared for sale.”

As for whether MangaGamer itself is being targeted by Steam, Pickett pointed out that Valve’s content reviewers appear “biased to consider anything with anime art as ‘sexualizing minors,’” such as overreacting to games with characters wearing schoolgirl uniforms. He criticized Valve’s propensity for providing no clarifying information on what offensive content needs to be changed, as Valve neither shows consistency in its decisions nor does it give publishers an option to alter and resubmit their games, he said. “We would love nothing more than for Valve to have clear, uniformly enforced content standards. If there were clear standards we would happily make every effort to abide by all of them, but there aren’t. Valve is making arbitrary decisions that vary day-by-day, person-by-person, and they’re not applying those same decisions, those same ‘standards’ to other publishers and especially not to major AAA publishers.”