What could Valve have against an all-ages yuri visual novel about learning to communicate? And why do they keep targeting MangaGamer?
DISCLAIMER: Please be advised that the following article contains a potentially NSFW image of two girls bathing.
Visual novels have always been an easily misunderstood genre by those who aren’t familiar with them. Whether it’s debating if they count as games; the difference between “all-ages” and “18+” editions; or even what’s too risqué; visual novels always seem to be involved in some controversy. Sadly, today is no different. Though, this isn’t the first time these two opposing sides have done battle.
Last week, MangaGamer released The Expression: Amrilato. However, one place where it wasn’t released was Steam. Last Friday, MangaGamer issued a press release regarding The Expression: Amrilato’s absence on Steam. In it, they state that Valve has claimed the game ‘sexualizes minors.’ A serious accusation. But, is there any truth in it? In order to find out, I bought a copy of the game dove into it. And my conclusion? I think Valve has a problem with MangaGamer more than anything else. We’ll delve into why, but first let’s talk a bit about The Expression: Amrilato itself.
Waking up in Another World Where No One Can Understand You
The Expression: Amrilato is an educational yuri visual novel. In it, the protagonist, Rin, finds herself suddenly in another world where everyone speaks a language known as Juliamo. Scared, lost, and alone, Rin is eventually found by a young girl name Ruka, who takes her in and looks after her. With no way back to her own world, Rin begins to learn Juliamo in order to not just survive, but also to communicate with Ruka. This is where the educational part of the game comes into play.
Juliamo is based on Esperanto. Which was created in real life to be a universal second language. I’m not a linguistic expert so I can’t comment on how well the game will teach you Esperanto. Or on how close Juliamo is to Esperanto. However, having taken two years of Japanese, I can certainly vouch that it does try to teach you the basics of a language. There is educational value in this title. So, what about the yuri then?
Yuri, for those who don’t know, is a genre that focuses on relationships between girls. As much as I’d like to say romantic relationships, there are plenty of yuri-esque works which sadly never delve into the realm of romance. Instead, they strongly hint that two girls are romantically interested in each other but never allow them to actually enter into a relationship. Still, it’s one of my favorite genres for character development. Often focusing and developing a strong emotional bond between the characters rather than a physical one. This is also true in The Expression: Amrilato.
The game focuses on the emotional bond that develops between Rin and Ruka as they struggle to communicate and express themselves to each other. That, of course, sounds like a noble goal. So, what’s the problem then? Well, we need to delve into the ever-controversial topic of fanservice to possibly answer that.
Bathing: The Most Controversial of Actions
Fanservice is one of those things that some people love, other people don’t mind, and others detest. There are good arguments for each of these opinions. However, we’re not going to be debating whether fanservice is good or bad here. Instead, we’re going to tackle the issue as to whether The Expression: Amrilato is out of line with other VNs or Japanese developed games that have come out on Steam. Which means we’re going to need to look at a particular CG.
While I’ve already included a warning at the top of this article in the disclaimer, I once again will warn you that the following image is NSFW.
Now, let me give you a bit of context. Rin ends up spending her first night in this new world on Ruka’s couch. Ruka, being a good host, leaves out some clothes so Rin can take a bath when she wakes up. Which, as you can see, she does. Shortly after, Ruka enters and slips into the bath herself and the two chat. So, pretty much your standard “bonding-in-the-bath” scene you’d see in any anime or Japanese developed game. But if that’s the case, what’s the deal then?
My guess is that Rin’s chest wasn’t as censored as Valve wants it to be. Couple this with the fact that she is stated in-game to be 17 and they feel they have grounds for refusal. I can see their point. …at least until you consider any of the following franchises or games:
- Neptunia (and just about any Idea Factory game for that matter)
- Senran Kagura
- Criminal Girls
- Sword Art Online
- Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed
These games or franchises all either have bath scenes or elements of sexuality in them with characters that appear to look around Rin’s age. So, yeah, I don’t see why this image is the one that’s suddenly not acceptable. Especially when the above-listed titles are sometimes more sexually charged or explicit than this.
Also, keep in mind, I specifically avoided listing any games that are classified as eroge (such as Kindred Spirits on the Roof) since those games are classified as 18+ while The Expression: Amrilato is classified as an all-ages title. Still, to be fair, we can’t say for sure this one scene is the reason The Expression: Amrilato was denied. Mainly since Valve has refused to even tell MangaGamer anything.
So, let’s do a little hypothesizing as to if there’s something that better fits the reason of ‘sexualizes minors’.
Two Girls Kissing = Sex?
After playing through The Expression: Amrilato I can only think of two instances that possibly meet the definition of ‘sexualizes minors’. And even you’d have to really stretch the definition to mean ‘anything with a sexual connotation that a minor does’. What do I mean? Well, look at the CG below.
Here, Rin has fallen on top of Ruka onto their couch. In the previous scene, Ruka was quizzing Rin on the names of various body parts in Juliamo. She was doing this by speaking in Juliamo and having Rin touch the corresponding body part on her. Eventually, the two lose their balance and end up in the above pose. And both are very aware of the other’s presence and touch. The scene ends with Rin placing a kiss on Ruka’s forehead, deciding that’s as far as she would go. Pretty tame in all honesty. But, what about the other instance?
Another scene near the end of the game has Ruka invite Rin to her room so they can talk about Ruka’s past. The two curl up under the blankets (fully clothed) and Rin holds Ruka in a comforting way as they converse. How the scene ends is up to the player, but it can end in the two kissing each other on the lips. If chosen, they will lightly caress each other before Rin asks if she can turn out the lights. Which could be seen as a euphemism for having sex. However, there’s a couple of key things to consider:
- No nudity or sexual touching is shown in the CG. This is far tamer than the bath scene.
- Based on the restraint Rin has shown thus far in-story, I find it unlikely they did become physically intimate. Sure, they kissed, but it’s done to show that the two have acknowledged they do have feelings for each other.
- Even if they did have sex there is nothing wrong with that. Teenagers do have sex. Sure, showing that is illegal due to their ages. And it’s not something that should ever be exploited. However, refusing to acknowledge the fact that teenagers can be sexually active is a terrible thing. Sexuality and sexual discovery are a healthy part of life. And there should be better examples in fiction of teens dealing with these issues in a healthy and safe way. Not sweeping them under the rug as taboo or treating the discovery of one’s sexual identity as something dishonorable.
I can’t imagine Valve would consider these two scenes a reason to refuse the game. But, considering they’ve refused to say anything on the matter we really have no idea. However, there’s one specific quote in MangaGamer’s press release about this situation that stood out to me:
“…the 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.” ~ John Pickett, PR Director for MangaGamer
I can see their point. You do really have to wonder if there’d be any issue at all if this was a heterosexual romance. Teenage boy and girl kissing then falling on top of each other? That’s comedy! Two girls doing it, however? For shame!
The sad part though is that while I wish this as all a bad joke, there are still people out there that are repulsed by the notion of two girls kissing. In fact, this is one of the things that led to the another of MangaGamer’s games being pulled from Steam last year. And, in fact, I think that game is part of the reason The Expression: Amrilato was rejected.
The Battle Between Sexual Expression and ‘Decency’ Is Not a New One
Last year, back when I was still writing for Operation Rainfall, I wrote an opinion piece about A Kiss for the Petals: Maidens of Michael being delisted from Steam. The game was pulled for content review and never returned to the platform. Later, in May, MangaGamer and several other visual novel publishers got hit with takedown notices for several of their games. Including Kindred Spirits on the Roof. Another yuri visual novel. In fact, the first eroge visual novel to be available for purchase on Steam.
To say people were upset was a bit of an understatement. Especially since Kindred Spirits on the Roof is a well-regarded title in the LGBT visual novel community. Even on a critical level, the game has seen great praise. I even gave it a full 5/5 when I reviewed it. Making it one of the only games to have gotten that score out of me. Thankfully, Kindred Spirits on the Roof wasn’t pulled, and Steam instead started offering a filter for sexual content. However, the similarities between these two events and this one are frightening.
In all three instances, Valve has issued a vague reason for their actions and then refused to talk to MangaGamer or anyone about the matter. Basically, plugging their ears and hoping everyone will just go away. They have learned nothing over the last year when it comes to the importance of communicating with their publishing partners and audience. And yet again, it’s another MangaGamer title that suffers. Which, brings us back to the title of this article.
Valve’s (Futile) Attempt to Close the Door on Sex
I do believe Valve has a problem with MangaGamer. In particular, regarding their yuri based visual novels. I’m sure many of you out there feel the same way. While there’s no concrete evidence of discrimination by Valve, remember MangaGamer were the ones to get the ball rolling on bringing eroge visual novels to Steam. Kindred Spirits on the Roof was the first and many more followed it.
A door has been opened that, I think, Valve desperately wants to shut. Except, you really can’t. Love them or hate them, eroge, both visual novel and otherwise, are titles that people from all walks of life enjoy. And Steam was a big part of proving that. Eroge has been successful on Steam. Visual novels as a whole have been successful on Steam. We’re past the point of denying this. And I think Valve hates that fact. At least, that’s what their actions and radio silence communicate to me.
You see, communication isn’t just press releases and statements. Not commenting is a form of communication as well. A person or organizations actions can say a lot about them. Just because you’re ignoring the problem doesn’t mean it’ll go away. If anything, it just communicates how little you care and how restricted you are to working with others and exploring new ideas. And when you don’t clearly communicate with people, it often leads them getting the wrong message.
I’m sure Valve will whole-heartedly deny any form of discrimination. That they’ll say they must do this. However, when you can’t even clearly explain the problem you have about a story that focuses on the act of expressing one’s self and learning to communicate with others, you clearly have a communication issue yourself. Especially when The Expression: Amrilato doesn’t even contain the sexual content you’re trying to ban. It really shows, if anything, how closely Valve’s representatives “reviewed” this title. With that all said, let’s close this out.
Valve’s Actions Only Serve to Harm Themselves
The fact that The Expression: Amrilato has been rejected by Valve is honestly their loss. While I won’t say the game is perfect. It’s certainly something interesting and unique. And I also find the notion that it’s offensive or sexual very confusing. I seriously almost wonder if the person approving content for Steam was having a bad day and decided to take it out on MangaGamer. Thankfully, The Expression: Amrilato is available through other outlets.
Regardless though, I fear this won’t be the last time we hear about Japanese developed content being rejected or censored in some way on Steam. Once is understandable; twice is a coincidence; but three times is a pattern. And well, from where I sit.
Valve has a problem with MangaGamer.