Educational Esperanto Visual Novel Struggles with Valve’s Amorphous Content Policies

[UPDATE 22/06/2019: The Expression: Amrilato is now available on Steam! See this blog post by MangaGamer for further details. I’m leaving this story up, as the discussion points it raised remain pertinent.]

I don’t normally cover “news” here on MoeGamer, but this is something I think it’s important to talk about right now.

Prolific publisher and localiser MangaGamer announced today that its thoroughly intriguing-sounding visual novel The Expression: Amrilato, a game that combines a romantic yuri narrative with educational, linguistic content approved by Japan’s National Esperanto Association, had been released on its own storefront and GOG.com.

The game was also intended to release on Valve’s popular Steam storefront but it, like many other Japanese games and visual novels, has fallen foul of the company’s ill-defined policies regarding acceptable game content. Let’s talk about that.

The Expression: Amrilato

First, some context. The Expression: Amrilato (originally known as Kotonoha Amrilato) is a visual novel developed by SukeraSparo and localised by MangaGamer. The story concerns high schooler Rin being inexplicably pulled into a mysterious “other place” where she is unable to read the letters on the signs or understand the language that the people are speaking.

This mysterious other language is Esperanto, the most commonly spoken “auxiliary language” in the world — an “auxiliary language”, for the unfamiliar, being one intended to be used for communication between people from different nations who do not share a common way of speaking, reading and/or writing.

Understandably a bit freaked out by the situation, she is rescued by another girl named Ruka who appears to speak a tiny bit of Japanese as well as Esperanto, and from here begins a story of the two girls learning to communicate with one another and developing a relationship in the process.

The game is explicitly designed to be educational in a similar manner to Overdrive’s Go! Go! Nippon! My First Trip to Japan, incorporating language lessons, quizzes and a “study mode” as well as the main narrative. The game’s text evolves as you progress to demonstrate how Rin’s knowledge of the language develops, reflecting the progression from complete newbie through simple recognition of pronunciation to being able to understand whole words and phrases.

The game’s original Japanese release was supervised and approved by the National Esperanto Association in Japan, and during localisation MangaGamer also ensured that English experts in Esperanto reviewed the text for accuracy, too. On top of that, so confident is MangaGamer in the game’s educational content that they have offered free copies of the game to any educational institution interested in promoting and furthering the study of Esperanto.

All this probably sounds pretty wholesome — because it is. This is a Teen-rated visual novel, not an 18+ affair, so despite featuring a romantic relationship between the two girls over the course of the story, there are no explicit scenes and no content that might require its release to be restricted. And yet Valve has refused to allow the game to be released on its platform, citing the “sexualisation of minors” as the reason.

The Expression: Amrilato

It’s worth noting at this point, for those unaware, that last year Valve had a high-profile change of policy with regard to content that is allowed to be released on its store. Following the addition of filters and display options allowing users greater control over content they did and did not want to see, the store decided to start allowing 18+ adult content including titles with explicit depictions of sexual activity, allowing for the release of games such as Alicesoft’s excellent Evenicle on the platform.

This sounds great, and it is, in theory. The trouble is that Valve’s policies in this regard are notoriously ill-defined, resulting in floods of low-effort hentai puzzlers with stolen, uncredited art while legitimate, premium titles — whether featuring adult content or not — sometimes struggle to get released. Valve’s advice to developers and publishers is that the store will allow “anything that isn’t illegal or trolling” — with presumably the “illegal” part being used as grounds for refusal of The Expression: Amrilato in this case.

But those grounds are nonsense, as MangaGamer’s PR director John Pickett said in a statement earlier today.

“Valve’s claim that this title ‘sexualises minors’ is quite frankly absurd and discriminatory,” he noted. “The Expression: Amrilato is an educational title and it has no sexual content. Period.”

The unfortunate thing is that the “sexualisation of minors” accusation is one that it is quite hard to argue against because people who make it are typically rather resistant to changing their minds. This is sadly the case even when it relates to titles that have been successfully reviewed by official bodies such as the British Board of Film Classification, the Pan-European Game Information organisation or north America’s Entertainment Software Rating Board. The reason for this is simple prejudice, often based on misinformation or outright uninformed assumptions.

Regrettably high-profile gaming forum and NeoGAF replacement ResetEra, for example, completely bans discussion of legally available games such as Dungeon Travelers 2 and Criminal Girls on the grounds that they are “child pornography”, despite them being nothing of the sort.

Both of these games do admittedly feature provocative ecchi content, but nothing explicitly sexual; both also make a point of using their respective narratives to justify why that content is there rather than simply being pornography, which is likely how they were able to successfully pass the rating processes around the world. Unfortunately, those unwilling to engage with games like this see a single screenshot or trailer, assume the whole thing is nothing but porn and perpetuate this sort of misinformation and prejudice, while those such as yours truly — those of us who are keen to discuss all the interesting things these games do at great length — get ignored at best, accused of “defending child pornography” at worst.

I suspect that something similar is happening here, but unfortunately MangaGamer is just as in the dark as the rest of us are at this point, thanks to Valve seemingly refusing to provide any clarification as to what content in the game is supposedly unacceptable.

“While we sincerely hope this isn’t the case,” added Pickett, “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. Despite our many attempts to reach out to them for clarity on their ‘anything that isn’t illegal or trolling’ policy — neither of which apply to this title — Valve has resoundingly refused to provide any, so all we can do is express our concern over what this could mean for freedom of expression and the LGBT gaming community.”

At this point, it’s worth noting that CD Projekt Red’s popular storefront GOG.com — a platform with much more stringent content restrictions than Steam — accepted the game with no issues whatsoever, so the game is already available there as well as directly from MangaGamer. The company is also pursuing distribution arrangements with alternative storefronts, citing Discord as a specific example, to get the title out to a wider audience.

All this is, unfortunately, the latest in a long line of incidents where it appears that platform holders subject content featuring Japanese anime-style art to disproportionate amounts of scrutiny and unfair, discriminatory treatment when compared to titles with more realistic visuals.

Numerous Western games featuring sexual and violent content — the most common but by no means only examples cited being Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto and CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher series — have been able to release without any issues whatsoever, often without even being locked behind an “adult content” filter such as that Steam now provides. Meanwhile MangaGamer struggles to get a wholesome title like this released on Valve’s platform, which remains the “default” storefront for many PC gamers today, as evidenced by popular, loud resistance to any announcement a high-profile game might be exclusive to another online store.

What’s perhaps most baffling about this is the inconsistency of however Valve is applying this policy. Evenicle got on Steam with no issues whatsoever, and that game features explicit sex scenes, sexual violence and several characters with distinctly young-looking appearances. The Expression: Amrilato, meanwhile, features no sexual content whatsoever and is refused. It doesn’t make any sense, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any definitive answers any time soon, either.

So what can we do? Well, yelling at Valve on social media isn’t a good idea, largely because there’s already so much yelling on social media that most people don’t pay any attention any more — that or any valid points people might have to make tend to get drowned out by the more asinine rage. On top of that, Valve has a habit of not replying to anyone, whether you’re a consumer or a member of the press, so you’re probably wasting your time anyway.

What we can do, however, is something much more positive: support games like this, either by buying and playing them on alternative platforms or direct from the publisher — or simply by making people we know who might be interested aware of them in the first place.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Watch out for some more detailed coverage of the game itself here on MoeGamer in the very near future.


More about The Expression: Amrilato

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6 thoughts on “Educational Esperanto Visual Novel Struggles with Valve’s Amorphous Content Policies”

  1. Very strange. I can understand Steam not wanting to stock certain h-games that have extreme (albeit entirely legal) content. But this game doesn’t look like that sort at all.

    I blame the agitators at ResetEra as well as those professional reviewers who are happy to crucify any game that doesn’t exactly conform to their view of what’s proper, regardless of context or the actual quality of the game. I think they’re consciously trying to create a chilling effect. Good thing not everyone is a coward willing to bend to their demands. I also agree that supporting these games is the only way to send a message to the people running these platforms. In the end, it’s all about the bottom line for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think ResetEra is definitely partly to blame with all this — not necessarily this specific case, but definitely the overall atmosphere we have right now. We’ve already seen proven cases of developers capitulating to their unreasonable demands, so as much as people would love to declare that shithole “irrelevant”, it unfortunately has a certain amount of negative influence.

      Liked by 1 person

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