I'll admit that I've never been a fan of visual novels. I have nothing against them; it just isn't a genre I'm interested in. That said, MangaGamer's announcement a while back that their upcoming Steam release of Kindred Spirits on the Roof would be uncensored caught my attention. While larger games like The Witcher have been able to slip by on Steam and consoles with their sexual content intact, it's no secret that visual novels and dating sims have had a much more difficult time, with HuniePop being a fairly notable example. While Kindred Spirit's sexual content is much more tame than some other visual novels out there, this is still a pretty big departure from Valve's usual stance.
I sat down with John Pickett from MangaGamer for an interview about Kindred Spirit's Steam release and sexual content on Steam in general. Warning: some of the links in this article are NSFW.
Me: I'd like to start with an introduction. Tell us a little about yourself and MangaGamer.
John Pickett: Gladly. My name is John Pickett (though I go as Kouryuu online), and I work as the Head Translator and PR Director for MangaGamer. Our company, MangaGamer, is a coalition founded by several Japanese developers of visual novels who wanted to expand and cultivate the market for visual novels here in the West. We strive to showcase the diversity that visual novels can offer as a medium by localizing a wide variety of titles that range the full breadth of storytelling genres and offer different elements for different people to enjoy.
Me: So what is Kindred Spirits on the Roof about? What's the game like and what can people expect from it?
John: Kindred Spirits is a lighthearted story following Yuna as she acts as a "yuri cupid" for two ghosts who haunt her all-girls school. The ghosts have watched many girls graduate with unrequited feelings for other students, and now with Yuna's help they can finally give those girls some encouragement. Initially reluctant, Yuna eventually embraces her role as yuri cupid as she helps the game's wide cast of couples develop their relationships. Players can expect the game to explore a variety of relationships: some start as friends or as one-sided crushes or as couples who have been dating for a few years already. The game strikes a good balance between realism and playful fun, treating the girls' situations with respect and never falling into the unfortunate trope of the tragic lesbian couple doomed never to be together.
Me: I'm not sure if you can really answer this, but how in the world did you manage to get an uncensored erotic visual novel on Steam when so many other devs had to censor their games?
John: Well, let’s be clear - it is uncut, though it would be hard to describe Kindred Spirits as erotic or even adult entertainment. A lot of it has to do with the exact nature of the content in Kindred Spirits. All of the more intimate scenes are more internally focused on the characters’ emotions rather than the physical action between partners. In terms of visual depiction, most of the scenes merely include some nudity.
Of course, there’s no explicit penetration described in the text of Kindred Spirits’ scenes. Each of the couples in Kindred Spirits confirms each other’s consent multiple times in each scene.
For all of these reasons, we speculate that Valve decided that the scenes in Kindred Spirits did not constitute explicit adult content; a decision we whole-heartedly agree with - that's why we recommended it for the user base on Steam!
Me: In your opinion, do you think the reason why Valve is allowing Kindred Spirits onto Steam unedited is because it isn't as explicit as some of the other games from MangaGamer? Do you think things would be different if Kindred Spirits featured straight or yaoi sex scenes?
John: I would say that’s definitely the case. Titles like our upcoming release of euphoria or Beat Blades Haruka contain very explicit sex scenes and are clearly targeted toward mature adults. We would never recommend those titles to Steam or any other retail platform that caters to a significant number of minors in their audience. When working with Valve, we always take their audience into consideration before making our suggestions.
We’re fairly happy with these arrangements too, since it gives us a niche which we can really stand out in, and lets us help provide services that meet the needs of developers around the world, who otherwise might not find a place in the English market.
That being said, in my personal opinion, I believe it’s reasonable to observe that Valve might allow straight or yaoi scenes which are presented just as tastefully and discreetly as Kindred Spirits does with its scenes.
Me: What has the community and media response to Kindred Spirits being allowed on Steam unedited been like thus far?
John: A lot of the media has definitely run with the idea that it’s “explicit XXX sex on Steam,” causing a lot of outcry and excitement somewhat dishonestly. Though, I think what we're seeing is a good commentary on the future of gaming as the generation that grew up with video games gets older, and their tastes grow more diverse.
From what we’ve seen, the community and player response on the other hand has been overwhelmingly positive. So many fans are excited to be seeing strides made toward progress on free storytelling in the video game medium, so many fans are excited to be seeing lesbian couples given a decent representation on a mainstream platform, and so many fans are excited to see more games coming to Steam. The community has definitely been very positive, supportive, and uplifting with regards to this endeavor. It makes us realize yet again just how much fans love the possibilities these games present, and encourages everyone on our team to keep giving 120%.
Me: How do you feel about MangaGamer and Kindred Spirits potentially paving the way for more uncensored visual novels and dating sims on Steam?
John: We think it’s still too early to say just what the future may hold in store, but we’re certainly excited and optimistic. It’s nice to see sexual content gaining more mainstream acceptance and recognition as a valuable part of artistic expression. The more people are free to tell the stories they want to share with the world, the better off we all are as a society. Our company philosophy has always been that, and that's why our store offers uncensored content for all of our games whenever available.
I think you can see that more recent releases have more lax restrictions definitely compared to a few years ago, and our relationship with Valve is much stronger now because of that. Our account manager in particular, has been especially kind-hearted and understanding.
Me: On a somewhat related note, assuming things go smoothly with the Steam release of Kindred Spirits, can we expect to see more titles from MangaGamer getting Steam releases?
John: Absolutely. Valve has been and continues to be a wonderful partner for us. Kindred Spirits was a fortuitous opportunity that arose as part of our current efforts to expand the content we’re able to offer the market; but we’ll also be releasing a host of works in the coming quarter. We hope that the market on Steam and our platform really enjoy the our new releases of such as Himawari, MYTH, Shadows of Pygmalion, and Umineko.
In 2016, we’ll most likely be releasing both an adult and an all-ages version of Princess Evangile W Happiness, with the all-ages version being available on Steam while we sell the adult version on our website.
Me: Are there any tips you'd like to share with other developers hoping to get romantic visual novels/dating sims on Steam, unedited or otherwise?
John: Well, one of our biggest tips is probably a reminder that we offer our own website to interested developers as a retail platform for selling the uncut, unedited adult versions of various games. We’ve already worked with several developers and games such as HuniePot’s HuniePop, Lupiesoft’s The Menagerie, and Unwonted Studios’ No One But You (Coming Soon). We work hard to help ensure developers have a place to sell their games as intended, so they don’t have to compromise on their creative design.
Publishing can be a rough business—we highly encourage developers to approach us with the goals and ideas they have for their products if they think it fits our user base. We can offer much better assistance about which strategies work best for what developers want to create, and tailor it to the market they want to the best of our ability. So that’s the biggest tip we’d offer to anyone trying to figure out how to manage their publishing and release strategies.
Me: Besides Kindred Spirits, what are some other upcoming games from MangaGamer?
John: We’ve recently released our first yuri title on Steam, A Kiss for the Petals: Remembering How We Met, an all-ages title telling the romance between two young women. We’ve also just published Kara no Shojo 2, a mature murder-mystery set in 1950s Japan featuring interactive detective work such as examining crime scenes and piecing together clues to try and solve the murders.
Our 2015 expansion for Go Go Nippon, which completely revamps the engine, resolution, sprites, and adds a lot of new features and CGs is already available as well. Coming up on Steam, we’ll soon be releasing Higurashi When They Cry: Watanagashi, the second chapter in the hit Higurashi series, and finishing work on Supipara from minori.
We’re also looking to release euphoria later this month on our own website. Euphoria is a really exciting title we’ve been working on that focuses on psychological horror and pushes a lot of common boundaries, so we hope people will see past its shock value to enjoy the deep story behind it all.
Me: Thanks for your time!