I don’t like visual novels. They’re usually not fun or entertaining for me. They don’t have enough choices for my liking, and I often find that they’re poorly written, or riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, often due to the fact that their platform allows them to sidestep the traditional editorial process of a longform narrative. Consequently, I am not generally the person to review them here. I do, however, love a good bit of gossip, so when I heard that the game Crime Opera: The Butterfly Effect had been rejected by Valve for their Steam platform, well… I had to at least look, right?

Content Warning: depictions of extreme violence, child sexual assault, sexual assault.

Valve’s reasoning as given in the Kotaku article on the subject concerns a couple of scenes in which underage children bear witness to sexual situations. The situations in question are between adults; in both cases the children happen upon them in the act. All adults are also clothed in both cases; there is no on-screen nudity. According to Crime Opera Studios, it’s simply a question of a kid walking in on something unexpectedly, which I will admit can sometimes happen. They went so far in their correspondence with our Editor in Chief as to claim that the scene in question was the “exact same thing Game of Thrones got away with in its first episode.”

The phrasing is interesting, isn’t it? It contains the implication that there was indeed something to “get away with” and not simply a normal occurrence as the developers would like to claim. Still, this is the sort of thing that’s easily verified, isn’t it? And since Crime Opera Studios was so kind as to provide us with a review copy, I dove in.

In Chapter One of Crime Opera, the POV character, Shana, reveals during an inner monologue that her father abuses her. She’s not vague about this, she states outright that he uses his fists, punching her in the face. This is presumably in service to the dark tone of the narrative; Crime Opera is after all about the children of a crime family, and is meant to be the first installment in a six-game series following these children into old age. It’s conceivable, if distasteful, that some violence might be present.

The eldest daughter in Crime Opera and the first POV character, Shana, reveals her abuse at the hands of her father. Text reads (CW for child abuse): "I don't think he should ever be able to hit me. I don't think I'm a really bad kid either. Not bad enough that I should get big punishments like that, at least. // I always hated being spanked when I was little, but being hit in the face with a fist hurts a lot more. Now I miss being spanked. // It doesn't seem fair, just because I'm the oldest daughter, I get much worse punishments than my younger sister does. But then again, my younger brothers have been belted a few times - because they're boys - and I would probably hate that even more." Crime Opera: The Butterfly Effect, Crime Opera Studios, 2019.

In Chapter 2, the next child, Ronnie, witnesses one of his parents’ cousins calling his babysitter a whore. Furthermore, this man goes on to imply that the insult is not merely an idle cruelty; he speaks in a manner that implies he really means it, speaking about how she has other uses. Ronnie is young enough to not know the meaning of this word, but he begins using it immediately on this girl after the adult departs, because he’s mad she won’t let him run off. He finally does run off, finds a stray dog, and has a great day with it.

In Chapter 3, an even younger girl, Amy, crawls into a dark room to peer through a hole at a meeting between her father, her uncle, and another man. In doing so, she witnesses her father kill this man. Shortly after (as in, before she can even leave the room she’s in) she begins to imagine her teddy bear is talking to her, and that her teddy bear wishes for her to retrieve her father’s gun so that she can “play pretend” with her cousin Izzy, whom she’s already established as having some resentment toward. This is one of the less offensive scenes in the game, but still one I personally abhor, both for the puerile depiction of mental illness and response to trauma, and for promoting the idea that someone who is subjected to violence and/or abuse immediately becomes violent and/or an abuser themselves.

Youngest daughter Amy accidentally witnesses her father murder a man. No text. Crime Opera: The Butterfly Effect, Crime Opera Studios, 2019.

Chapter 4 is from the point of view of Kevin, the oldest of the children and the cousin of the kids from the first three chapters. At fifteen, Kevin is set to inherit the family empire, and his chapter focuses on him convincing his dad that it’s finally time to start teaching him about it. Kevin is the first child in this narrative not directly exposed to violence, but he is nonetheless being groomed to take over an organized crime family as a minor.

Chapter 5 introduces us to Burtie, younger brother to Ronnie and Shana, but older than Amy. Burtie is our stereotypical sociopathic narrative; his chapter opens with him reminiscing about a crab he tortured. From there this child goes on to talk about how he likes to spy on his father having sex with the babysitter mentioned in Chapter Two. He then follows that with a whole entire misogynistic train of thought:

Crime Opera: The Butterfly Effect, Crime Opera Studios, 2019.

Crime Opera: The Butterfly Effect, Crime Opera Studios, 2019.

I’m deviating from my usual review structure here because I want to highlight some specific things. The first is that this is not a case of a child innocently happening upon two adults having a consensual encounter; this is a case of a child repeatedly spying on his father sexually assaulting an eighteen-year-old girl who herself is engaged in survival sex work. In the Kotaku article linked above, Nathan Grayson makes the point that the scene this boy witnesses is not a nude scene, and I can verify that’s true, but I’d also like to point out that Burtie goes on to specify that this is abnormal, they usually aren’t clothed when he spies on them. Burtie is an eight-year-old boy enjoying the fact that his father mistreats this girl, and calling his mother stupid for showing that same girl kindness. It’s not whether there’s nudity that’s objectionable here (though it certainly wouldn’t help), it’s the fact that it’s a scene of a girl being assaulted and a boy enjoying it. Additionally, it’s the type of depiction where, though nudity isn’t shown, it’s still contextually referenced in such a way as to put the image into the reader’s mind, which could be just as harmful.

The second is that, in five chapters, we have seen three boys having what are by their individual metrics enjoyable days. On the other hand, we’ve seen three girls as the targets, victims, and witnesses of violence and trauma. There is a misogynistic and violently hateful rhetoric built into this game, one that does not respect women on any level.

The third is that, in the context of their contact with Sidequest, two things are possible: Crime Opera either lied to us about the content of their game, or they legitimately do not see the difference between the opening scenes of Game of Thrones (described below) and what they’ve presented here. I can’t tell you which possibility I find more disturbing.

I am honestly sickened by what I’ve seen here. The only thing I’m pleased about is that one of the scenes which was the subject of the ban came early enough in the game that my further research is not required. In five of twenty-four chapters, I’ve been presented with a tale that is gleefully, unrepentantly violent to women, created by developers who are potentially willing to lie to our faces about the content contained therein in an attempt to drum up support against a de-platforming that is, frankly, entirely deserved. Save your money and give Crime Opera a pass.

Not liking a game is not generally cause for further investigation—our reviews run free of developer and publisher oversight—but given the unique circumstances of Crime Opera, we felt it was worth asking a few more questions. Melissa Brinks, who received the initial DM from developer Sean Bester, reached out to him after reading Nola’s first-draft review of the game, to find out more about how he’d explained the game to her and why he believed Steam was in the wrong.

Steam’s tendency to target indie developers with more intensity than AAA developers has been widely noted in the industry, with indie developers having their games held or banned for content that can be found in profitable games like The Witcher III or Grand Theft Auto V. Steam’s lack of transparency also means that games with sexual content may be subject to removal at any time, as developers like Christine Love and Robert Yang have noted, which can make visibility and therefore sales nonexistent if those developers don’t already have name recognition in the industry.

From Kotaku‘s write-up on Crime Opera and developer Sean Bester’s own account, that seemed to be the case here as well. This is Crime Opera Studios’ first publicly available game, and losing the ability to market on Steam, which holds a huge proportional share of digital game sales, severely limits their audience.

But after playing through the scene in question, we had quite a few questions about the content and the framing of the issue, which Bester agreed to answer via email.

When Bester reached out to Sidequest Editor in Chief Melissa Brinks via Twitter DM, he described the scene as similar to the one early in Game of Thrones where Bran, a young boy, accidentally stumbles upon two adults having sex. However, the motivations are entirely different—Bran is exploring and happens to overhear the two adults and goes to investigate, whereas Burtie not only has some idea what’s going on, but actively seeks out his father having sex with a woman because he seems to enjoy seeing women debased. Bester describes Burtie as an “exceedingly disturbed and Dexter-like character,” with the character serving as a more innocent—if voyeuristic—viewpoint into the duplicitous and depraved actions of the adults meant to be his guardians.

That alone casts some doubt over the claim that this is another case of Steam’s uneven treatment of indie games. If Game of Thrones‘ Bran is the closest counterpoint to Burtie, but the only similarity between the two scenes is the presence of a child witnessing two adults having sex—one by accident, one seeking it out and enjoying it—there is in fact little similarity and a whole lot more difference.

But the issue is not so much “does Steam have the right to ban this game” (they do) as “is it right for them to do so when so much other objectionable material exists on the platform?”

That difference is where Steam’s ban looks a little more reasonable. According to the message that Bester received from Steam, “Regardless of a developer’s intentions with their product, we will not distribute content that appears, in our judgment, to depict sexual conduct involving a minor… even in a subtle way that could be defined as a ‘grey area.'” Though Bester clarified in our discussion that Burtie’s interest in watching his father have sex with and debase a much younger woman was not sexual in nature, that nuance is unclear at this point in the game.

This is where things get murky. Steam is well within their rights to ban the game; according to rule eight of Steam’s content guidelines, games cannot include any content “that exploits children in any way.” As Steam stated in their message to Bester, they removed content that may appear to depict any sexual content involving a minor at their judgment. Whether Burtie’s actions are non-sexual in nature or not, the fact is that Steam is fully within their rights to ban Crime Opera because that additional context isn’t present in the game as it stands right now.

But the issue is not so much “does Steam have the right to ban this game” (they do) as “is it right for them to do so when so much other objectionable material exists on the platform?” And to be certain, objectionable material does exist on Steam, and some games are far more explicit and exploitative than the content of Crime Opera. Bester pointed to a scene in South Park: The Stick of Truth—a scene where the player character runs around their parents’ bedroom as the parents have graphic sex in the background, with visible genitalia—as a potential equivalent. However, gross as the South Park scene is, it’s still not the same as Crime Opera‘s; the player character in South Park doesn’t engage with, remark on, or even seem to notice what’s happening, though witnessing parents having sex does become a large plot point of The Fractured but Whole.

Other games available on Steam include those with graphic violence, sexual content, or otherwise potentially offensive material. Is Crime Opera really any worse than Hatred or Ouction, which allows you to purchase elf slaves and sexually assault them as a primary game mechanic? Certainly not. But we’ve known that Steam’s supposedly hands-off approach to curation is bogus and favors AAA games, which are huge moneymakers for the platform. How do things like Ouction make it through the content policy when Crime Opera did not?

In all likelihood, the answer is exactly what Steam said in their message to Bester: because the scene could be read as exploiting a child, whether that was intentional or not. “My issue is with ‘why’…” Bester said in an email. “If it’s simply because they feared any backlash, I think that’s cowardly, and goes against their previous statements that they do not wish to be the content police.”

The idea that Steam wouldn’t be the “content police” stems from a Valve blog post from 2018, in which the company stated that “the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.” The results of this policy have been mixed at best; though they have been rolling out new tools that prevent users from seeing content they don’t like (tools that initially hid Ouction from me), the concept of “illegal, or straight up trolling” is so vague as to be functionally useless for developers.

So what do we make of this whole situation? Has Bester been wrongfully targeted by Steam’s policies, or is Crime Opera‘s scene with Burtie worthy of the ban? It’s more complicated than that; the scene is poorly written, with language and events that feel more like shock value than the nuanced exploration of trauma and violence that Bester aimed for, according to his conversation with us. His representation of the scene to us—the whole reason we’re covering this game in the first place—also suggested something much more innocent than how the scene actually plays out.

Steam’s system is a broken, busted mess; Crime Opera violated Steam’s rules. Both of these things are true.

But did it deserve the ban? That depends on whether you believe Steam’s policy is sound or not. That heinous games like Ouction can make it through but Crime Opera can’t isn’t necessarily an injustice to Crime Opera, but rather a clear marker that Steam’s policies are vague and unhelpful to both developers and users. If a game where a primary mechanic is literally rape makes it through but Crime Opera does not, that tells me that “illegal, or straight up trolling,” is not actually a functioning method of determining worthy content.

In essence: Steam was within its rights to ban the game. Whatever happens later in the game to clarify Burtie’s non-sexual interest in watching his father have sex doesn’t outweigh that the scene as it is represents child exploitation.

That doesn’t mean that the rules aren’t weighted in AAA games’ favor, nor does it mean that Crime Opera is brilliant art and not a schlocky crime story with delusions of grandeur. Steam’s policy is bad, has been bad, will continue to be bad because they have a stranglehold on digital distribution and it benefits them to be purposefully vague to pull games that people raise a stink about (we’ll see what happens with Ouction) and leave those that rake in money despite (or because of) objectionable content.

Steam’s system is a broken, busted mess that only helps Valve; Crime Opera violated Steam’s rules, whether the scene is later explained away or not. Both of these things are true. The greater tragedy here is not the loss of Crime Opera, which is still available elsewhere, but rather that Steam has such a hold on digital distribution that the blocking of one game that violates the TOS is considered newsworthy.