You Must Be 18 or Older to Enter tells the tale of a young person's fraught first descent into the world of online porn in the early '90s, when access to the internet (and adult content) was far less ubiquitous than it is now. It's not pornographic—it's actually described by developer Seemingly Pointless as a horror game—but it is about pornography. And a few months after its debut on Steam, it has been removed.
The problem is the ASCII art used to represent the porn on the in-game computer screen. "In You Must be 18 or Older to Enter, there is semi-NSFW content. We make use of ASCII filters to blur naked bodies. This is done to help separate the content from the sources, help separate the content from being actual porn, and to help set the game’s mood," developer James Cox explained on Gamasutra. "By using ASCII art, it’s hard to fully interpret any image in the game. You can generally understand that something naughty is going on, but you won’t 'get' the picture. It sits the player in the role of a kid exploring these adult worlds: curious, confused, anxious, caught."
The presence of those images is central to the "horror" aspect of the game: What you're seeing is secondary to what you're doing, the unthinkable consequences of being caught—and even those first confused steps toward coming to terms with the things you've seen. But while most of the pictures are fairly indistinct, and some are utterly indecipherable, there are a few that come through almost as clear as day. I think the presence of "yup, that's porn" images gives the game a certain level of necessary clarity that helps further its goals, but of course rules are rules.
It's the application of those rules, without consideration of the context of the game, that Cox takes issue with in his blog post. He pointed out that Saints Row the Third has a segment in which a fully naked (but strategically blurred) character fights their way out of a nightclub, and also noted the presence of games like Super Kinky, Frisky Business, and House Party, all of which are overtly sexual in a way that You Must Be 18 is not, yet remain on Steam. Despite the official explanation from Valve, he said in the blog post that he thinks there's more to it than just that—that there's "something You Must be 18 or Older to Enter does that Saints Row doesn’t."
"The special treatment that You Must be 18 or Older to Enter received has to do with how it was constructed, and how it actively asks the player questions about their relationship with adult topics. For starters, You Must be 18 or Older to Enter isn’t a sexy game, but it is about exploring a sexual world, and it wants you to think about how scary that can be," he wrote. "You Must be 18 or Older to Enter was bannable because we made this digital 21st century rite-of-passage with a degree of forwardness and honesty none of those other games would touch."
Cox clarified in an email that by the "degree of forwardness and honesty," he means that the game's ASCII art is nothing more or less than a proxy for porn, and so it can't be defended as anything else. "Rather than side-stepping the topic or hiding it through other in-game elements, the game tackles the subject head on and this allowed Valve to tell us that our game is porn," he wrote. "Perhaps I should rephrase to say that it wasn't banned for its forwardness and honesty as much as those were vehicles for leading to its ban."
He also said that the developers are open to changing the game to ensure that Valve "felt comfortable" with having it on Steam (ironically, the blog post says that You Must Be 18 "purposefully makes players uncomfortable with its subject"), but so far Valve hasn't shown much interest in bringing it back. More importantly overall, though, Cox believes that if people want games to be taken seriously, then it's time to start thinking seriously about them.
"Games about porn are not porn just as games about shooting people aren’t calls to imminent lawless action. The confusion about intention, interpretation, and action can lead to dire situations, especially in spaces where players consider everything a joke," he wrote. "We, as players and creators, need to be okay with games that are honest and open, not just games that are mindless or silly. We need to be okay with games that address difficult and new topics, not just the familiar and tired."