Faceless is haunted by the rusty chains of the legal system.
It's a horror game that tells the tale of Slender Man, the elongated, suited phantom notorious for stalking gullible children and teenagers (though mostly just those who own handheld cameras). Victor Surge initiated The Slender Man mythos on the Something Awful forums in 2006, and it migrated to YouTube in 2009 in a series of "lost footage" videos from Marble Hornets. The footage chronicles Slender Man as he haunts a film student, Alex, slowly driving him to paranoia before he is lost to the ether and insanity. The first episode has 2.4 million views and the channel now hosts 64 full entries, last updated in October 2012. Slender Man is a horrific viral hit.
In a sense, Slender Man stalks Faceless developer Justin Ross just as he does Alex – the Slender Man legend is the reason Faceless can't yet be approved on Greenlight.
"We've been the No. 1 game since the service launched and have yet to be Greenlit due to copyright issues with Slender Man, which is a free-to-use entity, and we've even gotten permission from the creator Victor Surge," Faceless developer Justin Ross tells Joystiq. "It's starting to feel like Greenlight games aren't chosen by the community like Valve has stated, and it's instead their choice, not the community's."
That might be a hasty assumption. Valve's precaution could be to avoid a potentially expensive copyright lawsuit with an untested game on its new, still-experimental crowd-sourced service. Faceless was titled Slender: Source until Ross changed it in September, and the first sentence of Faceless' Greenlight description acknowledges its foundation in a mythos it didn't create: "Faceless is a free-to-play multiplayer survival horror mod for Half-Life 2 that is based off the mythology of the Slender Man."
Valve offered no response when asked to clarify its position on the status of Faceless being Greenlit.
Ross understands the apparent hesitancy to approve Faceless, but notes that it feels unnecessary for two main reasons: He has the blessing of Slender Man creator Victor Surge, and The Intruder, another game with a similar premise, was Greenlit in the second round.
"We were happy finding out that we were the most popular game on the service," Ross says. "However, we feel a little bit screwed over as we have attained the highest rank, and yet some really arguable games have gotten in. Especially The Intruder, which is essentially the same premise of our game and from what I've heard uses the Slender Man mythos as well. We're a little peeved about the whole situation, but we're still trucking along."
The Intruder's Greenlight description doesn't mention Slender Man, nor does any of its promo material. Roy Theunissan, developer on the project, says that this is not an accident.
"The Intruder is quite explicitly not based on the Slender Man franchise," Theunissan says. "Like you'd expect from almost anyone active on the internet today, I know what the Slender Man is and I've seen art based on it. Obviously some of the qualities of those works have inspired me, namely being chased by an unknown entity and the contrast of a safe and mundane environment becoming hostile because of a seemingly supernatural force."
Comments on The Intruder's Greenlight page compare it to Slender: The Eight Pages, a game that's not attempting to jump on Steam through Greenlight but is obviously based on the Slender Man lore. Developer Mark Hadley is working on an HD revamp called Slender: The Arrival, and hasn't announced any legal hiccups with development. The Eight Pages has been public and free-to-play since June.
"It wasn't until I put The Intruder on Greenlight and read some extremely negative comments regarding an 'uninspired' and 'unoriginal' monster that I made the decision to actively distance myself from the Slender Man," Theunissan says. "The dynamics and gameplay were never in question, only the aesthetic qualities of the intruder. I merely need to visually distinguish it more from the stereotypical Slender Man design – to my knowledge there isn't even one unified, canonical look of the Slender Man."
Valve didn't even bring up Slender Man when The Intruder was Greenlit, Theunissan says.
"Never. I don't think that would be reasonable. 'Unknown entity that vaguely resembles a male figure' wasn't invented by whoever started the Slender Man craze and it would be unreasonable to question every horror film or video game that featured it. I think Faceless would never have been in this mess if it weren't for the fact that it was called Slender: Source. I don't think there's anything inherently unoriginal about the project, other than seemingly intentional cosmetic similarities to a popular internet phenomenon. It seems to have original gameplay."
Now for Ross' second frustration: Faceless clearly offers something that Steam users want, whether that lies in unique gameplay or familiar internet lore. It's the "familiar internet lore" part that Valve appears to be hung up on, even though Ross has permission to use Slender Man from Victor Surge (real name Eric Knudsen) himself. Apparently that permission doesn't matter much, since someone else bought the rights to the Slender Man legend, and that's who Valve cares about.
Valve writes to Ross, "The permission from Victor Surge/Eric Knudsen is fine but since he has an option holder we'll need their permission too." An option holder is not the trademark holder, but owns the contract on an IP and is able to license it out for a film, TV, book, video game, or other endeavor. Ross is currently in communication with the Slender Man option holder, and it looks like he'll have to sign a handful of documents to push Faceless through Greenlight.
"Makes little sense to me as Slender Man is a public property used by people before without having to do what we're having to do," Ross says. "I think we have to sign waivers because we're the most popular and most anticipated out of the Slender Man games right now."
After the paperwork is taken care of, Faceless should have the green light, so to speak. Unfortunately, the paperwork presents another roadblock in itself.
"Makes little sense to me as Slender Man is a public property used by people before without having to do what we're having to do."
- Justin Ross, developer of Faceless
"I have a feeling we'll get the go-ahead once everything is done with the option holder, but it's kind of hit a stale mark in the road," Ross says. "The option holder hasn't gotten back to me in about a week, and I'm mildly worried by that. If all else fails, we'll just bail from Greenlight and publish the game on ModDB so we can avoid all these copyright issues."
This isn't a problem with Valve, Ross notes. It's a problem with an internet meme gone viral and popular enough to have picked up complicated legal proceedings along the way. It's annoying, but it's not the end of the world. It's not the end of Faceless either.
"A Greenlight launch isn't that important. Sure, it'll help, but we'll be fine enough without it," Ross says. "Greenlight has been a two way road for us. The positive is that it has garnered us more attention, as well as a larger fanbase."
The negative? That'd probably be the tall, thin, suited man stalking Ross' every move.
Faceless will be free when it launches in closed beta in December, with a public release scheduled for March, on PC.