Saturday, August 18, 2012

Katawa Shoujo and Comfort Zones

Katawa Shoujo
System: PC
Developer: Four Leaf Studios
NA Release: January 2012

I admit this one took a while to get to.

When I learned about the game from a superb article on Hardcore Gaming 101 I was immediately on board. "This sounds groundbreaking!" I thought. "I must experience it!"

I downloaded the game, which is free, but then it just sat on my computer. I would glance at it occasionally, but go on to play something else instead. It's apparently much easier to grab the gun than to pull the trigger, and my initial excitement to play the game had stagnated enough that other thoughts began to creep in, not the least of which was how was I going to describe this to people when they asked about it.

"Oh, I'm playing this visual-novel-slash-dating-sim, but the twist is it's set at a school for the disabled! Wait, I know that sounds kind of hinky, but it's being treated seriously and--well, yes, there are sex scenes, but I'm telling you that the anonymous people from 4chan who made this game have really thought it through and--look, it's getting hard to talk to you with how deep this hole is gotten. Just let me keep digging and I'll be right back up with you in a jiffy!"

Curiosity eventually won out, however, and I'm glad it did. For 27 ways to Tuesday this sort of concept could have gone wrong, Katawa Shoujo does a lot of things right.

Those of you who know me may be all, "Ooh, I bet he went for the bubbly looking one with pink hair!" Well, you'd be wrong. I considered many other factors when making my decision. Also, she's not a persuable character.
The main concern with producing a story where your main characters have disabilities--or really any other sort of "minority" status--is the level of focus on which to approach them. Treat subjects too delicately and it almost feels like a form of discrimination in itself. Be too militant and you risk chasing your audience away with the Shame Stick. The latter was another reason I was initially hesitant about this game. I've seen enough shows and movies where the "lesson" comes in the form of the main character making an ass of him or herself and realizing how awful they've been to see others in a certain light. It may be the way some people really do learn, but it makes me horribly uneasy as a viewer. Heck, I always hated it when the Trix Rabbit was made to feel bad for just wanting some stupid cereal. There's a level of "live and learn" we all have to go through in life and the mistakes we make, but they're not always so blatant and exposed.

Katawa Shoujo, thankfully, seems to understand this and offers what I thought to be a very down-to-earth approach to the subject matter. The "playable" character, Hisao, finds himself having to attend his senior year at Yamaku High School and comes into contact with the five potential love interests, as well as supporting characters. The disabilities of these characters, which range from blindness and deafness to not possessing certain limbs, are never ignored yet never seem to fully define them. A strong personality has been built for each girl and the condition each faces physically only seems to be one part of what defines them. In my first playthrough, I ended up going down Emi's story arc not because she had prosthetic legs, but because she had promised to help Hisao with a running program that would help the heart condition he faces.

Emi Ibarazaki: The Fastest Thing on No Legs. The fact that it's she who calls herself that and laughs while doing so is a very liberating theme of this story.
Giving Hisao a disability of his own also strengthens the story by giving him a sense of vulnerability that is rarer in primary characters. Because his arrhythmia was discovered only recently, he lacks the time the others have had to come to terms with their disabilities. There are naturally some nuances he needs to figure out at this special school (for example, when communicating with a deaf and mute person when you don't know sign language, do you look at them or their interpreter when you talk?), but one of the biggest initial revelations he has to make is that he doesn't have to worry so much about everyone else's disabilities. "It's only a big deal if you make it one," a teacher confides with him, and most everyone gets along just fine as they are. In fact, at times it feels other characters are more concerned with how Hisao is adjusting to the changes in his own life. It's a brilliantly empathic way of drawing the player into this world without feeling like they're treading in socially taboo territory.

And, well, speaking of taboo, I guess I should address the adult content. As I said before, there are sex scenes with nudity and acts and... positions. That you see. It's difficult to say just how "hardcore" these are as my sensibilities tend to lie more on the prudish side. Maybe they're like an illustrated Fifty Shades of Grey? Well, I'm guessing about that. I wouldn't really know, haha! You can turn them off if you wish, skipping them entirely, and if you feel they would bother you I heavily suggest you do so because the warm and fascinatingly written story is still very much worth the experience. I guess you could say the scenes do fit into the story relatively well, though, if you feel that sort of thing happens a lot. They're pretty jarring when they start to happen, at least to me, but I guess the fact I find them way more uncomfortable than the the theme of disabilities is a big plus, so, uh...

Gah, where's my shovel? Just give Katawa Shoujo a try, remember to turn off the adult scenes if you want to, and maybe I'll have reached China by the time you're done.


  1. You are an excellent writer, and I got caught up in the story you were telling. However, Idk that a game w/sex scenes is for me...guess I'm just not "cool" enuff! Or maybe I'm too old, or too married,lol. But ur story was great.

    1. I absolutely respect your hesitations. I don't believe I'm "cool" enough for sex scenes, either, and I would ultimately wish this game didn't have them at all. However, I still felt compelled to write about the uniqueness of this title and the things I felt it did really well. Thank you for reading!

  2. Heyo Tim, it's Matt, I do like your writing style, very fun to read. I like slightly different dating sims (AKA Hatoful Boyfriend) either because of how weird they are, or how good they are (and yes a pigeon dating sim is the former). I kept hearing good things about this and I'm going to try it now.
    If you don't know about hatoful boyfriend, here's a link (enjoy?)

  3. I felt the sex scenes were pretty natural. After all, if you go out with somebody and you both have a libido, it only seems natural.

    Given that in the 5-6 hours of each arc there's around 15 minutes of sex scenes at the absolute most, I think it's a pretty good reflection of an actual relationship: lots of talking and mutual understanding, but there's sexual attraction there too. Frankly, playing through Shizune's arc, I felt there wasn't enough touchy-feely stuff: given that at some point you do have sex, and then you just... don't... for ages... kind of made me feel awkward around her, like she was avoiding me.