Visual novels exist as a strange hybrid of mediums. Little known to Westerners outside of the anime/manga fandom, they are not quite games but not quite simply stories either. They are more like choose-your-own-adventure books half-way between a fully animated anime and a largely text-and-static-pictures manga.
Having many times more text and dialog than either anime or manga, they devote this considerable verbiage to character building and follow the convention of being largely relationship and romance oriented. Overwhelmingly they are dating simulations depicting high-school aged characters in a sort of anime version of the Western Harlequin romance.
And then there is the elephant in the room: the nudity and sex scenes. I suppose the analogy to women's fiction persists here (50 Shades of Gray anyone?), though instead largely oriented to a young male audience. Very few feature a female lead with a selection of male heroes to pursue.
Many an anime has been based off of some visual novel or another (To Heart, Kanon, and Clannad, to name a few of the more well known ones), brought into existence either due to the success of the series or even occasionally in order to promote interest in it outright. In their efforts to ensure that the various females all get their screen time, they almost always fall into the harem trope, even the ones that attempt to favor a single girl's story as the primary plot. One can imagine the erratic screenplays that emerge from a writer attempting to incorporate elements and scenes from all of the girls one would normally experience as separate story threads.
It is in this strange world of visual novels that we find Katawa Shoujo, a game with a history almost as interesting as its premise (I’ll get to that in a moment). From what I understand, the idea started as more or less a joke, a doujinshi artist's idle illustrations exploring a ridiculous "what if" scenario. The idea stuck, gained traction, and a team of volunteers all banded together to spend five or so years slowly producing a finished product from this original seed.
Despite being released freely with a Creative Commons license from a ragtag group of forum folk, the game is indistinguishable from commercial ventures of the past. What gives it away is its late 90s-era feel: 800x600 resolution, no voice acting, etc. Had it not been released in 2012, I doubt even die-hard eroge fans would have suspected anything. I say all this as a huge compliment. I was consistently impressed by its quality, but perhaps more so because I knew the nature of its origin.
The title means something to the effect of "crippled girl". It’s set in a fictional school for special needs students (think more so assisted living than the special school you’re probably thinking of). There is an onsite nurse and medical staff and it caters to students who’ve, for example, lost limbs, developed cancer, or been recently diagnosed with some hereditary disease, such as is the case of the main character you play. It features a cast of pursuable females each with their own disabilities. One is deaf, one requires prosthetic legs. You get the idea.
Trying to explain the game to somebody feels like an effort in futility. The game refuses to make things easy, as evidenced by how long it has taken me to actually get to the part about what the game is even about. It requires knowing about eroge as a genre, visual novels and how they fit into the larger anime and manga subculture. And it all sounds ridiculous when boiled down to an elevator pitch:
"It's a game about a school for disabled kids and as the main character you try to make friends and find meaning in your recently turned upside-down life." - Me
And it works. Really well. Surprisingly well. Did I mention I was consistently impressed?
The game takes its ridiculous premise and plays it completely straight, with never a hint of irony or even a wink at the player. No tongues wedged in any cheeks. It presents the heart attack of the protagonist, Hisao Nakai, as tragic and dramatic. It incorporates many conventional anime and manga tropes with the characters, but all the while attempting to make them very believable and sympathetic. At first they all seem to fit various archetypes, but the individual stories present the girls in a far more nuanced light. They have fears, history, and so much more. Perhaps the plots are a bit overly dramatic, for effect, but there is a lot of attempt to avoid cookie-cutters (and, come on, it’s typical for works of fiction of any kind to ramp up the drama, as we usually don’t read about boring stuff, right?).
The subject of handicaps is a delicate one, which makes the fact that the game does not abuse it in any way all the more worth pointing out (and praising). The internet has a habit of laughing off terrible things like racism, and being a product of the internet, created by its denizens, I’m glad to say that they deliberately avoided that pitfall. (Not that I would have been offended, myself, being an internet creep myself, but still. There is such a thing as art, tone, and so on where offensive humor is worthless at best, ruinous at worst.)
I'm no stranger to the visual novel genre, though I don't play them often these days. The primary reason is the erotic elements. As someone in a committed relationship, it’s difficult to not have this be even a little suspect. Typically, a successful play through involves winning the heart of the girl and with that is usually one or more “payoff” sex scenes with your new sweetheart.
Sex scenes are hard to write. I know. I've tried.
They are hard to script, hard to act, whether in movies or in stories. Nearly always they come off as some combination of phony and unrealistic, pointless and jarring, or awkward and out of place. An anomaly that interrupts the otherwise soap-opera proceedings before and after. Pausing the plot for porn!
Even in my younger days, even as someone who likes sex, I usually scoffed a bit at them, skipping through them almost embarrassed for the game's sake. They rarely were arousing or added much value to the emotional involvement. Katawa Shoujo tries hard, I think, to not fall into that trap. It doesn't completely succeed (because writing sex scenes is hard!), but damn if it doesn't try to make them as realistic and not-so-awkward as they can, while still maintaining the genre's token payoff feel.
I noticed it tended to take a very delicate approach to them, choosing to avoid in most cases the bawdy descriptions and word choice you usually find. It tried to segue as naturally as it could from one scene into a sex scene (also difficult to do, an unfortunately this was kind of hit or miss), without ignoring the obvious fact that humans get horny and like to screw. But we usually have reasons, feelings, and thoughts influencing the where, when, and why of having sex. There was also a real attempt to keep it consistent with the characters’ personalities.
One scene in particular sticks out in my mind. During the girl Emi's story, at one point the two of you get jiggy in the P.E. shed behind the race track. I know, I know, and yes I was scoffing a bit too at the cliché of it all. The conversation ends with both deciding to try anal. Neither have done it before. The scene that unfolds struck me as incredibly endearing. It managed to add to the emotional involvement instead of stand out like a sore thumb, a throw-away like so many pointless sex scenes are. No, instead, the awkward fumbling of two young lovers, new in their passion, still learning about each other and their relationship, still swept up in the newness of it all (the honeymoon effect, if you will), still inexperienced with sex and each other's bodies. They try to make it work, unsuccessfully, and both agree afterward never to bother again. It eschewed the unrealistic path you’d expect (anyone that has seen any porn in their lives will know what I’m referring to) and followed what probably does happen for most couples: it's a little weird, it feels unnatural, it leaves him worried about the uncleanliness of it, it leaves her unable to sit comfortably, he sort of enjoys it (I mean, it's still a hole, right?) but it's mostly uncomfortable for her and he feels bad about her not enjoying it. Everything said and thought were still so much in-character and in the end it proved to further their relationship, exploring new territory, literally and figuratively, because a strong theme underlying Emi's story is the idea of trust and opening up to another human being. Sex is certainly a part of that human interaction, and especially the willingness to be awkward and embarrassed with each other, which sex often entails (sorry, folks: porn is lies!).
Of course, I felt incredibly foolish trying to explain to someone that I was playing (reading?) an endearing sex scene about anal. It is not something that rolls elegantly off the tongue. Frankly, it sounds plainly unbelievable. But, well, there you have it.
So, would I recommend this game? If you like eroges already, and you actually read and normally get into the stories, you'll probably enjoy Katawa Shoujo. If you think you might like eroges or want to see what all my fussing over genre, writing, and so on is about, Katawa Shoujo is an excellent way to take your first plunge. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s completely free, too!
The key is to keep an open mind. Once you get passed the fact that it’s about crippled girls, that there’s sex scenes involved (which you can turn off, though it probably leaves weird gaps in the story I imagine), and that it was made by a buncha weeaboos, you’ll find a mostly enjoyable story to read (and kinda watch, sorta). It has no hidden agenda, no secret joke, so take it at face value. It will be honest with you, and there’s a lot inside it to remind you about the human psyche, as it deals with some very real issues of identity (do your disabilities define you? do you let them?), mortality (live now, don’t let the transience of everything prevent you from being glad for the things you can experience now), and, of course, love (how do you express it? what does it mean to support your partner?).
Looking for a bit more of a proper review? Next post I’ll be examining the details of the game closer, the plot and characters, and other things. Read it here!