Sunday, January 29, 2012

Nothing More or Less

Hello, again. No, the blog isn’t dead. I just haven’t needed to rant for a while. Today that’s changed.

I’m a gamer. I play board games, video games, pen-and-paper games, even the occasional card game. I could talk for hours about why I think games are important, why they’re more than mere entertainment. I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to talk about one game in particular: a very strange game that I didn’t expect to enjoy, but which turned out to be one of the most emotionally powerful works of fiction I’ve ever experienced. It’s called Katawa Shoujo (and if any of you know Japanese, you’re probably cringing right now).

So what is Katawa Shoujo? Well, it’s an adult visual novel dating sim featuring disabled girls. And the production team got its start on 4chan. If you still want to play the game after that description, there may be something wrong with you. Or maybe you’re just morbidly curious. Or maybe you already know something about the game, and have heard that it’s better than it sounds.

I was in the latter group. I’d heard about the game and wanted to see if it lived up to the good press, in spite of its cringe-inducing premise. I figured if it was terrible I could just stop playing. But it wasn’t terrible, and I couldn’t stop playing. The only reason I’m not playing Katawa Shoujo right now is that I finished the game last night. So now, to stave off having to leave this wonderful game behind, I’m going to explain why I loved Katawa Shoujo, and why you should, too.

What is a visual novel?

Before I can go into detail about the game, I first need to explain the medium it exists in. Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel, a type of game more popular in Japan than in the Western world (although Katawa Shoujo is a rare non-Japanese example). Visual novels, as the name implies, are more picture books than games. Player interaction is typically limited to a few specific “choice points” in the game, which are roughly analogous to the decisions in choose-your-own-adventure books. These games require a lot of reading, and people who don’t like books aren’t likely to enjoy visual novels.

Visual novels also differ from most video games in their typical subject matter. While most video games are about violent heroics, visual novels tend to be about romance, or at least sex. A huge percentage of them have explicit sex scenes, although the actual ratio of sex to romantic content is often very low in a given game. How appropriate the explicit content is varies from game to game. Most visual novels nothing more than trashy romance novels with pictures. A rare few are passionate and thoughtful love stories. I don’t know about you, but I can live with sex scenes in my passionate and thoughtful love stories. More on that later.

What is Katawa Shoujo?

Okay, so you know that Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel, and you know what that means. But knowing the genre doesn’t tell you much about the game. So what is Katawa Shoujo? Well, it’s a romance story about a boy who has a heart attack and has to transfer to a new school. There he finds new friends, new purpose, and the love of his life. It’s very sappy. If you don’t like romances you won’t like Katawa Shoujo.

“But BM,” you ask, “wasn’t this a game about disabled girls?” Well, sort of. The main character, Hisao, transfers to a school for disabled students at the beginning of the game. Something about him needing the school’s 24-hour nursing staff. There he meets five potential love interests, each of them disabled in some way. One is blind, one deaf, one is missing both her arms, another has no legs, and the last has horrible scarring and mental trauma. But you know something? I hate identifying them by their disabilities. Shizune is the school’s overly-competitive student council president, not “that deaf girl.” Rin is the artist with the tenuous grip on reality, not “the one with no arms.” The girls have disabilities, but as the game continues, it becomes clear that their disabilities don’t define them. I know that sounds cliché, but for once it’s really true. The girls aren’t helpless by any means, but nor are they put on some great pedestal of overcoming challenges. They’re just people, with hopes and dreams and interests and problems, both related and unrelated to their disabilities. They’re just people, nothing more or less.

That, ultimately, is not what makes Katawa Shoujo good. It’s what keeps Katawa Shoujo from being bad, either by being horribly offensive or terribly ham-handed. But Katawa Shoujo’s expert handling of its dangerous premise is only enough to put the game on par with any other decent visual novel. The game is no more “inspirational” than its heroines. Which is to say, it’s pretty damned inspirational, but not because of the obvious.

No, the reason Katawa Shoujo is good is very simple: It’s well written. When you play the game, the characters are real to you. Their emotions are real, their problems are real, their quirks are real. You go through the game trying to understand whichever girl you’ve chosen to pursue, hoping to find out who she is beneath the surface. And sometimes you do start to understand her, and that’s awesome, because you start to see yourself in her. And sometimes you don’t ever understand her, and that’s awesome too, because that’s how life is sometimes. Either way, they’re real.

What about the sex?

Yes, Katawa Shoujo has sex scenes. Yes, they’re visually and textually explicit. My general opinion on such things is that implied sex is important for most romance stories, but explicit sex is just gratuitous. But Katawa Shoujo has explicit sex scenes (roughly an hour’s worth, all told), and for once I’m okay with that. Probably because we learn a lot about the characters during the sex scenes. Think about that. In Katawa Shoujo, the sex scenes actively serve to develop the characters and their relationships to one another. You know, the way actual sex does. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s pretty much the opposite of gratuitous.

Of course, some among you will doubt that this character development had to happen in sex scenes. You’re right, in a sense. Very rarely do we learn things in the sex scenes that we couldn’t have learned just before or just after. But personally, I’m a big fan of letting the characters decide when to speak, not the censors. So if the character development would naturally happen during sex, let it happen during sex. Don’t force the character to be someone they’re not.


That’s it, I guess. That’s my opinion, and my defense, of Katawa Shoujo. I hope you’ll play it. I hope it’ll touch you as deeply as it touched me. I understand if it doesn’t. Not everyone is as sappy as I am, and even us saps don’t always like the same things. But for me, this game was powerful. It made me happy, it made me think, it made me feel, and it made me a better person, just a little bit. Maybe it’ll do the same for you. Cheers.

“You are not alone, and you are not strange. You are you, and everyone has damage. Be the better person.”

PS. Akira and head nurse, OTP.