Monday, February 4, 2013

Recommendation: Katawa Shoujo


      You know what happens when you want to write about a game, but what you wrote is too long for the student publication you usually write for, and you don’t want to admit to the student body as a whole that you actually liked a game about romancing young disabled anime people? You start actually writing for your blog again!

      So, anyway, I’ve always stayed far away from ren’ai games, a genre of visual novel in which the player romances anime girls, for many good reasons, the primary of which is that “gamifying” human relationships and applying challenge and reward mechanics to them seems like a difficult thing to do without objectifying people.  So, even though I’ve heard astoundingly positive things about the visual novel Katawa Shoujo, I was hesitant to play it because it was made in the ren’ai tradition. What I expected was a game that was, at best, cheesy*, and, at worst, voyeuristic or misogynistic. Much to my surprise, KS was none of those things – instead it was probably one of the most inspiring gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

      Katawa Shoujo was in development for five years by an international team of hobbyists working on the project in their free time. The game’s setting is Yamaku Academy, a high school for disabled and special needs youth, into which the game’s protagonist, a young man named Hisao, was transferred due to a deadly heart condition. He soon makes the acquaintances of five young women, one of which early on in the game is set to become his love interest and the center of the story’s arc (that is, assuming that he doesn’t die in the first act, which is possible, apparently).

       The game’s structured in four acts, and by the end of the first the decisions you’ve made will lock Hisao into one of five story arcs, one for each girl. Unfortunately, some are not as good as others – a different writer worked on each arc, so the quality of the writing and storytelling varies. I’ll get back to that in a minute. As for the decision-making, seasoned gamers who are not used to visual novels may find the sparseness of the interaction irritating – an entire half hour of reading can pass before the player is asked for input. What the decision making lacks in frequency, it makes up for in impact. The game elegantly solves the above mentioned problem of “gamification” of relationships by making it impossible to directly choose or work towards a specific love interest in the first act without outside information. Your decisions matter, but only in that they determine Hisao’s personality and the situations that he finds himself in, which then ultimately determines who he falls for.

      There’s a lot of ways that a game about disabilities and teenage sexuality could be crude or offensive, but, with the exception of the game’s name, which translates to “cripple girls” (honestly not sure why they kept it), the game treats its subject matter surprisingly tactfully.  As mentioned before, “gamification” is not an issue. For example, sex is not the final reward for overcoming a challenge (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect), but simply an element of a greater narrative. Additionally, the game’s characters are only marginally defined by their disabilities and in some cases are wonderfully complex and memorable individuals.

      But only in some cases. It’s hard to pass judgment on a game that contains five different stories written by five different people. In my first playthrough, for example, Hisao ended up taking a liking to Emi, a headstrong athletic girl with prosthetic legs. While the story of their friendship was touching in the end, it’s not the reason that I’m writing this review.  I’m writing this because of my second playthough, which was the story of Hisao and Rin.

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     Rin’s an artist who lacks arms (she paints with her feet) and has a severe case of Asperger’s syndrome. Her story is one about a young woman who is struggling to express herself and comprehend the world around her, who knows that she is neurologically deviant but painfully doesn’t understand how, and who nearly destroys herself in an attempt to conform to the expectations of others. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it gets pretty dark in some parts, and the canonical ending is absolutely beautiful. By the end, her story left a profound impact on me that games, or stories in general, rarely do. If you’re going to cheat and use a walkthrough to single out a specific story arc, choose Rin’s.   

    So, although I greatly enjoy the game, Katawa Shoujo is really not for everyone. Although the sexual content is handled fairly maturely and is only a small part of each story, it is graphically depicted (although in a way so that you don’t actually see anyone’s junk, thank goodness), and it’s not glossed over either (the scenes are described in a modest amount of detail). I can see how certain people might find the sex scenes as awkward, especially considering that the characters are just barely adults. There’s an option that replaces the scenes in question altogether, but they’re so central to the story that it comes at a definite cost. Then, there’s the issue of the medium itself. Visual novels are a bastard combination of novels, comic books, and games. Unfortunately, their literary content pales in comparison to novels, their graphic content pales in comparison to comics, and their interactive component pales in comparison to games. If you compare the individual components Katawa Shoujo to comparable components of other media, you will be disappointed. However, you will be most likely to enjoy the game if you take in the work’s components as a whole (three cheers for the Gestalt Principle!)  All that being said, if KS sounds like your cup of tea, you can download it for free here. Besides telling some great stories, it’s a fine example of how a game can transcend the unfortunate trappings of its genre.

     (Honestly, I don't know why it is that all of my favorite games these days seem to include lots of dialogue and be about well-developed characters that screw each other. Freakin' weird. Somebody make me play something else, for a change.) 

     (Also, this game gets a belated 2012 Echidna Award for Best Game that You Don't Actually Want Anyone to Know You Liked but You Want to Share It with Everyone Anyway.)

*Upon second thought, there were some pretty cheesy bits. But it was worth it.

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