I’ve just started playing a game called Katawa Shoujo, and it’s been a source of immense joy to me in the past couple of days. Katawa Shoujo is essentially a dating sim – but wait! No need to close your browser in disgust, hear me out. Unlike most dating simulators (I assume – I’ve never played a real one), the goal is not to pick a girl, learn as much about them as you need to get close to them and have sex with them. Katawa Shoujo distinguishes itself with an incredibly well-polished story, deep characters and profound morals. It’s actually a visual novel with a dating sim gloss, and it is exceptionally well-made.
Every single frame of this visual novel has been lovingly crafted. There is a range of (extremely well written) music as backing tracks to various events and types of conversation. The diversity in the songs is staggering, each painting a type of scene or emotion – I seriously wouldn’t mind buying the sound track just for the pleasure of listening to it. The cinematography is also commendable, and there are some very clever shifts in perspective and visual effects as cutscenes play out or scenarios change. What makes it so well-produced are the little things like how quickly a character moves across the room, or how the edges of the screen go dark when Hisao, the protagonist, is experiencing chest pain. But what I love most about the game is the utterly stellar writing. The script is just incredible, and every utterance (of Hisao and everyone he interacts with) is perfectly characterised. Charmingly, there’s a distinctly Japanese flavour to the writing. I wonder if the game was written in Japanese first, or if (cleverer still) it was written deliberately to sound like it had been translated.
One of the things that continuously humbles me is how sensitively the game handles the issue of disability. Katawa literally means “crippled” or “disabled”, and the game/story revolves the life of high school student Hisao Nakai. Quite suddenly, Hisao goes from having a normal school life to experiencing an extensive convalescence in hospital and a plethora of new medications just to keep him alive every day. He’s forced to withdraw from his current school and enrol in a high school specifically for people with disabilities. He really struggles with the identity that has been thrust on him, the label of “disabled” and what it means to go to a school designed specifically for “people like him”. But he also struggles with how to relate to the other students that he meets, and what to think of their disabilities (obvious or otherwise). For instance, when he meets a deaf/mute girl, he isn’t sure whether to look at her or her translator when they’re having a conversation. When he sees someone who is quite badly burned, he immediately looks away from the burn site and then isn’t sure whether he’s making the issue worse by pretending he didn’t see it. And speaking of seeing, he keeps accidentally referring to beautiful sights and colours when talking to someone who is blind, and he sometimes comes across as insensitive. Katawa Shoujo genuinely acknowledges disability as a real thing, and more importantly it focuses on the people behind them. It even overtly says so – several times throughout the game people advise him “not to make an issue of [a disability], and it won’t be”.
As you play the game, you meet different people and you form friendships with the other students at the school. The branches of the game come in the form of choices, which are extremely subtle. Small decisions lead down different paths – whether to push harder during exercise or take it easy to rest your heart; whether to go to the library to relax during time off, or go for a walk in the sunshine. These choices equate to whom you spend more time with, and consequently whom you develop deeper relationships with. I didn’t even realise I was making the choices until I retrospected. (I’m making that a word.)
But what I love most is that this game never gives the feeling that the goal is to have sex with a girl. While it is a dating sim, and it makes no apologies or disguises about its nature as a game, Hisao is not a jerk. He is a human, funny and humble and shy and insecure, just trying to fit in to a new place and make sense of his life which has been so radically changed by his diagnosis. There is never an overt focus on male gratification – in fact, there is an option to turn off all the adult content entirely. What is important to the game is forming relationships with the other students at the school, and not just for the romance. Holy shit, right? Who would have thought that you can be friends with girls without needing to have sex with them? I love that even though I’ve pursued one particular path of romance, I still spend time with the other girls whom don’t necessarily get along with my paramour. Just because I’m in a romantic relationship with one person does not preclude me from a friendship with her best friend, a studious relationship with people who don’t necessarily like her, a vague admiration of the girl who does sports etc. I still have multiple important relationships that do not revolve around the possibility of sex, and it’s awesome.
These relationships are the core of the game, and each of the characters is entirely unique. As well as the self-evident difference of their disabilities (the blind girl is obviously different to the girl without legs), they have incredibly real personalities that distinguish them from one another. I could say “Girl A is courteous, thoughtful, considerate and deliberate, while Girl B is rash, spontaneous, energetic and funky”, but it would be unfair to limit them to just a few adjectives. Each of the characters have lives and personalities as varied as my own, and it’s impossible to acknowledge the entirety of who they are with just a few words. I genuinely care about each of them in different ways, and that is no mean feat.
What’s more is that Hisao inspires me to be a better person. As he learns more about himself and what’s important to him, he makes choices again and again about the sort of person he wants to become, and he grows into that person throughout the course of the game. At one point he starts getting up early (despite the cold and sleepiness) and tries going for runs in order to look after his heart. Leading up to exams, he deliberately chooses to lock himself away and study rather than spending time with those close to him. And even though he’s still trying to find his own feet, he goes out of his way to be help his classmates who are struggling with their workload. Each of these seemingly innocent decisions reflect his growth as a person, and it inspires me to be a better, more authentic version of myself. This week I’ve started setting my alarm to get up earlier every day so that I have more time to study Japanese. I’d like to use my allocated study time to research other things I care about, and maybe even learn Braille. Maybe I’ll start going for runs in the early morning as well. [EDIT: And indeed I have!]
Less obvious than changing my behaviour, Katawa Shoujo has also started changing the way I think in many other ways due to the profound lessons that it carries. Most recently, I was reminded that school and work aren’t the be all and end all of life. I remember how fragile health is, and therefore how precious each moment is. Consequently, one doesn’t have time or energy to waste on things that aren’t important. The game reminds me that pain exists in everyone’s lives, and that we must teach ourselves to cope with it rather than moping in self-pity (that most pernicious of diseases). I have been shown again and again not to judge a book by its cover, and to see all people as equally incredible human beings. The game has made me realise that sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone who cares about you is the reassurance that you’re okay, a smile that “makes their worries go away”. It’s also taught me the (sometimes difficult) lesson that we are all individuals with our own lives, and sometimes we need to honour ourselves and our dreams, even if it takes us in different directions from our loved ones.
It is no small exaggeration to say that, quite apart from the ridiculous amounts of joy I’m getting from playing it, this game is changing me for the better. I’ve played it for about four hours, and I think I’m only in Act 3 (of 5). I’ve only explored one possible storyline so far, and so I can’t wait to replay it from start to finish, making different choices and developing different kinds of relationships with new people. This is a game which I can see myself playing again and again, just for the pleasure of it. I am heartened by the knowledge that there is quite a large fan base as well, and I’m looking forward to jumping on the forums after the first playthrough and obsessing over it with other people who have played it. (A quick glance showed one of the forum topics as “What weapons would the KS characters choose?” Sounds like my kind of place.)
Well, I’m going to stop blogging here so that I can keep playing a little before bed. If you’d like to play it yourself, it’s a free download, lovingly made by passionate people. I highly recommend it!