Katawa Shoujo: Hanako’s Path

I’ve have just finished Hanako’s path, and once again I’m struggling to process the wave of emotions that I’m feeling. Disorganised thoughts to follow, as well as the usual spoilers,

To my amazement, I only teared up once or twice throughout her story. It surprises me because Hanako seems like exactly the sort of person that I would fall head-over-heels, gather-up-in-my-arms-and-ride-off-into-the-sunset in love with, and I thought I’d be bawling my eyes out. I kept expecting her to open up, sweep back her hair and smile from her heart because she found someone who accepted her unconditionally. But the game took a different approach to unfolding their relationship.

I got the good ending first, and the path seems so clear to me in hindsight. I must admit, I’m finally starting to see Lilly’s mothering, protective nature as disrespectful – she doesn’t see other people as equals, but rather as part of the flock that she’s taken under her wing. Trying to surround Hanako in cotton wool might have made her feel less uncomfortable, but it didn’t help her grow any stronger either. By constantly making the choices to shelter her, Hisao and Lilly ended up seeing Hanako as someone fragile and (as she put it) “useless”. While they loved her, they disserviced her by underestimating her resilience. When I replayed her path to get the neutral/bad endings, I realised that those small choices were not overtly about protecting her, or even trying to force her out of her comfort zone; they were about treating her as a person, worthy of love and respect, who had the strength and resources to deal with her own problems in her own way. Because Hisao respected her as a person, she was able to tentatively voice the dreams and desires she kept so closely guarded. I now see Hanako as an incredibly strong person, constantly battling the judgements of the people around her (the “That’s just how she is” attitude) in order to feel like her life was worth living.

screenshot0801

I’m glad, too, that the trauma around her birthday was explained. Hanako always felt that she just caused trouble for others, making them uncomfortable with her scars or making them go out of their way to care for her. She hated that about herself, and deep down she believed it would be better if she didn’t exist. The falsity of a birthday celebration, that one single day where people treated her like she was special, felt like a cruel juxtaposition to the other 364 days of the year.

And despite knowing how much stuff she was working on, I’m impressed that Hisao didn’t try and be a therapist for her; he recognised that she already had someone fulfilling that role in her life. Instead he wanted to be a guardian, or a friend, or a more-than friend. This theme of friendship (and defining its roles and boundaries), like in Rin’s story, was explored beautifully. Truly, it was only until the very last few lines of dialogue that Hisao was brave enough to realise that he didn’t just want to be friends with Hanako, and he was fighting for something more. His tip-toeing around her only served to frustrate her and drive wedges between them, and it was only when he opened himself to her in all his fear and vulnerability that the two of them could finally see eye-to-eye.

And it surprised me that one of the significant barriers to connecting with her was one that Hisao had constructed himself. He so wanted to make her feel comfortable that he always held her at arm’s length for fear of (literally) scaring her off. This distance served to drive her away, and every time they came close it undermined their relationship. It was a tragic story of two people wanting to be open with each other, but fearing that they wouldn’t be wholly accepted and repelling one another (like magnets caught in each other’s orbits). Each time they did get closer to each other, one of them would hurriedly withdraw. Hisao stopped Hanako in the library when she tried to tell him about life in the orphanage, and he stopped her again when she opened up at the jazz club. She started skipping class and avoiding him, wanting to be close but hating how he felt she was so useless he had to protect her. The majority of their problems were due to a heartwrenching case of miscommunication (which, if unresolved, lead to the neutral or bad ending).

screenshot0911

And despite all the time they spent together, they hardly knew each other at all. Certainly Hanako started spending more time with Hisao and became more comfortable in his company, but she remained almost entirely enigmatic, her thoughts and worldview completely unfathomable to him. Those tiny slivers of her true identity (her unexpected love of singing, her fondness for experimentation in the kitchen, her love of games of all kind and her genuine dislike of other people) were hard-won glimpses of who she really was. It seemed like Hisao had to earn each and every one of her smiles, those cracks in the armour that let the light in. I recall at one point just wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, saying “Open up already! Face the world and grow into the person you want to be!” But, as Bruce Lee would say, Hanako wasn’t in the world to live up to my expectations (nor was I in the world to live up to hers). At any rate, it was satisfying in the end when they both admitted how little they knew about each other, but they enjoyed each other’s company enough to give their relationship a chance.

screenshot0803

One of the things I really loved most about their relationship was the silences between them. A lot of people are scared of silence, but it was nice to see a version of Hisao that was comfortable in it. Well, for the most part anyway. I can foresee a future in which Hanako and he spend many meals together in companionable quietude, and yet are wholly open with each other. It was a bit sad that this sedentariness didn’t leave him in the best physical shape, and it made it hard for them to be intimate. I hope that this version of Hisao goes into the future and decides that becoming healthier is one of his goals.

screenshot0894

Once again, Hisao had no clear vision for what he wanted to do after graduation. Happily, unlike in Rin’s story, even though he wasn’t clear about what he wanted to do with his future, he knew that he wanted to do something. And so in order to develop himself as a person and deal with his restlessness (of wanting to take control of his life), he hit the books as a way of preparing himself for whatever the future might bring. He made a conscious effort to not let the past hold him back, and to follow Mutou’s advice of claiming the education and opportunity that Yamaku afforded him.

Katawa Shoujo is a game that makes me laugh, cry, smile wryly, pound my fist in fervent agreement, yell at the monitor in distress and inspires me to be a better person. I’m kind of unsettled now that it’s over, having finally achieved 100% completion. I guess I’m left wanting more, to relive those experiences when they aren’t a little familiar already. I’m quite sure that I’ll go back and replay it (particularly Lilly’s path – I want to see their relationship unfold again now that I have a much better understanding of her personality!), but now that the experience is over it leaves a void that is hard to fill. KS has been such a wonderful influence on me, and I’m sad that none of it will be quite as fresh ever again.

I think the reason this game makes me so happy is because it reminds me what’s important in life: Hisao takes such great pleasure in the company of his loved ones, and enjoying a quiet moment at the tea house, the quality of the light, the breeze through the trees… Those are the subtle moments built into the game, where he sighs with pleasure and smiles from his heart, that remind me I can do all of those things too, almost all the time on any given day. It inspires me to enjoy my life more, and I can say with utter certainty that it has changed me for the better. Katawa Shoujo may well be my favourite “game” of all time, and if you haven’t started playing it by this point, I urge you to download it for free and see for yourself what a wonderful experience it is.

http://www.katawa-shoujo.com/

sd_wp_2560x1600

Katawa Shoujo: Shizune and Misha’s path

Gawsh darnit. Another blog post that comes either very late at night or early in the morning. It’s 7am and I’ve just finished Shizune’s path. Well, more correctly I finished it about 40 minutes ago and spent that time re-writing part of the wiki. (It seems that’s my thing now. It’s exhausting and time-consuming, but rewarding to do justice to the amazing characters of Katawa Shoujo.) I’m pretty tired, but I still want to write my traditional post-game blog. As expected, this contains massive spoilers for Shizune’s plot, so be forewarned.

Shizune’s path was a little different from the others because I couldn’t finish it over the course of a few days. When I first went through it, I made the terrible, heart-wrenching decision to comfort Misha. Let me first say that I absolutely love Misha. I have always loved the way she throws back her head and laughs unapologetically at the top of her voice: Wahahaha! She’s currently the background of my phone, and she brings me great joy every time I see her. Yet while I was browsing for pictures I could use, I came across this one:

screenshot0536 As I first spent more time with the duo in Act 1, I was secretly hoping that there would be a storyline where I ended up with Misha. How I regret that wish. I chose to comfort her, envisaging Hisao putting his arm around her and letting her cry, and then talk, and maybe hug. Instead they fell straight into bed and I was horrified. I was surprised the game continued into Act 4, and I thought that maybe there were further choices up the line that would enable me to redeem it. But nope: after four drawn out chapters of angst, the game ended with the trio basically never talking to each other again. It seemed particularly mocking that Hisao’s last words were along the lines of “I thought of all the choices I could have made that might have led to things turning out differently.” You gave me one choice, Game. One choice! You jerk.

It was several weeks before I had the time to play again, and I ended up replaying Act 3 just to remember what had happened and get back into the spirit of things. To my surprise, I had come to care greatly for Shizune, whom I had always considered the antagonist of Lilly (my first true Shoujo love!). Shizune drew me in with her childish competitiveness, and kept me around with her maturity, her passion and her intrigue.

I’ve realised that what I love most about Katawa Shoujo is that with every replay, my interest turns to understanding each of the characters. Hisao, the way he changes depending on who he’s with and they way they influence what he values. And the girls, who are profound in ways I didn’t expect. Everyone starts out seeming like a two-dimensional stereotype (see original concept art below) but are revealed to have pasts that shape them into complex, multi-dimensional people. And understanding who they are and why is deeply satisfying to me, especially when the characters realise and enunciate it themselves. I think these anagnorises are what I love most about the game, the growth of characters and the realisations they come to (and therefore I am witness to) as they see who they were and instead have chosen to become.

The initial sketch an artist casually produced that inspired a wave of people to actually create a game.

The initial sketch an artist casually produced that inspired a wave of people to actually create a game.

Understanding Shizune was as long and frustrating for me as understanding Rin and Emi. This time as I played I kept notes, jotting down revelations as they came to Hisao (and thus to me), and I ended up writing pages and pages. Shizune was more than just a deaf girl who liked competitions: one of the core pieces of her identity was the drive to be victorious, and without direction she applied this to every area of her life. Looking at her work in the Student Council, if there was a festival coming up she would throw herself at it relentlessly. But without an impending event, she would be restless and create mass amounts of busywork so that she had an outlet for her productivity and ambition. When there was a problem, she tackled it head on until it was resolved, and this is ultimately why she wasn’t able to understand why Misha was upset, or to respond in a way that was helpful to her.

screenshot0676 Another core part of Shizune’s identity was her love of passion. She became bored easily and didn’t like ordinary people: she thrived off excitement, and most importantly, passion. She loved arguing with people because it forced them to get fired up and fight for what they believed in, and regardless of whether she won or lost an argument, she was always impressed when people stood up to her. As a result, Shizune was always trying to create excitement for people, to do things that were spectacular and create that spark of passion in them. Ultimately what she was striving for was to improve people’s lives through her efforts: to be like a firework, bright and loud and fantastic, and to change their appreciation of the night sky if only for a minute. And so she applied herself to making people happy, even if they misunderstood her (rather forceful) efforts. Sometimes she felt that her efforts were impermanent and not worth celebrating, but other times she was deeply pleased by how much she accomplished through sheer force of will.

I’m also deeply impressed by how Shizune’s deafness affected her life. Her family not being able to sign was really hard for her, and she couldn’t even communicate with those closest to her. When she came to Yamaku and met Misha, things became easier for her, but she was never able to get close to anyone because she was always speaking through a translator. She could make conversation and exchange questions and answers, sure, but there was always the buffer of a third person that prevented her from really opening up or being opened up to. In the end, Misha was her only real friend, and she often took her for granted. It was good, then, that Misha decided to really focus on her studies halfway through the year and forge her own path that was not in Shizune’s wake.

Although Hisao’s relationship was focussed on Shizune, Misha’s happiness also meant a lot to me, and I strove to understand the cause of her sudden misery. At first I thought it was the guilt of sleeping with Hisao, but even in the good ending where he refused her, she still became suddenly melancholic. I’ve come to realise that for Misha, the fear of graduating was far greater than she let on, and she was deeply depressed by the thought of leaving the school and her closest friend and loved one. A small part of her felt that she had been replaced by Hisao, both as a translator and as a lover, and it hurt her deeply to think she wasn’t needed any more. To protect herself from the pain of an inevitably sad goodbye, she tried to distance herself from both of them, withdrawing into her own self-pity. This was worsened by Shizune not understanding what was going on and giving her space. By the time she realised it wasn’t working and tried to forcefully cheer her up, it only served to push Misha further away. In the end it was Hisao’s gentleness that got through to her, his kind words of advice to treasure her friendships rather than let them waste away, that allowed the three of them to join hands again.

screenshot0610 One thing I’ve noticed is that I’ve been hitting my S key an awful lot this time ’round. A quick glance shows me I’ve taken 68 screenshots of Lilly’s story, 135 of Emi’s, 137 of Rin’s and… 338 screenshots of Shizune’s. When I first started Lilly’s, I reserved screenshots for perfect, idyllic moments, and I left out most of the really special moments because I didn’t want to cheapen the experience by trying to capture it in a picture. After my fourth playthrough now, I just snap away any time I laugh, or I see the essence of a character summarised in a sentence or two, or I am moved by the unfolding relationships and circumstances.

And you know? It continues to amaze me that without fail, every time I play (even for a few short minutes) I am inspired to be a better person. Hisao’s constant choices to improve his life and pursue his passions, as well as the tremendous bravery of the girls who do the same, remind me of the sort of person I want to be.

I have to say though, there is something that continues to irk me: it’s never clear whether Hisao stays with Shizune after graduation. When Shizune is telling them that they have to meet up again soon, she says “Both of you”, which makes me think all three of them are going their separate ways. And the last line of the game is “We’ll meet again” – does it refer to just Misha, or Misha and Shizune both?! Hisao says he wants “to chase her” by continuing teaching at Yamaku, and that he wants to enjoy the rest of his life in Shizune’s company… Arrrrgh what happens?!?! I guess I’ll have to assume they stay together for the sake of my contentment. Well, I’ve completed four of the five paths in their entirety, leaving Hanako’s til the end. I have a feeling I will be super protective of her (I’ve got a bit of a white knight in shining armour complex) and will fall deeply in love with her, but I guess we’ll see! Once I’ve completed the game 100%, I wonder what it will unlock? Can’t wait for that, either. If you haven’t already downloaded the game for free, for God’s sake just do it. You can thank me later.

screenshot0341

Katawa Shoujo: Rin’s Path

As per usual, after I finished another storyline in Katawa Shoujo (one that unfailingly brought tears to my eyes) I spent a day staggering around the house like a stunned mullet, not being able to settle at any activity or concentrate on any conversation because I was so preoccupied making sense of my experiences. To help me process the incredible ocean of emotions (I’m sure that’s a saying. Someone at some point has surely coined that phrase) and jumble of thoughts, I blurted it all out on WordPress so that I could see it and make sense of it physically. This post contains spoilers about Rin’s storyline. I thought about tidying up the post, but I think the disorganised mess I became says something about the incredible emotional impact of the game. I’ve added some pictures though, because Rin man. Rin.

(I also spent several hours re-writing the Wiki page, because whoever edited it before me was a little clumsy and didn’t do her the justice she deserved. (I also touched up Lilly’s page, but the writers before me did an excellent job.))

 


 

I just finished Rin’s storyline, and I regret to say that I messed it up the first time around. I tried to make her explain to me what she didn’t have the words for. Hisao blew up and yelled at her in the atelier and she told him to leave because art was the most important thing in the world to her.

Rin is fundamentally different to other people in the way she sees the world and makes sense of her experiences. I mean, we’re all different. But she is so different she finds it hard to understand or relate to other people. That’s so difficult for her. And yet she is the same as people as well: she has feelings, even if she struggles to understand where they come from or what they mean, and she has the same yearning for connection and love. It’s easy to brush Rin off as “that weirdo” and never bother to try and deepen the connection, but Hisao did in a way that Emi didn’t: he persistently tried to understand and support her. He did it because he loved her, even if he wasn’t aware of it; all he knew was that she was important to him and he wanted to be part of her life.

screenshot0247

She frustrated him by being aloof, by not understanding how he was feeling, by literally shrugging off things that he felt were important. He could not comprehend or connect with her, and his desperation to force a connection pushed her away. At different times they both tried to elevate their relationship, thinking it would be easier to deal with the confusion of not really knowing one another by ignoring it, kissing or more. In reality it just made it more confusing because neither of them knew what they wanted. (Hint: all they wanted was to accept and connect with one another.)

At the end, they are happy. Hisao feels that he understands her more, and that he can continue to reach out and connect with her (at least, every now and then), and that makes all the confusion and frustration worth it. Rin resolves that she is allowed to be herself: the sky, forever changing and perfect. She does not know who she is, but she’s okay with that. Hisao does not know who she is, and he’s getting better at being okay with it. (He’s trying to worry less and to live in the moment more.)

screenshot0307

In the end, the distance between them is still there. But Rin gains the awareness that Hisao terrifies her because he’s kind to her (which confuses me) and she feels he wants her to change. He laughs it off, realising that he doesn’t want her to change, he loves her for who she is. He just wants to understand her better to that he can support her more. Rin accepts that, even though it’s scary, she’s willing to let him into her life, to be her friend (or something more).

Despite getting the bad ending early, there are still a few locked scenes. I’m not sure where to find them, but there are a few paths left that I haven’t gone down. It will be a bit of a heartwrench to replay the initial scenes where their relationship is still so early in its development, but it’ll be worth it. Just not right now – I still need time to process it. I’ll read the Wiki page on Rin’s branch later as well, and that blog that I was linked to. I’m glad I’ve played Rin’s story, but it’s the least satisfying for me because Hisao has changed in a way I find difficult to relate to, and Rin confuses and frustrates me with her difference. I find her so sweet, but she is also kind of unattainable, like (as Hisao observed) there’s a physical barrier that separates her as she walks her path of dreams and butterflies.

What a happy and confusing story.

 

EDIT: I think what frustrated me most about Rin’s path was the lack of communication between the two. They just couldn’t see eye-to-eye, and so Hisao hardly ever got to understand how he was feeling or what it meant, and Rin hardly did either. I am a big fan of self-awareness, realisations and anagnorises in general. These were found in in Lilly’s story (where he realises he was always being supported by her and he never tried to support her in return) and in Emi’s story (where he realises she never lets him in and that it’s desperately important to get close to her somehow). His progression through Rin’s story feels (at least right now) like he just sort of bumbles his way through it, never really sure of his feelings for her and never trying to understand them, just being vaguely aware of them in his subconscious.

screenshot0293

DOUBLE EDIT: I’ve realised something else that bother’s me about Rin’s storyline. Hisao doesn’t focus on his future profession – he’s too worried about his relationship with Rin. I can hardly blame him – I was the same – but it bothers me that he didn’t make any plans for what to do after graduation. And Rin’s unresolved future career worries me a little as well – did she end up throwing away a potential life as a career artist? I suppose those questions don’t need to be answered within the scope of the game – it’s something that she and Hisao will work out later (in their private time beyond the captured life on my computer screen). (It really does feel like they have lives of their own that I’m somehow privy to.)

TRIPLE EDIT: Re-reading my previous blog post about starting a new game, I’ve come to a new conclusion. This is a novel. I am reading (so to speak) about characters interacting with one another. I am witnessing their lives and their interactions, their thoughts and their feelings. I am witnessing them falling in love. I can relate to their feelings, their thoughts, their relationships. And I can admire and fall in love with the people in the story as well as I get to know them better and better. As I spend more time with them, in the sense of “witnessing/reading their lives as they open up to Hisao”. And that is a beautiful thing, which creates very real feelings in my own heart. I am so glad this is so well-written. Hisao is not my avatar, or somehow an expression of me: he is just a character whom I can relate to, whom I am fond of, and who interacts with other characters in a story that I love.

QUADRUPLE EDIT: I’m not sure how I feel about the emphasis on the “present” at the end of Rin’s story, after they’d made love. Hisao goes on about how important it is to live in the present and not worry about the future, and Rin’s tagline is “seize the day”. Not to be simplistic, but that struck me more as Emi’s thing than Rin’s. But I guess appreciation of the importance of mindfulness and not being able to change the future by worrying about it doesn’t have to be exclusive. [Just looked it up: Emi’s tagline is “Can you stand up for yourself?” In retrospect, that is more her thing than “Not worrying about the future”, but both of them can certainly relate to it.]

I do like the recurring theme of “aliveness”, how we know we’re alive by being present, right here, not worrying about even a second later.

 

screenshot0226

 

QUINTUPLE EDIT: Having spent several more hours on the Wiki page, I realise that understandings of friendship are actually one of the central themes of Rin’s story. She says she’s never had friends; Emi is more of a big sister, Nomiya is more of an Uncle, and Hisao is… something else. Defining that “something else” is one of the driving elements of their relationship. At first he considers himself a friend because they spend time together, they fight and make up and they talk a lot. Later she wonders whether friends are physically intimate, whether they can be lovers. Hisao struggles with this as their relationship continues to evolve in undefinable ways. Such profound commentary!

Katawa Shoujo: Emi’s path

This is not a well-written or edited piece. I was originally writing it just to get the thoughts down on paper, so to speak, but I thought I might as well share it in case there are other people out there who are interested in KS. It also contains spoilers about Emi’s storyline, if that’s important to you.


 

I finished the second story arc of Katawa Shoujo last night, this time engaging in a romance with Emi. It is still very much a visual novel, but I must concede that, having the perspective of completing the game twice so far, there is a definite focus on picking a girl and developing a romantic relationship with her (i.e. it’s a dating sim). However, that does not detract in any way from the masterful characterisation of each member of the game’s cast, including Hisao.

To my surprise, Emi was not just a chirpy, clumsy girl who liked running. She was a profoundly deep person who had experienced severe trauma, losing her legs and the person she loved most in the world. To protect herself, she forged the belief that she was strong enough to get through life literally on her own two feet. This is one of her unshakeable core beliefs. Coupled with it is her reluctance to let other people close to her because she’s afraid of losing them. The very fact that Hisao (and the others that love her, including Emi herself) are aware of these beliefs is a remarkable testimony to his powers of empathy. (In fact, that’s one of the things I love most about this visual novel. That it’s so well-written the characters themselves are not always aware of what’s going on, and the readers aren’t necessarily either. There is so much self-discovery to be found, every realisation, every anagnorisis is brilliant and satisfying and enlightening.)

screenshot0113

What I hadn’t noticed to quite the same extent is that Hisao grows, as well as the girl he is romancing. In this iteration of the game, he chooses to watch his diet and look after his heart by running consistently (without recklessly pushing his limits). Later, at Emi’s Mum’s house, he is conscientious of how much he is eating and whether it’s healthy or not. The Hisao that romanced Lilly would never have paid attention to that kind of thing. He has grown into an entirely different person. For better or for worse is not possible to say, just different. And I really respect that.

screenshot0104

One of the things I find most difficult about the game is how much I love each of the girls. I’m so happy for Emi because Hisao taught her to open up, and forever changed her life for the better. But I mourn not being friends with Hanako and Lilly, and improving their lives, too. It’s pretty profound commentary that we are all receivers and broadcasters of energy, and we actively and passively influence the world around us. It makes me wonder what sort of person I want to be, and what sort of change I want to bring into existence around me.

screenshot0209

How Katawa Shoujo is making me a better person

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.

screenshot0001

 

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”.

screenshot0027

 

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.

screenshot0005

 

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.

screenshot0017

 

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!

http://www.katawa-shoujo.com