Sunday, 25 March 2012

"Katawa Shoujo" Review

by Alex Hill


Katawa Shoujo is remarkable. A love-letter not just to the disabled or to animu dating sims, but to the paralyzing panic of love. We know in our heads things we can't always come to terms with on the inside. We can know, but we can still be hurt or fearful. We can find ourselves hurting the ones we love without trying to, and not understand why. The goal here involves your character becoming romantically involved with one of several girls with disabilities. I don't believe Four Leaf Studios did this out of some fetish or pity, but because they believed in this project.  

It's an honest glimpse into the human heart.

A sketch of a possible dating-sim focusing on girls with disabilities became a source of discussion on 4chan. Surely some asked: "Why?". A few of them looked at those sketches and asked: "Why not?". For a rag-tag group, assembled from various online communities, the quality here is astounding. Four Leaf Studios has assembled a project that looks and reads on par with professional-grade...

Wait, is it right to call this a video game? Katawa Shoujo probably falls closer to "interactive novel", and even then your only interaction are a handful of choices, and clicking on the screen to progress through dialogue. But I think if Farmville can count, then all bets are off. Besides, this is much more engaging on a human level, and the high-grade CG art is lot easier on the eyes.

"Alright, now put some dinosaurs in the right corner, maybe some aliens shooting and stuff..."

"Hisao Nakai" has a heart-attack in his last year of high school. The months he spends confined in the hospital does a number on his outlook. He is heart-broken(HAH) at no longer being "normal", whatever that means. He does his best to hide this from those around him, and exhausts himself trying not to say or do anything to make his new classmates feel different. The whole game follows Hisao's thoughts on how to navigate a minefield. He is devoured by guilt and uncertainty at every step.

How should he act with his heart-condition? How should he cope with being in a new school, with people who are disabled too? What does that mean for him, or the life he had to leave behind? And what does this mean for the girls he befriends? Should he stare? Would it be impolite NOT to? Should he ask about it? When is it okay to speak and when should he keep his fat yap shut?

He is obsessed with what he is lacking, but sees the girls' disabilities as a plus. Not necessarily a positive, but something -in addition- to their own lives. It's not about what's "wrong" with them, even though that is the elephant in the room for a young man struggling with a redefined life. It's not about male fantasies. It's about masculine shame. He is a bright, handsome young man, and feels he is less of a man due to his heart condition, and for being in the "special" school. Yet he is impressed by the people around him. His shame is his own.

Some of the students are missing legs or arms, sight or hearing, but most of them have lived long enough that it is just another daily obstacle, for which they have their rituals to compensate. He admits his challenges are a cake-walk compared to the lives of some people at the Yamaku school for the differently-abled. But still he is not at peace. He sees a girl with no legs win a 400k, and destroys himself for letting his own mind and body beat him.

Hisao is often his own worst enemy. He hates his body, hates being trapped in his thoughts, and is terrified he'll never know the right thing to say or do. This neurosis seeps in through lengthy inner monologues, reactions to the bizarre and charming people he encounters. But he tries to politely move through and around his natural curiosity, juggling the friendships he has with patient, understanding young women. The teachers are sometimes less helpful, and that is in its benefit. Sometimes the people in authority do not have the answers a troubled youth craves.

A person's immediate thoughts are in need of an editor. The messages we form in our heads are often selfish and ignorant by their nature, because our thoughts are how we figure out solutions to our questions. We don't know everything, and people are naturally suspicious of the new and unknown. And that's okay. It's okay to say the wrong thing, sometimes. Hisao is so terrified of making mistakes or being a bad person, because of what goes on in his head, that he doesn't notice how much joy he's brought to the people around him. It's hard not to want to just shake him and say: "You're doing better than you think!".

Very few games achieve the level of immersion this one does. Maybe that's because it leans closer to a novel. Wisely, Four Leaf Studios understood that Hisao is no everyman. I think that's how we are so easily invited into the way his mind works. Through his exhaustive thoughts and worries, and his descriptions of his friends, we are slowly absorbed into his life. His thoughts read and sound like the thoughts someone might have, and his actions seem to come from that place.

Yes, this is an anime dating sim game, with saucer-eyes and girls with bizarre hair. But it pulled me into a role and a dilemma and made it seem effortless. I was under its spell, and I knew what it was like to inhabit a character different from myself. I cannot say the same for the Master Chief.

Not all of the romantic scenarios are riveting, mind you. Some characters are better as supporting roles in other paths. Perhaps it doesn't fully understand all women, or all disabilities as much as it wants to(although it knows more than I do). It is near-impossible to determine the path you want without consulting a guide. I felt so robbed, so violated when I had received the worst ending in the game. It came out of nowhere, and it didn't feel like I had earned it. I didn't feel like my actions reasonably led me to that fate, especially since I was heavily leaning in at least one direction. But it made me realize just how deeply I became involved, and how much I cared for what happens to these young punks.

I'm amazed at the restraint they showed by not throwing a "desu!" in there...

I feel the outcome with the highest emotional stakes belongs to "Hanako", a girl with 2nd-degree burns on half of her body. She may even show signs of borderline-autism, but that may be explained by her extremely timid nature. Fluttershy is a social butterfly in comparison. She is the only one of the girls in this game who can be courted who has not come to terms with herself. It is hard to think of a character in greater constant fear and pain on the school-grounds. If you wish, Hisao can see something in her, perhaps some reflection of his own insecurities. And you can begin the long and difficult road to making her feel a little more welcome. Or you can pursue other girls with their own quirks, obstacles and baggage.

See, what makes this stand out from other dating sims is that you aren't choosing which girl you'd like to boink. You're deciding what kind of a man Hisao is. If he's serious about getting back into shape, if he's quiet and reserved, what kind of challenges he's willing to live with. All of these things determine which girl is "right" for him, and which version of Hisao is right for them. And I don't remember their hardships or mutual happiness ever feeling contrived or exploitative.

"Eeny, meeney, miney, Moe..."

Just when you think it's a wish-fullfilment fantasy, another pathetic retread of romance where some white-knight "saves" another, the game throws a curveball. It understands that trying to "save" someone romantically is not a relationship, or friendship. It is a form of abuse. It makes this clear in no uncertain terms, and the main character scrambles to figure out if he's been going about it wrong. The thought of hurting someone he just wanted to help almost gives him a second heart-attack.

The reason Hanako's arc is my favourite is because she and Hisao are equally perplexing to each other, with so many secrets, and so many wounds. They've both learned to survive by covering their weak spots. But a relationship can't be about one person bringing the other up to "normal". It's only if the player understands this that they can make two very injured people very happy.

This is an adult game. Probably about time I mentioned that, huh?

It would be a mistake to think of this game as a masturbatory assistant, as so many "eroge" games are. Sex is not the victory condition here. As a virgin, I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that sex can sometimes ruin a good thing. I will assume further that sometimes it's clumsy, painful and exhausting. Sometimes sex isn't the best or the most reasonable decision for two people to make. But when it happens here, in spite of how clumsy it is, it's THEIRS. They've earned it, and they get through it together.

I don't know, does that sound about right?

Despite all of this, I imagine it will still bear the unfortunate stigma of association with hentai games, and other mindless wank-aids. But it is so much more down-to-earth than we expect it to be. It asks the right questions, and it gives fair answers. It knows how scary it is to have to re-learn the rules of the game. Four Leaf Studios made the cast believable and lovable in ways that throwing millions of dollars at them could not. Eventually, their disabilities stop being the first thing I think about them. I've learned a lot about myself in the process, which is something not enough games or novels do for me anymore.

It may surprise you that this was a western project. It feels and breathes such a particular Japanese presentation, I'm surprised that it wasn't translated into English after the fact. I've read the reaction to this game in Japan has been mostly negative. Particularly toward the name, which (unfortunately) translates to something like: "Cripple Girls". I guess if they didn't do something that brash, no one would notice it at all.

I'm not into dating-sims on principle. But I think it would be a damn shame to to judge this book by its cover.

No comments:

Post a Comment