color me shocked: Katawa Shoujo

Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation once said he didn’t get the appeal of visual novels. For a long time, I agreed with him. Games where you read a lot of text but then make a decision, like a glorified Choose Your Own Adventure book? And then nine times out of ten the ones I had heard about were pornography, which made them less interesting to me (yeah, I’m one of those rare guys who honestly does not like sex).

But one day last year I was sick and bored and everything seemed the same, and I was still in the midst of my hunger for anime but could not afford more (or rather, the ones I could afford all looked like they would suck balls). So I decided to take a chance, and I happened to notice one VN called Katawa Shoujo was free to download.

The next line is probably a case of Famous Last Words among people who wound up becoming creepy jobless shut-ins:

By the next day, Katawa Shoujo was all I cared about.

The experience of playing a VN for the first time was… not at all what I expected. I expected that I would get a little bit in, come to my first save point, and then just quit and never look back, at most maybe having an odd experience to joke with my friends about. What I instead got was something that was… well, to be honest, I imagine anyone who has ever tried a new and unfamiliar genre where they didn’t really know what to expect (such as a 90s console gamer playing an RPG for the first time) has felt something similar.

That was one of the things that struck me about Katawa Shoujo… going in, my expectation was pretty much the one the entire internet has: “these girls are disabled, and you get to give them coos and gentle reassurances about their disability in exchange for sex.” In fact though, that’s not how it works at all, and in fact the way the whole “disability” angle was handled kinda surprised me: the game is in no way preachy or in-your-face about the nature of disability. It’s the exact opposite of a cartoon: what you get is not a disability with a girl attached, but rather a bunch of… completely normal people, who you soon grow so accustomed to that them being blind or having no arms becomes just a fact of life, just normal. The game never focuses on the disability at the expense of the person. In that sense, its actually far more compassionate and understanding than those PSA episodes of Strawberry Shortcake which paint the disabled as lesser people who we normals have to look out for.

Now, yes: There is sex–if you want there to be (there’s actually an option to turn it off). But to call this game “porn” couldn’t be more wrong (And of course, since it has girls who aren’t perfect, beautiful supermodels, of course TV Tropers accuse it of being “pandering”). For one thing, there isn’t even a hint of cleavage until near the end of your chosen path, which can take 2-5 hours (and again, you can disable the sex in the options menu) and for another thing, the way the relationships are handled clearly doesn’t have sex as the focus. On my playthru, I wound up with Rin Tezuka, an artist with no arms (whose bigger problem is she’s, well… you just have to read her dialogue to understand), and whatever was going through the main character’s mind, his certainly was not always in the gutter. He as just… a normal person, adapting to a new life in a new school with people he didn’t know. The story is more about getting to know people and not really about trying to get into their pants.

But this all goes back to the original question:

How the hell can a visual novel possibly be fun? And to this I have to point out that the “Choose Your Own Adventure” analogy is actually quite inaccurate: your character gets choices here and there, but nowhere near as many as in a CYOA book–sometimes you’ll read for hours straight before getting any kind of choice.

If I were a little less of a bonehead, the answer would’ve been obvious from the get go.

After all, inherent in the question of “how can a VN be fun?” is “how can a novel be fun?” Now that I think about it, when I sit down and read Lord of the Rings or Battletech or something, those are completely non-interactive experiences that don’t give me any choice at all, and (in most editions) don’t even have visuals! Yet nobody over the age of five who isn’t a beneficiary of the No Child Left Behind Act would ever think to ask “how can reading be fun?”

If you can enjoy a book, you can enjoy a visual novel. Actually, a visual novel might even be easier to get into, because you’re reading a book but you feel like you’re playing a game. That part is kinda strange, and hard to explain, but one reason Katawa Shoujo stuck with me is because I really felt like this was my story, like my involvement was vitally important, despite the fact that all I was doing most of the time was watching events play out as they would. That may be a nifty side-effect of the game being told in first person, not to mention that the visuals do in fact add to the telling (one example of which you will see very quickly is how the game portrays the POV character’s heart condition–a bump sound, the vision shakes and darkens, and all the dialogue box says is that your chest hurts).

That heart condition, by the way, being a thing I was skeptical about as well: It sounds too much like just an excuse to get into a disabled school without “really” having anything wrong with you… but once again, I was proven thoroughly wrong: the game treats the hero’s condition pretty seriously too. Several times in the path I got, the POV character got so stressed his heart almost couldn’t take it… and he was even afraid to have sex, out of (very realistic) fear of a heart attack!

So much for “pandering!”

But I can see some people probably aren’t convinced. Some probably will never be, for there’s no shortage of shallow and simple-minded people who think games have to be all about headshots. For everyone else though, I take the adage “playing is believing.” So here’s the official website. Download the game, play it, see for yourself.

As for me, now that I’m interested in visual novels, I kinda wonder what the deal is with that one about pigeons…

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