I first stumbled across the existence of Katawa Shoujo about a year ago when it was still in development (Lord knows how this happened, it’s not like I post or even lurk on 4chan). Sounded interesting enough, so I bookmarked its site and forgot about the whole thing until a few days after Christmas, when I found the link for it once again and discovered that it was actually finished and would be coming out in a manner of days. “Pretty cool,” I thought, knowing almost nothing about its origins or just how widespread the anticipation for it actually was. Needless to say, when lengthy reviews singing its praises started popping up on anime blogs left and right only a few days after it was first available for download, I realized that it was officially a BFD.
Truth be told, it’s been a few months since I last touched this game and I really don’t know if I’ll be coming back to it for much more or not. I guess after playing through two routes to completion, the novelty of it wore off for me. That probably sounds like a harsh dismissal of both the game and its entire genre as a whole, but I don’t mean it as such (and it says more about me than it does about Katawa Shoujo). I mean, I’d say the same thing about RPGs, but that doesn’t mean I think they suck or anything. I just don’t have the patience, time or curiosity to play through them anymore.
Katawa Shoujo was my first hands-on experience with a visual novel — to be honest, I don’t know what makes a “visual novel” different from a “dating sim” or if they’re just different terms for the same thing, the former being a more respectable descriptor, for sure — which I was already familiar with thanks to Genshiken, Welcome to the NHK and a few other titles in which they play a prominent role. So I knew what to expect for the most part, and true to form I wasn’t too surprised by the way the story unfolded and how the characters were introduced. But I was taken aback by how much thought was put into the entire project, with everything from the art and the music to the writing and characterization surpassing my expectations.
The very existence of the game is proof that there are Western otaku who live and breathe this stuff, honestly appreciate these kind of games and understand the language and reliable conventions of them, and wanted to contribute something worthwhile to their lineage. And the overwhelmingly positive reception it received within the Western otaku-sphere was a sure sign that they succeeded. With so many players banking on the promise that the game was going to deliver big, maybe that was a forgone conclusion? I really don’t know how to judge it, myself. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting and, for being the fantasy that it is, grounded in reality than any of the visual novels I’ve seen portrayed in anime or manga.
The creators have already been repeatedly raked over the coals for their choice of a title for this game, so I won’t pile on them anymore for what they’ve already admitted was a poor decision. And it’s unfortunate that they saddled themselves with that mistake, because the rest of the game is nothing but considerate and thoughtful in its treatment its characters and the debilitating conditions* that they deal with. This seemed to take a lot of bloggers by surprise, many of which seemed honestly shocked that the game turned out to be something more than mere amputee porn or disability paraphilia for ogling otaku. Most reviews were emphatically positive, but a lot seemed to either (A) praise the game for overcoming the low moral/thematic standards set by most other visual novels or (B) imply that the game would naturally attract ignorant and misguidedly devious-minded players, but was effective enough of a teaching tool to “correct” their outlook, if given a few hours’ time (a nice way to write a review while staking out the moral high ground for yourself). In short, a lot of reviews came out that read like this (click the picture below for legible text):
But outside of the creators of Katawa Shoujo, the reception it received seemed mired in confused attitudes and beliefs about both the medium and the subject matter. Yes, visual novels are a legitimate platform for telling meaningful, heartfelt stories. But, most are just fap material. But, not this one! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if it was. Etc. Similarly, the stunning conclusion that some of the most vocal fans of the game reached after playing it — that these girls aren’t freaks — will hopefully plant a seed of empathy and respect in some players that will carry over into their real-life encounters with others (this sounds totally naive on my part but I honestly believe there’s potential for some good here). What makes me squeamish about these kind of circuitous conclusions is the necessary standpoint of prejudice or ignorance that someone would have to come from beforehand for such epiphanies to have any meaningful consequence. At least their hearts are sort of in the right place, or at least getting there.
But hey, why should I care about this and who am I to say what the right way to enjoy a game is? It’s like I’m back in high school and banging my head against the wall because too many kids are listening to Live or STP and don’t even know what real alternative rock is, man. I should just be thankful for this game’s existence because it’s pretty much the only piece of media in 2012 I can even think of that focuses on characters with disabilities. Is there a single character on television now that’s blind? Hearing impaired? Would a character with missing limbs or third-degree burns ever make it past the test audiences that shows are surely wrung through before airing? In our age of competitive reality TV and fashion/makeover shows, should we be surprised that nothing short of total physical perfection is demanded and portrayed throughout the rest of our media? Games and television aren’t “real life” but they’re certainly a reflection of the dog show that we all live in. It’s probably worth taking notice and paying a little respect whenever one bothers to break from the herd and show a less glamorous side of life that people won’t necessarily want to see. Not that Katawa Shoujo isn’t glamorous. It wouldn’t be a visual novel if it weren’t.
*I don’t claim to be an authority on what qualifies as a “disability” and what doesn’t, so I don’t want to offend anyone who would disagree with my use of the term. So here’s a better piece written by a few Yamaku-elligible authors who know a thing or two more about this stuff than I do.