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"Katawa Shoujo": Ha Ha! I Touched Your Heart!

There are some elements of the critical process I never really cop to. Except in rare cases, for instance, I try not to let the amount I’ve watched of a given genre or medium influence my critical eye. I also try to go into the review with an open mind, neither expecting it to impress me nor assuming it will let me down.

However, there was no way that was going to be the case for Katawa Shoujo. I remember many years ago when, on the anime forum of a certain imageboard, a stray page from a doujinshi sparked the imagination of its users. The page contained a semi-sarcastic proposal for a dating sim or visual novel about a school for disabled students, and for some reason, this resonated with a lot of people. Initially, it was probably for all of the wrong reasons, but eventually, a team formed to make this a reality.

This is normally where the story ends. Countless forums, big and small, have pitched fan projects like this, and nothing ever really comes out of them. Yet, here we are today, with a complete visual novel with 5 routes, and though I haven’t 100 percent completed the game, what I’ve worked through is actually quite good.

Yes. I wrote what you thought I wrote.

Katawa Shoujo is really good. I found it to be engaging, both philosophically and emotionally. This is where expectations come in, because the last thing I expected was to come to that conclusion. After all, this is the fan project that originated on a forum that is still so intense that I actually can’t mention it by name under toonzone’s rules of conduct. I might have expected too little, rose-tinting my vision. Oops.

Okay, from here on out, there are spoilers. It’s the only way for me to really explain in detail why I enjoyed the game.

I first played through the game by following my gut. I made the decisions I would make when faced with the same situation, and maybe that’s the other point where I lose my objectivity. The medium’s interactive nature may give me a different sense of ownership than usual. This is especially since Katawa Shoujo is the first visual novel I’ve ever actually finished a route on. I don’t have a lot of experience with the medium, so my positive attitude toward the game could just be a first time high.

Making matters worse, I started the game by identifying with the male lead, Hisao Hikai. His issues with a congenital heart defect may be an order of magnitude worse than my high blood pressure, but the remedies–exercise, medication, clean living–overlap. He’s also similarly introspective and bookish, yet not unwilling to tease his friends.

Thus, when I made the choices I would make in his situation–suck it up and exercise to stay alive–I ended up on the Emi route of the game. At first, I felt it might be a little dull. I have never really been that sporty myself, and I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone as physically active as Emi. Soon though, it resonated on a really unexpected level. Emi’s a forward character, and that forwardness made me recall my own dating history, to the limited extent that I’ve had one. Emi’s confession of love, which happened without Hisao’s prompting, mirrors my experiences. Seeing myself so directly reflected in the game really dumbfounded me. I’ve listened to enough late night advice shows on talk radio to know that people apparently get into habits, and that’s why they always date a certain type of person. However, to have followed my habits in a game and hit similar results to my own experiences defies description. I truly began to question whether I was just looking for a subconscious excuse to buy into the game, or whether it was so adeptly written that it had captured real experiences and patterns of human interaction.

Either way, I pressed on with Emi’s route, and I was repeatedly faced with lines I’d either said myself or had said to me. It wasn’t a regular slice of life, it was a slice of my own life. Sure, there were some dramatic differences, but that’s offset by other parts of the storytelling and characterization that feel like facsimiles of the good times and bad times I’ve had myself. Most realistically, Emi’s behavior in regards to coping with personal loss is something I’ve both seen in myself and in the people who I have loved. Seeing her throw herself into her running, even when it’s self-destructive as she pushes it to far, brought up a lot of old memories. That weighed on me, and those experiences looped back into the game play. I made certain choices precisely because I had been there before, and so I knew instinctively when I was heading towards a good or bad end.

That is a really weird place for a visual novel to take you, and it forces a lot of introspection. I eventually wondered if I could be properly objective as at all. Like I said, I hadn’t started from an objective place.

So, how could I get a clear view of the game? I certainly wanted to write a review about Katawa Shoujo now, precisely because the work had resonated with me at least. The part of the solution came up in a thread about the game on the same unmentionable forum–a complete flow chart of the games’ choices. This took my decision making out of it except in regards into which route to mechanically answer and pass. I didn’t know which to clear until I talked to some friends about it, most of who seemed to feel that the Rin route was awkward.

Tutorial on screen, coffee at my side, I set about mechanically clearing a path to Rin’s route. I blasted through the first act, until I hit Rin’s path for the summer festival in act one. Now, I know fireworks are a very typical date activity, but that was the start of what was going to be yet another route that forces a certain degree of self-reflection. I probably should have expected it since Rin’s an artist, and I’m a musician. However, time and time again, I was connecting with her as a character. Like her, I’ve been off on the same tangents, and the gonzo nature of this review is probably some evidence of that. Her need to create because that’s the way she expresses that which she can’t verbalize was very familiar to me. At the same time though, Hisao’s character, which is quite different on the Rin route as opposed to the Emi route, was emotionally resonant as well. I’ve been down in that hole of not knowing what to be for the person or even yourself. The more objective play style did let me keep some distance, but ultimately not a lot. Lines like “all I ever was afraid of is your kindness,” should read as fake and maudlin, but when you’ve heard those lines said to you in real life, it’s hard to not praise the game’s writing. It might not have been graceful, but that’s kind of the point: life isn’t graceful by default either.

When I really step back, I can maybe pick the story and characterization apart a little, but it’s a bit difficult. Even the more flamboyant side characters that are almost little more than comic relief have a certain charm about them, and they have fragments of reality in their personality. That alone would’ve made it refreshing. I mean, while I’ve never really played a dating sim or visual novel until Katawa Shoujo, I’ve watched enough anime based off them to know that the characterization in the routes I’ve played buck the tropes in some significant ways. It’s also hard to find fault in the game creator’s approach to the character’s disabilities. While the game certainly brings these elements into the story in some ways, it’s not what emotionally defined the character necessarily. There are deeper things in play if you can get that far in the game.

I suppose it has highs and lows at the technical level. The first act is a bit awkward, and while that does reflect what it’s like on your first week at a new school, the flow feels weird early on by any measure. The background art is photographs with photoshop filters–a grand cheat for sure, but the story quickly distracted me from it. The character art, while insanely sharp for a fan-made, budgetless production, isn’t consistent. It’s really, really close most of the time, though. The animated elements, though sparsely provided, are expertly done. You’d have never guessed you’d get that in a fan made project, yet, there they were. I’ve seen animated series where people collected checks that didn’t look as good as Katawa’s animated segments. Oh, and since we are toonzone, and we are PG-13, I think I can say the following: the game works just fine with the adult-rated content turned off, which make its inclusion feel like a hangover from the game’s roots in some ways. I have also heard that some routes are a little more banal than others, and that ultimately, the lack of obvious tropes to cling to may make it so hard for a wide audience to identify with the game that you could play every route and leave disappointed, even if you like this style of presentation.

Well, until that last paragraph, I had written almost nothing but sugar here, and that’s pretty impressive for something that put me into an introspective fugue for part of the past week. I’m holding off on the other routes almost specifically because I have things I need to do other than feel like a tool for things I have done in my past. Except, at the same time, it’s been really liberating and inspiring to play Katawa Shoujo. I’m also setting it aside for a bit because it’s given me new perspective on myself. It was therapeutic in that sense, and I don’t see how I couldn’t recommend at least playing through one route, but do yourself a favor, and play it blind. If nothing else, that’s intrinsically exciting and fun.

It’s not my fault though if you’re crying and smiling at the end though.

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