So I've never played a visual novel before. I never really saw the appeal. It seems weird calling them games at all. In reality you're reading a story and occasionally making choices which affect the story in different ways. In principle it doesn't sound bad, but especially with dating sims they just didn't really take my fancy. But I recently, after much convincing from Swoxx on the Giant Bomb PC Gaming Hub IRC, I decided to give Katawa Shoujo a go. I did it mostly so I could say "I played it, it was rubbish" to shut him up. But my experience with the game ended up being phenomenal. I didn't expect anything like it. Assuming we consider it a video game, it's one of the best gaming experiences I've ever had.
For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Katawa Shoujo is a freeware Japanese-style dating sim set in a disabled school, in which all of the potential love interests have a disability. Now bear with me, because when I first heard of the game I reacted badly too. Knowing that it originated from 4chan didn't help my initial impressions either. I promptly called it a "Disabled girl boning simulator" and filed it away in the darkest corner of my brain which I refer to as "things I wish I didn't know about" alongside Rapelay, squid porn and other similar monstrosities. It sounded horrible. A game in which the aim is to fuck one of 5 disabled girls. What kind of sick pervert would play that?
But after playing the game, I realize that my initial reaction was completely wrong. The game isn't about having sex with disabled girls. Nothing could be further from the truth, really. Yes, there are sex scenes but they are short and aren't the focus of the game. I'll get to them later. To sum up the story, Katawa Shoujo tells follows Hisao Nakai. In his final year of Japanese High School he suffers a heart attack and is diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, arrhythmia. After spending months in hospital, he is finally released but must attend a new school dedicated to the care and education of disabled students.
The first thing that struck me upon playing was the high production values. Coming from a team working across the internet, everything from the art to the writing and even the music was extremely impressive. While I haven't played any commercial games of this style, I imagine it compares favourably to them. As I went into the story, I only became more impressed. Firstly you have Hisao who is coming to grips with his newly diagnosed condition, and getting used to attending a school filled with students with all manner of disabilities. There's an awkwardness in his character that represents human nature. He is unsure how to react around these sensitive issues. He shows humanity and through time, grows more comfortable with the situation he finds himself in.
Onto the 5 potential love interests interests in the game, each with a different disability. It would be easy for a game based on dating disabled girls to make all of them frail and timid, with the protagonist coming along and rescuing them from falling into depression. But it completely avoids that trap. It handles the entire situation with tact and sensitivity. Each of the girls have adapted to their disabilities and it does not consume their life. They have all overcome them to the point where everything they do is second nature. The most defining aspect of each character isn't their disability, but their unique personality.
There is the bubbly & happy go lucky Emi, the shy & reserved Hanako, the weird tomboy Rin, the dignified & well spoken Lilly and the assertive & competitive Shizune. I don't feel a need to define them by their disabilities because their disabilities don't define them. They are unique and vibrant characters. On face value, some of the characters seem very one dimensional and stereotypical. That was a real concern when I wound up heading down the Emi storyline. I was expecting a very one dimensional and stereotypical cheery anime girl. But she opened up and became a far more diverse character, and I'm reliably informed that same is true of the other storylines too.
I don't want to talk about the details of the storyline because that could spoil it for someone, but Emi's story a profound effect on me. I became extremely emotionally attached to the the characters. The writing is great; It's probably slightly amateurish and maybe there is a little too much fluff, but regardless of the downfalls it does a great job of injecting emotion into the characters. It turned a handful of drawings into believable characters. Characters who I cared about. I'm not ashamed to admit that there was one point in the story that almost had me in tears. It was an emotional rollercoaster. Something which I most certainly wasn't expecting. I didn't think I could ever get that emotionally invested in a video game, yet I did.
Of course, Katawa Shojou isn't perfect. For a start, I greatly disliked the sex scenes. Two of them were OK. They were believable and seemed like situations that Hisao and Emi could find themselves in, and were reasonably tasteful. It still felt creepy to me. While the game insists that all the girls are over 18, Emi looks really young. But I could believe the situations and it wasn't too explicit, so it wasn't that bad. But there was another sex scene. The middle sex scene. It featured... lemon scented lube. It was totally weird and extremely out of place. Everything from the reasoning why they were doing it, to where they were doing it and their reaction during and after was downright weird. There was nothing "sexy" about the scene at all. I get that they are young and don't know what they're doing. It's supposed to be clumsy and mechanical. But it's not supposed to be like that.
I should note that it is possible to these scenes off in the settings if you wish. That seems like it might be a good option, although they didn't detract from my overall experience with the game. They are all short and certainly not the focus of the game. The other annoying thing in the game is Kenji, a comic relief character who lives in the dorm room next door to Hisao. Simply put, he's a complete nutter who keeps going on about a "feminist conspiracy" he believes in. At the best of times it's a bit annoying, and when you're emotionally invested in the story and you want to continue with it, Kenji showing up is the last thing you want. I found myself saying "fuck off Kenji" aloud during the game once or twice, and then frantically clicking past his dialogue, barely reading a word.
Overall it is a fantastic experience. It's something I wholeheartedly recommend that other people try. I've heard mixed reactions from other people. Some find it lackluster, others have a similar experience to me. Either way it's free, so you've got nothing to lose trying it out. Or you could judge it prematurely and never get to experience it at all, like I almost did.