A little while back, I finished a game called Katawa Shoujo. The game is a free, open source visual novel developed by a small team called 4 Leaf Studios. The team came together to make this single game, and nothing else. It's a story about a boy who develops a severe heart condition and is transferred to a school for students with disabilities. The story centers on how he comes to terms with his own condition, and how he deals with his own personal feelings about other students' issues. The game sparked controversy over it's name, received praise for the respect it showed toward the topic, and was met with dismissive head shaking from people who would never touch it. I guess it was pretty easy to dismiss, though. A passing glance makes it come off as some sort of "cripple-fetish" game.
Now, I knew next to none of that when I picked it up. The game came and went at the start of 2012, two years before I stumbled upon its existence. Any conversation that had been had about it was over and done with, and I wasn't going to find it. I honestly can't even remember what pointed me in its direction, let alone what got me to download it and start it up.
I think that I've just been in a slump lately. Well, scratch that. I know that I've been in a slump lately. I've been cramming anime and video games into my skull in a desperate attempt to push everything else out of it. I assume that when I downloaded Katawa Shoujo, it was just supposed to be more crap that could keep me from having to be myself for a while. I wanted nothing more than to slip into the head of another person and stay there, and a "dating sim" seemed to be exactly what I was looking for.
I started it up with very little context, outside of a slightly dismissive attitude towards the visual novel genre in general. I had low expectations. This was a light and easy way to pull myself out of my life for a little while. Nothing more. It was shameful to be playing something like this, but I wasn't going to tell anyone. It would be a game I played, and then moved on from forever.
The game opened with quite a bit of text. In fact, that's kind of all there is to Katawa Shoujo. It surprised me how much I already enjoyed the writing, though. It's probably terrible, and I probably just have bad taste in writing, but I don't give a shit. I liked it. It was a guilty pleasure, anyways. Enjoying it didn't matter in the long run, so I could just let myself enjoy it.
I followed along, reading every single word, skimming over nothing. If I was going to pretend to be someone else, I wasn't going to half-ass it, goddammit. The first girl they introduced was not to my liking. At all. The girl was incredibly pushy and very forward, and as a low-conflict individual (read: antisocial) I wanted nothing to do with it. Then I saw a girl wander out of the classroom, avoiding eye contact at all cost. That piqued my curiosity. A character who doesn't want to be there. I figured that would probably be the path I would follow, but the game didn't want me to get there quite yet.
After a bit, I encountered my first real scene with said character. Her name was Hanako. Upon actually looking at her, it was obvious that she had some sort of severe scarring on her face. I had an idea of what the cause was. I had been there myself.
[I'm going to give a bit of a content warning here, the next paragraph is going to be a bit fucked up.]
You see, when I was very young, I was involved in an accident. A container of gasoline had been absentmindedly placed near the water heater in my home in the ghetto neighborhood where I lived. I was little. I didn't know what it was. I got into it. The next thing I know, I was in pain. My feet hurt. The room was red. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs. I remember pounding on the door. I remember running to the other end of the tiny room in a futile attempt to make the pain stop. I don't remember getting out of there. My mother pulled me from the flames and ran next door with me to call 911. I was apparently in shock. I asked my neighbor if I could watch cartoons, standing on horrifying, bloody legs. I don't remember that. I do remember being on an ambulance and asking the paramedic if I was riding on a firetruck. He told me yes, because that's what I wanted to hear. I was happy about that.
I had received third-degree burns on 17% of my body. I am a burn victim. The memories I just described to you are the earliest things I can remember. I have severe scarring on the lower half of my right leg, scarring on the tops of my thighs from the skingraft operation, and scarring in a few other places, too.
I'm one of the lucky ones who can hide the scars, but Hanako was not. She lived with the leering and staring her entire life. I only suffered that until I became smart enough to wear long pants instead of shorts (which admittedly, took me until seventh grade.) I used to just rock the scars, until I started getting ridiculed. Elementary school kids don't have a line. They're either going to make fun of you, or they're not. They don't care if it's wrong or right. They have an underdeveloped sense of morality. I get that. I forgave them a long time ago. That sort of thing stays with you though.
Later in the game, Hanako opens up to you a little bit about the accident she was in. Her house had burned down, and her family with it. Her mother's sacrifice was the only reason she was still alive. She never goes into a lot of detail, and she only ever brings it up because she feels bad for finding out about your own disability.
Hanako is a girl who has a very difficult time being in public. She prefers to be by herself, or with her only friend, a blind girl named Lilly. A girl who can't see the scars. Of course Hanako would drift towards her. Hanako can't deal with most people talking to her. Often, it freaks her out so much that she leaves the room in a hurry. She has very severe social anxiety. I watched Hanako's insane reaction to any kind of social situation and understood immediately. No one had ever interacted with her in a normal way her entire life. She was always being leered at, and uncomfortable silences followed her everywhere. I've been there. People start a conversation, notice the disfigurement, and in an attempt to save face they look away awkwardly. It's something I've seen countless times. It's a perfectly normal reaction, too. I can't expect anyone not to do that. Hell, I'm positive that I'd do it too, if I was in their shoes. Understanding it doesn't keep it from fucking with the way I interact with people, though.
I don't want to get into too much of what happens later in the story, but I connected with Hanako on a level that I wasn't prepared for. I escape uncomfortable social situations at the first sign of danger, and bring awkward silences with me everywhere. I frequently turn down social invitations because going out makes me tense. I have anxiety attacks. I never thought that Katawa Shoujo would not only address that, but address it well. I connected with the relationship she had with the main character, too. They were feeding each other's bad habits to the point where things got out of control. I've definitely been in a relationship like that. In fact, it ending was the cause of the depression that got me playing this game in the first place. Funny how that works out.
I just wanted to share how this game hit incredibly close to home for me. It touched on a subject that no other media I've experienced has managed to do effectively. I've never encountered a "scarred" character that isn't either brooding, angry, or the goddamn villain. Katawa Shoujo showed how scars leave other scars beneath the surface, without going into bullshit, whiny angst. There's never a point where Hanako spouts out a monologue about how bad it sucks, or how much it hurts inside. She's just got her issues, like everyone else does, and she's trying to live with them.
Just like me.