My (Very) Personal Experience With Katawa Shoujo

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Edited By generic_username

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.

The cure for loneliness.
The cure for loneliness.

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.

No Caption Provided

[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.

No Caption Provided

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.

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Video_Game_King

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The first girl? You mean Misha? Or Shizune? Play the rest of the game, dude. It's so worth it! I've been replaying it recently, and I had to reevaluate Shizune's route in my ranking or whatever. It's very barely on Hanako's heels.

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#2  Edited By generic_username

Yeah, it's hard to go back to after the experience I had with it, but I do plan on going back at some point. I really dislike Shizune, but I suppose I could give her a shot. It'd be last, though. The next path I plan on trying is probably the running girl. (I put off posting this blog for so long that I forgot a lot of names.)

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Video_Game_King

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You mean Emi? Her route's the worst! Hisao's a real dick in that route. Also, sweat. Tons and tons and tons of sweat.

Also, hooray for people using my screenshots.

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#4  Edited By generic_username

They were effective. I'm probably going to add at least one more at some point in the future, but I couldn't decide what and where, and I wanted to get this fucking thing posted already. I'm a terrible procrastinator, and that would have just been another excuse not to post it.

Also, here's hoping they fix the site so I can actually post this to the Katawa Shoujo forums.

EDIT: I did add another one, but I'm still not totally happy with it's location. I think it belongs there, but the way it offsets the text doesn't work for me, but I don't like it just being at the bottom of the post either. I need to figure out layouts that look good and shit if I'm going to keep posting every month or so.

EDITEDIT: I think it's fine now, actually. Don't know why I feel the need to keep posting about it.

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Kovie

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Very nice write-up. Your personal anecdotes are quite profound, but I'm really glad I could read them.

I'm at 4-5 hours into the game, not really enough time to see any of the character stories unfold, but it's been pretty interesting as such.

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I'm glad you enjoyed it. Let me know how it goes when you finish one of the character stories!

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Not especially sure why it took me this long to wrap the game up, but here I am. Katawa Shoujo is really interesting. The source material alone is grounds for some really unsettling emotional themes and moments, and what it does with that material proved really effective and resonated with me quite a bit. It doesn't always feel like it's going in the right direction when it's veering sharply into anime hijinks and its sleazier moments (Hisao kind of sucks), but it still works.

So I ended up on the Hanako story path, something I wasn't actively trying for -- infact I wasn't even sure what character branch I was most leaning towards before it showed me -- and really liked the character development it had and generally the way everything played out. I have a lot of social anxiety, sometimes alarming amounts of it, but Hanako is a character who is near incapable of functioning on a basic level in almost any social situation. Coming closer to understanding her state of mind, and seeing her improve as a person only to then relapse into a worse state creates genuine moments of appreciation and disconnect. Once her motivations are revealed somewhat, as well as how they tie into the main character's perspective and treatment of her, the whole picture becomes a pretty disturbing one. The two alternate endings touch on this, and are maybe some of the most interesting scenes, provided the context of the more complete ending. The whole arc was really good, it managed to stir me up more than a little on numerous occasions, leaving me in situations where I avoided it for awhile.

I think what I saw could have benefited from being at least a little more concisely written, especially for a game featuring several entirely too long scenes centered around Kenji, its terrible comic relief character. But I'm left with a lot of excitement about trying the other storylines; it's difficult for me to imagine how any of the others will play out (Rin is the one I'm most curious about, but the rest share a very similar lack of expectation). Maybe if/when you continue with the game, we can share notes on it, or something, assuming there is much to be said.

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#8  Edited By generic_username

@kovie: Yeah, I'm really glad they didn't just stick to "hey, you magically fixed all her problems just by being there for her!" They instead played with that expectation, and made the main character deal with the consequences of having the expectation that he could "fix" her in the first place. I'm really glad that she called him out on how he was always walking on eggshells around her. She didn't enjoy being treated that way, and trying to "fix" her implies that he saw her as something that needed fixing. They had to come to terms with that broken aspect of their relationship before they could actually get anywhere. There's also that bit about how they had to quit feeding each other's bad habits that I really took to heart. Hisao was feeding Hanako's anxiety issue by walking on eggshells around her, and Hanako was letting him use "helping her" as his excuse to forget about his own stresses. Neither of them realized it until things got bad. I thought that this route was handled excellently, not to mention the scarring-related stuff I already talked about.

I definitely plan to play more of it, and would be cool with talking about it in more detail when I do. Besides, if I don't, @video_game_king will have my head.

Also, I have to admit, I'm too fucking terrified to go back and see the "bad ending" of that route. I don't know if my heart will ever be ready for it.

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But the two bad endings are perfectly connected with what you just brought up! Granted, they aren't clean and neat endings, that much can be assumed pretty easily and it would be fair. They're both a little fucked up, but dwell on interesting sides of the character, and they're pretty small vignettes.

Both of them can be triggered if you ignore the advice from Lilly about being overprotective, and determined by which of the two choices you made last (I think that made sense). But by all means, don't force yourself into it, I'm sure it's not an easy move.

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@kovie: I might go back and try it after running through the other characters, as I suspect I may not be as weirdly emotionally attached to Hanako at that point. (Hopefully.)

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#12  Edited By generic_username

@kovie:

video_game_king is doing a pretty awesome screenshot blog right now, I encourage you to check it out!

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@generic_username: Thanks for the heads up, I'll have to look it over sometime (and get back to the game as well, because man, I haven't kept up).

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#14  Edited By generic_username

@kovie: I haven't either, but this screenshot blog is pushing me to do it, which is nice. It looks like he's starting on Hanako's route (though it might not be the case) so we may still have some time to catch up.

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#16  Edited By AndrewB

The only burn scar I have is probably the dumbest and most boring story one could think of, but at least it's a trivial thing compared to what you went through. My mother had some pretty extensive burns from her childhood in a house fire, so at least I have a slightly better frame of reference.

Yes, Katawa Shoujo is one of the shining examples of what a visual novel can be, rather than the drivel that most people associate with the medium coming out of Japan. Yes, it's a dating sim, but the topics it covers are eye-opening in making you think about life from another perspective, and the dating aspect is mostly tastefully done (or at least you can understand the late-teen awkwardness on top of the already awkward situations the school is projecting).

I'd also recommend different playthroughs for each of the girls, although none of them may connect quite so personally - and in my experience with KS, nothing is going to be quite so affecting as your "first love" anyway.

@video_game_king said:

The first girl? You mean Misha? Or Shizune? Play the rest of the game, dude. It's so worth it! I've been replaying it recently, and I had to reevaluate Shizune's route in my ranking or whatever. It's very barely on Hanako's heels.

I'm sure it's because you've finally come around on Misha.

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#17  Edited By Video_Game_King
@andrewb said:

@video_game_king said:

The first girl? You mean Misha? Or Shizune? Play the rest of the game, dude. It's so worth it! I've been replaying it recently, and I had to reevaluate Shizune's route in my ranking or whatever. It's very barely on Hanako's heels.

I'm sure it's because you've finally come around on Misha.

I did until Hanako's route.

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#18  Edited By finaldasa  Moderator

Great write up. I also had a strangely deep experience with this game when it came out. I find it hard to replay the game even, to see the other endings and character interactions.

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I did until Hanako's route.

Too many ways to interpret that one, so I'll go with:

Just opposite sides of a civil war. Plus Shizune is a poor influence.

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#21  Edited By generic_username