Last year there were a couple of games that brought up the question of what actually counts as a game. One of them shouldn't have, because it is - Modern Warfare 3 (the nuance of "un-game" is lost on the world, sadly). The other was To The Moon, which occasionally teetered on the edge of that which people were willing to tolerate. The debate is mostly unhelpful - it generally comes down to a person's expectations of the game, and those not being met. I found MW3 to fall far short of what I would expect of an FPS, and not fill that absence with anything new, meaningful or worthwhile, thus my condemnation. To The Moon replaced a perception of choice with wonderfully vivid narrative, deep characters, and an exploration of subjects poorly explored by any medium, let alone gaming. So where does that leave Katawa Shoujo?
It's a visual novel, a format with which I'm not overly familiar. But heck, I like a novel, and I like pictures, so let's see where this takes me. This is not a review, it's an account of my experience of playing the game/reading the novel.
Animated by some lovely hand-drawn Manga characters, super-imposed over cursorily photopshopped photographs, Katawa Shoujo wants to tell you a story. And it mostly wants you to sit and read it. It's a story about topics gaming pretty fundamentally ignores: disability and social awkwardness. And it's for that reason, and that the writing is seemingly of a decent standard, that I had the patience to keep on clicking for the first half hour or so. Then things slowed down. Here are my experiences.
After a good twenty minutes with the game, I've interacted twice. Once to choose whether to say something or not, that I imagine may have happened anyway. The second time given a three-part choice of what to ask a person, the game then refusing my choice and making that meaningless. I have, instead, read a great deal.
Even so, even though all I've done so far is click repeatedly on the screen to make the next line of written dialogue (or indeed the next ellipsis) appear, this isn't comparable with reading text or viewing something. The closest would be reading a comic, where I in essence physically "interact" with the book by turning the pages, and emotionally interact with the experience of the story. Except, were this a comic, it would never get away with just having the same image repeated for panel after panel.
But then, I'm playing a guy with chronic arrhythmia and congenital heart muscle deficiency, who is forced to restart his life in a boarding school for the disabled, after a heart attack at a very young age. His friends at the new school have various conditions, one seemingly extremely hyperactive, another deaf. And with a constant internal monologue from Hisao about his circumstances, it's a very introspective, underplayed narrative.
Underplayed, sadly, proves painfully true. The more I play, the less there appears to be to do, with this half-a-story being told at me while I click after every pause and sentence. And worse, those sentences quickly become far less worth reading. The interplay between the excitable Misha and the mute Shizune are pointlessly confusing, one invisibly signing to the other, both voices coming from Misha, but with the game seeming to make no effort to clarify any of it. Why I should care whether Hisao joins the student council or not is entirely beyond me, let alone the agonising length of the conversation about it. It spends more time making me read an argument about joining the council than it did introducing the heart attack, or the subsequent life-changing consequences.
And because of the meagre interaction I have - the need to constantly click to move the conversation forward - I can't even sit back and watch it happening, the auto-mode being too slowly paced even at the fastest settings. Instead I'm beholden to my role of clickmaster general, as the inane banter stretches out endlessly before me.
Oh, I haven't mentioned, have I? This is a dating sim.
After well over an hour of clicking, clicking, clicking this hasn't been revealed. Other than that every girl I've encountered seems to be very beautiful and flirtatious. Not in a cheap way, I should stress. The game is at great pains to stress the independence and confidence of all the girls you meet. But clearly you're standing in front of a line-up of girls to choose between, however it may be presented. That and the way their school uniforms are occasionally shown with their pants visible beneath their skirts.
My patience for the game really begins to run out when I'm party to an excruciatingly long conversation with an armless girl called Rin, with whom I'm mixing paints. And I don't care at all about any of it, because there's no reason to. Next I'm talking to a girl who stands on prosthetic running feet about our shared dislike of warming up before exercise. Or at least, I'm clicking. A conversation in the showers with the naked figure of the schoolboy in the dorm next to me, his modesty concealed by a fig leaf, about borrowing money is where I start clicking straight through the chat.
I would definitely have stopped by now. I've been clicking through conversations, taking in as much as flashes before my eyes and still entirely keeping up with the paper-thin plot. Good grief, the meticulous detail that goes into every tedious detail is agonising. Why would I ever care about Hisao's morning running routine for more than a sentence, let alone literally half an hour of conversations, looping endlessly around the same topics, hurting my will to live? Clicking and clicking and clicking, nothing happening, nothing of any meaning occurring, and then I see the horrendous words, "ACT 2". What? How many acts? Even if there are only two, this means I'm only halfway through this! Oh please no.
It's a visual novel. That's the justification. But it's also half-pretending to almost be a game, and I can judge it for that. AND I can judge it as a visual novel - I cannot imagine the comic version of this. It would be 900,000 pages of the same six drawings over and over. No one would surely want to read it that way, would they? So why this way? And why is it so many people have recommended this to us, apologising that yes, it's a 4Chan meme, but really, it's so much more than that.
Created by 4Chan, after they became obsessed by a sketch, it's been developed by a collection of internet communities under the name of Four Left Studios. And whether it's disability porn or an affectionate teen romance is up for grabs.
It's certainly ticking boxes marked "inspirational". For someone with the patience to tolerate its agonising detail and pace, this is a story about young people achieving beyond their disabilities, and heck, featuring disabled characters at all is a woefully rare occurance in gaming. And you know what else? Imperceptibly, and I really don't have any idea what it was that caused it to happen, something I did at some point caused this story to head in a particular direction. Because the guy just kissed one of the girls - one of five it's apparently possible to get into a relationship with.
And after speed-clicking through approximately 870 more scenes they're on a date, which is pretty cute. What's not so cute, it occurs to me, is the option in the menu to switch off adult content. Emi, the girl I have unwittingly picked, looks about 14. (She is in fact 18 according to the story.) This isn't going anywhere healthy. Clicking on any more of this sophomoric teen romance is going to make me slit my throat with the sharp end of my keyboard. Lines like,
"She pulls me back, nips at my lower lip, and reinitiates the embrace. Her tongue darts inside my mouth, exploring. I can feel a warmth spreading through my body as my heart begins to beat faster."
aren't doing my temperament any favours. And then it becomes just the worst sort of soft porn nonsense, with accompanying pictures. Including, in my game, a scene of meticulously described anal that neither enjoys.
In fairness, it then deviates back to exploring the relationship, the underlying issues, Emi's past, and so on. But it's mostly just using the dangled carrots of not telling you information it tells you it's not telling you, and I can think of no other motivation to persist. In fact, no, I'm done.
I refuse to say "it's not a game", because it is. It's just one where you don't get to do anything meaningful, as you're told a massively long story about not very much. And one I haven't the energy to persist with to its ending, let alone explore the other four stories it has to offer. That scale is unquestionably impressive, and it's obviously been a great deal of work. But I'm not sure I've gained anything from playing.
If you're after the thrill of teenage boobies, skip this. They're there, and they feel wildly inappropriate to be viewing (unless you're a teenager, I guess), but the sex is a minuscule element of the game, which is far more interested in telling you about the organisation of every character's sock drawer. And since I wrote that sentence, I finished the game. Which is telling. I just wanted to know how it ended, as frustratingly obvious as all of Emi's so-called secrets were. I guess I'd committed so much time to it all that I may as well. Of course, that's only one fifth of the game, which is both terrifying and impressive.
The game is free, and can be downloaded from here.