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Wot I Think: Katawa Shoujo

internet culture nebula

The Internet's Leigh Alexander gave us her take on visual novel, Katawa Shoujo.

It’s with a mix of amusement and chagrin I admit my career as a game journalist might well have never taken off if it weren’t for the erotic visual novel genre. Some of my earliest writing explored the “weirdest” games I could find – bunny girl dating sims, teenage girl “training/raising” games, brutally sexual supernatural murder mysteries, and stuff like that, and I think my work was recognized fairly early on in my development as a writer just because I was pouring so many words onto stuff no one else would touch.

I put “weird” in quotes, by the way, because I actually tasked myself with understanding and explicating them. And when you do that, these games don’t actually seem all that weird. What else would a niche, shut-in audience of otaku want but a gameplay experience that blends anime porn tropes with emotional simulations of human drama – without any possibility of becoming stuck or frustrated, since visual novels are indeed more “story” than “game”?

The stories in visual novels commonly deal with deeply-damaged people, and commonly put the protagonist in the role of hero. Through his interaction with the game’s characters, he generally “rescues” one or many girls (more rarely, women) from herself, or from some more quantifiable aggressor. Common themes: Girl is too stubborn to let anyone love her, girl is terrified of interaction with others, girl is imprisoned by low self-esteem (or by some kind of demon bondage queen that presumably represents her low-self esteem, or something).

Eroge protagonists are usually and for obvious reasons a kind of cipher whose first-person inner monologue goes rather logically with the flow of the story, interspersed with occasional bursts of aggression – a lot of times you don’t even see his face, only a looming male shape attached to a penis during the sex scenes. At other times, his job as stand-in for the player is more direct, and he can be tasked with working out issues of his own by interacting with the girls in the story.

The result of this structure is you can have games where, say, a young detective learning to stick up for himself rescues a bunny maid by having really rough sex with her, which bestows upon her the emotional wherewithal to finally quit the abusive sex café where she’s been working, and the game ends with them falling in love and getting married and having kids. I mean, I just now made that up (as far as I know!), but that’s actually a plausible scenario for this kind of game.

And as silly as that sounds – how could that be erotic or meaningful to anyone, you wonder – I still maintain that those games quite reasonably and often fascinatingly knit with the needs of their audience, especially in the form’s modern state. Japanese anime and manga seems to be getting awful self-reflexive these days, with popular series in the past couple of years focusing on characters that are richly similar to its audience members rather than caricatures thereof, or incisively examining traditionally-popular genres.

Maybe nerdy superfans aren’t obsessed with their cartoons, comic books and games because they want escapism; some clearly want to use those things to work themselves out and to connect with others who feel the same. You can’t help but have a little compassion for that.

I heard the early criticism of 4 Leaf Studios’ Katawa Shoujo. It was slow, it was boring, it was weird teenage girl porno, it was disturbing fetish stuff. There was too much clicking and not enough to do, too much reading about stuff “no one” cares about. That’s what I expected to hear regardless of whether it was true or not. Most people don’t understand the genre and it isn’t for them. Visual novels are for people who like visual novels, and I am not especially convinced that anyone will ever make a Japanese-style eroge that will convert those who don’t.

The genesis of Katawa Shoujo is absolutely fascinating. It seems to me the developers of the game take care these days to distance themselves from 4Chan, but it’s in that culture – ground zero for the precise breed of misunderstood escapist trying to work themselves out that visual novels tend to address – the demand for Katawa Shoujo was birthed.

How did the Internet Hate Machine dig up such lavish compassion, erotically-charged as it is, for disabled girls? Rather than repeat myself, I’ll direct you to this bit I wrote back in 2010 – if you’re confused, horrified, don’t get why Katawa Shoujo exists or who would want to play it, et cetera, you should read it. The backstory’s very important.

Bearing in mind that the game is a crowdsourced fan project, it’s sort of incredible that it exists, is finished, in the first place. It’s a massive undertaking. And it’s absolutely, inarguably incredible how much polish there is on it. Overall, it’s not just “good for a fan project”, it has elements that would stand out in its genre if it were a commercial release. Whatever else, you’ve gotta give ‘em that.

The game also seems genuinely interested in exploring the challenges of relationships among people with compromising illnesses and disabilities (Hisao, the game’s protagonist, has a heart condition and feels uncertain whether it’s worth planning for his future after school). And it’s admirably complex – for example, the easy get would be to make the girls labor under predictable “alas, I’m broken, how can you love me” tropes, but they are more elaborate than that, affected more by the things they’ve lost or come to fear because of their trauma than by whatever physical shortcoming with which they live.

Nor does it fetishize the girls’ disabilities as one might expect; they are details of the girls’ bodies that are described with equal weight as would their eyes, hair, or any other trait. Hisao frequently struggles with his own reactions to disability, wrestling with whether to ignore the fact that, say, Rin has no arms and eats with her feet, or to treat it as nothing to avoid and ask her about it. Ultimately it’s a game about relationships between people who happen to be disabled and certainly not a “cripple girl sex sim” (nothing, Mom, just reviewing my cripple girl sex sim, how are you?).

I’m loath to say that might actually be the problem. Or part of it.

Because there’s certainly nothing erotic about it. There isn’t a lot of sex, and what there is induces hard cringe. Sex between teenagers is supposed to be awkward and confusing. Teens have no physical confidence, unrefined self-expression skills and no self-awareness, I get it. They make a hash out of it and it’s overly mechanical and even silly – so why would you want to render that literally in a game that’s supposed to be a fantasy, the way this game does? The anal scene Walker described in his impressions is even more ridiculous than it sounds: good thing Emi’s track captain is gay, because there’s flavored lubricant in the gym supply shed! Really?

The descriptions are too mechanical to be emotionally intimate, and too focused on function to be arousing to anyone. For example, I’m all for safe sex and everything, but I would hazard a guess that even when the staff of Planned Parenthood describe their sex fantasies, nobody pauses to describe the fetching, unwrapping and application of a condom the way Katawa Shoujo, in a jarring show of social responsibility, does. Like, go ahead, take advantage of the burned girl’s terror of abandonment and do her, just make sure you use protection!

In the most ruthless twist, the “erotic” CG is about the only time in the game that the art gets poor (except for the drawings of male characters, but that’s normal in the genre). It’s like the developers wanted to make something sexual, but were afraid to. Or didn’t know how.

Maybe I should back up; maybe Katawa Shoujo isn’t supposed to be a romantic fantasy. Or a sex fantasy. Maybe it’s supposed to be an interactive coming of age story… or relationship story… or… something. I don’t know. Katawa Shoujo doesn’t know what it wants to be, either. Perhaps that’s the product of being made by a collective, but it’s a fatal problem.
I just don’t see why anyone would be drawn to play an erotic novel about disabled girls if they wanted an agonizingly slow-paced, text heavy story about a guy adjusting to life at a private school and dating. I think Katawa Shoujo wanted so much to be moral, to be respectful of its subject matter, that it actually forgot who it’s for. I mean, I’ve been playing the thing for weeks, and I’ve played a million games like it, and I still can’t tell who it’s for.

And it pains me to say this. It kills me to say this. I wanted to be the one who would show up and defend this fascinating project that so many people spent years of their lives on, explain that detractors just aren’t the target audience, don’t “get” the genre. But I can’t.

On the macro level the characters have interesting, plausible narrative arcs, but they unspool in such excruciating and mundane detail that you won’t care by the time you get to the payoff – either the sexual one or the emotional resolution. “Too much reading” or “too much detail” is often a criticism that people who don’t like visual novels, which are about reading and details, levy at the genre. But this just isn’t good reading. They aren’t useful details. The prose is concrete-legged; it defies engrossment.

We’re also given no reason to care for Hisao, who regardless of whose path you pursue seems to attach to the female character literally out of a lack of knowing what else to do with himself. Background characters are unsettling, given grating “quirks” that make me wonder if the creators intended to imply that people with mental and social illness are being treated at the special school, too. Hisao bonds with girlfriends through jaw-droppingly dull and repetitive conversations and behaviors; runs at the track, visits to the nurse, trips to a teashop, shopping for groceries. Again and again. I mean, maybe the game wants to make a statement that those routines are… no, no.

It hardly even matters that the game gives you so few choices to branch the plot. Narratively it’s murderous. The story is bad. The sex is bad. Whether your reason for playing a disabled girl dating sim is you like dating sim stories, you like sex games, or you like disabled girls, you will not be salved. There is absolutely nothing pleasurable or compelling about Katawa Shoujo, save for the fact it exists.

Yet that’s no small thing, its existence, that it was born entirely from a strange internet culture nebula and the dogged effort of those devoted to bringing it to life. I can’t look at the hundreds of thousands of posts on the forum, fan works and art on message boards, I can’t look at how loved Katawa Shoujo and its characters are by those who made it possible and those who deeply wanted it to be born and say I’m not glad of its existence.

That it exists says so much about games as a medium of cultural expression that it doesn’t even really matter to me if the game is “good”. The internet made, lovingly, a game about romance with disabled girls. That’s so weird; that’s so wonderful.

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The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.