Katawa Shoujo (crudely translated into Japanese to mean “Disabled Girl”) is a visual novel, inspired by an idea that originated on 4chan, that centers around a main character finding love in a school full of disabled students. There are burn victims, deaf mutes, amputees, and blind folk all ready for you to start a relationship with them. And if you play your cards right, the two of you just might bang it out in the end.
…Now what part of that paragraph doesn’t sound like an awful, awful idea? First of all, you’ve got the obvious presence of 4chan lingering over the entire project, which is already enough to raise more than a few eyebrows. Then, there’s the whole “disabled students” concept that begs to be abused by such a community. Last, but certainly not least…Sex? This game lets you go after disabled high schoolers and have sex with them? This whole project reeks of poor taste and potentially bad press.
Imagine my frustration when I came to the realization that I was actually enjoying myself playing it…
The idea of portraying disabled people in a game sounds like navigating a minefield in terms of bad taste. However, this title pulls it off in the most graceful way I could have imagined. The disabilities are there, and are very much real. However, they are presented realistically, rather than tossed in as fetish fuel for Internet dwellers. Almost everything in this game is presented with the most honest and best intentions. Almost everything…(more on that later)
Being a visual novel, there are really only two things to really talk about in terms of the entire game. You’ve got the pictures and the character designs (you know, the visual part), and you’ve got the storyline (the novel, if you weren’t catching on).
The “visual” side of things can be summed up in a brief little paragraph. Everything looks nice, which is good, considering the fact that you’ll be staring at the same backdrops and character stills for much of the game. The scenery is pleasant to look at, and the different characters are all distinctive and well detailed. Also, the occasional still-shot image of an event can be a welcome break from the usual street corners and classrooms. At least, most of the time, anyway (again, more on that later).
I suppose I can give a quick shout-out to the game’s soundtrack as well. Not many of the tracks are particularly “mind-blowing,” but the pleasant ambiance of piano and acoustic guitar never really loses its charm, and there are usually more than a few songs that get stuck in your head after you get familiar with them. Overall, a solid job was done by the musicians who composed the soundtrack to a game that was never intended to make any money. Kudos to them!
Anyway, on to the nitty-gritty “novel” part of Katawa Shoujo…
The game starts off with a romantic (and somewhat clichéd) meeting between two love-struck teenagers on a cold winter afternoon. The main character, Hisao, is shocked to discover that his secret crush secretly loves him back. Before things get to “D’aaaawww”-y, he promptly begins to have a heart attack and fall to the ground. The word “awkward” strangely doesn’t seem to fit this scenario…
Turns out Hisao has a rare condition known as arrhythmia, which causes his heart to beat irregularly when agitated. After spending months in the hospital, and losing his new “high-school sweetheart” in the process, Hisao is recommended to a school that is tailor made to suit people like him. Yamaku High, a boarding school for disabled students, is waiting for him upon his discharge.
And that’s pretty much where things start. From there, the player is prompted with choices that determine whom the main character wants to spend more time with (and potentially date). These choices are the only instances of gameplay you’ll ever find. It is called a “visual novel” after all, and that means you’re pretty much just going to be reading a book. There just happen to be moving pictures there to keep things interesting.
What really impressed me about this game was how well characters were portrayed as human beings. Nothing is over exaggerated, and everything seems real and believable. For instance, when Hisao is introduced to some of the characters, the first thing he immediately notices is their disabilities (which is only natural). Then, as he gets to know them more, the characters’ handicaps become less of a defining characteristic and more of a simple side note.
And this isn’t done in some kind of obvious, lovey-dovey “I’ve learned it’s what’s on the inside that counts” kind of way. Instead, it was more of a steady progression that occurred behind the scenes while I played. As I conversed with other characters, and learned about their personalities, their values, and their general ways of life, I eventually found myself realizing that I had completely forgotten about the fact that the person I was talking to didn’t have any arms. Eventually, I didn’t even give a second thought to the idea of having a conversation in sign language with a deaf student. To go from, “Oh man, look at what’s wrong with them!” to, “Wow, what an interesting person!” That is character development.
That’s not to say that the disabilities are completely ignored in this game, however. Throughout the entire story, each character is presented with challenges that are brought on by his or her specific handicap. The struggle to live a normal life is present, to be sure. However, it’s how the characters confront these struggles that makes for an engaging read. Each person’s experience is inspiring and heartwarming. At least, to a certain extent…
…And then things start to get weird…
Truth be told, there is one aspect of this game that prevents me from recommending it to everyone I know. One sole thing that manages to put a damper on the entire experience. Considering all of the things I’ve praised about this game so far, it’s a shame that I’m going to have to berate Katawa Shoujo’s uncomfortable portrayal of sex.
Now, to be fair, the game does warn you about adult content several times. It even gives you an option to disable it, if you so desire to. I can appreciate that. However, I was advised by numerous sources to keep the adult content enabled, as it provided story points that were integral to character development.
Honestly, I think I just fell for a really cruel joke.
During the sex scenes, with adult content enabled, you see everything. I’m serious. Think of the things you’d expect to see during actual sex, and it’s there, in all its “glory.”
Now, I’d like to think that I’m not a prude who thinks that anything that involves intercourse is “naughty” and “wrong,” but I can’t help but feel uncomfortable when I witness these gratuitous acts of “love.” The way it’s written, you can tell that it was clearly meant to be erotica. Lines like “I fired off inside her” and “The way her bottom felt against my crotch was pleasing” are cringe-worthy at best. They completely contrast the feel of the rest of the game. Not to mention, they come up rather suddenly. You go from, “She’s kind of a nice friend” to, “I wonder if I actually like her…” And then, BOOM! Sex.
The player is left bewildered by this sudden change of events, as should be expected. The shift is jarring, to say the least. And what does the player get out of it in terms of meaningful storyline? What do these gratuitous scenes add to the development of an already charming character?
Not a single damn thing.
The only thing the sex scenes talk about is the sex. That’s it. It goes into excruciating detail as to what kind of faces the girl is making (as it shows you them) and what kind of physical pleasures that both people are feeling. Next to none of it has anything to do with tspan>
For me, the sex in this game only served to degrade the depth of the characters that was so painstakingly built up. The moment I saw an image that slowly panned up across a character’s bare front side as she looked at the screen with a coy little smile, I knew exactly what was happening. This character, and these scenes, were my reward for investing my time into the game, and for making the right choices.
Once I came to that realization, I felt downright dirty and ashamed. I spent hours getting to know a character. I became interested in learning her morals, and I was able to look past her disabilities in order to see a true, realistic, down to earth person. This character had a heart, and a personality that was interesting and engaging.
Then, during the sex scene, she’s reduced to a slab of meat. A trophy for the player to ogle at for a job well done. When everything’s finished, I can’t help but think less of the character, as she was portrayed in such a lustful, emotionless fashion. At that point, she might as well have been a nameless porn star. It felt wrong.
To be fair, the game does pick up with its “heartwarming and inspiring” vibe after the sex is done and out of the way, but at that point I still have a bad taste in my mouth until I make it to the credits. Not exactly the best way to make a lasting impression.
For Those of You Too Lazy to Read:
Katawa Shoujo is a great game that accomplishes the feat of presenting disabled people in a realistic and tasteful way. The character development will keep you engaged throughout much of the storyline, but the sex scenes can really put a damper on the entire experience. I highly advise that you disable the adult content before getting too invested in the characters.