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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Compound Backlog Increase - Issue 2


Okay, here's what happened: instead of writing about the Mass Effect 3 demo last night, I stayed up finishing Lilly's story in Katawa Shoujo.  I had the time to stick to my schedule and do a double post about Touhou Tonari and ME3, but I can write about those pretty much any time I please.  On the other hand, I'd rather write about Katawa Shoujo now than later, since I might forget important things about what struck me as I finished the game.

So I think I might as well jump into this one.  Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in the magical land of 4chan, a land known to the rest of the Internet as a home to anarchy, trolls, and exceedingly strange people who say incredibly strange things and post singularly strange pictures, there was a man named RAITA.  He was not a writer, but an artist, and he drew this picture:
It was a picture of a bunch of cute girls with physical disabilities.

It proposed that a romantic visual novel about disabled girls might be pretty neat.

For reference, a visual novel is a novel that plays out in illustrated scenes with text boxes, and occasionally prompts you to make a choice that will affect how the rest of the novel goes.

Naturally, the people of the magical land of 4chan thought this was the greatest idea ever.

Fortunately, so did a bunch of people who actually knew how to write, and had the initiative to turn this idea into a reality.

So, Katawa Shoujo is an interactive romance novel about disabled high school students in Japan as developed by people who organized on what is widely considered the place where the internet goes to die.

If this sounds like the worst idea ever, you're not the only one.  However, if you want to read about someone talk about the idea of a visual novel about disabled girls at length without having actually played the game, there are god knows how many people that have already done so.

Here's the thing: I loved Katawa Shoujo (or rather, the one path I've played so far), but if I want to talk about why it's good, I feel like I first have the burden of having to show that it's not horribly misogynistic and awful, but I don't want this to become an apology in the greek sense of the term.  There are lots of those too.  Fortunately, part of why it's good is also the reason why it's not misogynistic.

See, if the main character were a blank template for the player to insert him or herself into, and if the novel were structured so that it was a game with the objective being to date one of the girls, that would be horribly misogynistic, since that would be making the characters gameplay elements instead of characters, elements to be manipulated towards an end.  Fortunately, neither of those are true.

The main character of Katawa Shoujo is not the player, it's Hisao Nakai, a senior in high school who was living a perfectly normal life...until his previously dormant arrhythmia caused him to have a heart attack.  His previous life gets unceremoniously cut off as he finds himself in a hospital, taking medication every morning and evening to stay alive, his friends' visits stopping, and ultimately, unable to return to his old school for health reasons.  He's set adrift in the unfamiliar world of Yamaku High School, a boarding school for people with physical disabilities.  He does not know how to handle himself there, and in the distance, the prospect of what to study when he graduates looms.  He's good at science, and he has a natural curiosity about the world, but other than that, he's anchorless.  The people that he meets at Yamaku will change him in the coming months, and he will realize many things about himself and the world around him.

If this doesn't sound like a self-insert character to you, good.  Hisao has his own, distinct worries, personality, and motivations that come through no matter what choices you make.  No matter what you do, it's in character for Hisao, not the player.

This brings me to the second point.  Like all visual novels, you are occasionally presented with choices of what to do.  It would be unfair of me to try and compare how choices work here to how they work in other visual novels, because I haven't played any other visual novels.  However, I can say this: choices in Katawa Shoujo are never petty things like "do I say sorry or slap her in the face," but more realistic and well considered choices where a real person might have genuine indecision as well.  It's not so much about playing a game as it is choosing which of these novels you want to read.  You read Katawa Shoujo, not play it.  It's a novel, and I will approach it as such.

Okay, now the obligatory apology is out of the way,

Pictured to the left is Lilly Satou.  It was her story that I read.  She's an 18 year old girl attending Yamaku high school.  Her family is affluent, but as of the start of the novel, she hasn't seen them in quite some time.  They live in all the way in Scotland, and she spent several years living with her older sister, Akira, before attending Yamaku.  She's a very polite sort, and her poised demeanor and tendency to worry about others more than perhaps she should has made her somewhat of a mother figure to the rest of her class, and to Hanako Ikezawa, her best friend.  Yet, it becomes clear through her story that even though she is liable to worry about others, she is very reticent about sharing her own concerns with others, even with those she most cares about.  Despite her air of maturity, she admits, in the end, to being rather foolish about that.

She's also completely blind, something that she has learned to live with quite well.  She is not uncomfortable with having to rely on others, but she'll poke fun at you if you for a moment try and pity her for it.  She doesn't like it when people worry about her, which creates a nice dichotomy when she inevitably starts worrying about others, and fails to share her own.

She's a well thought out and realistic character, and the fact that she's blind, while a factor in her character, does not define it.  However, it does bring out certain aspects of her character in interesting ways, and creates for some very effective situations.  For instance, walking to town one day, Hisao had a heart murmur.  She cannot see Hisao, only hear him in pain.  The subtext here is never explicitly stated, but how would you feel if something were happening to someone you cared about, and you couldn't see what's happening?

Lilly would seem to fall very loosely into the "yamato nadeshiko" archetype.  She's well mannered, tall, kind, can cook, and would be considered by the standards of another age to be an "exemplary woman."  This, of course, is very much deconstructed over the course of the story as it becomes clear that she's not a perfect woman: she's a normal person with her own needs and motivations who's really almost as lost as Hisao himself sometimes, only she has a hard time showing it.  It's also worth mentioning the dichotomy of the "yamato nadeshiko" character being a tall, blonde, blue-eyed, half-Scottish girl.  Perhaps this is part of the game's message about outward traits not defining one's personality?  Only in animeland, I guess.

She was the subject of the story, but Katawa Shoujo is not a dry, super serious character study.  It is populated with not only the other girls, but also side characters that give Yamaku high life.

First, all of the dateable characters in Katawa Shoujo fall loosely into genre archetypes.  If they're as well realized as Lilly, I have no doubt they're more than they appear to be.  Lilly's best friend is Hanako Ikezawa, a girl with severe social phobia and burns down all of one side of her body.  Hanako is also a dateable character, but since the two are friends, their paths are largely interconnected such that you find out a bit about her as well.  She would at first seem to fall under the "reticent bibliophile" archetype.  As someone with a poster of Yuki Nagato above his bed at this very moment, I'm quite familiar with the archetype, familiar enough to know that Hanako really doesn't fall so neatly into the tropes as it would initially appear.  I haven't played her path yet, but I'm interested to.  Even if this is the sort of game to have characters that fall into tropes, it's not the sort of game that would let that get in the way of having interesting and compelling characters.  Everyone here follows real world logic, and all that entails.

Rin is another one of the dateable characters.  She's an artist with no arms and a of personality.  She has a very dry, ludicrous sense of humor, and seemingly no connection with the outside world.  She wanders out into the town at night once and stands on a corner.  She doesn't know why, she just does.  ...I think I know Rin.  I think quite a few of us have known at least one Rin in our lives.

Akira Satou: brash young lawyer, or half-Scottish mafia boss?
In fact, the side characters of Katawa Shoujo aren't so much genre archetypes as they are "we all knew that guy" archetypes.  I know an Akira, except she's not somebody's sister, he's a teacher I had in high school.  I know a Nurse: I recently had a dentist appointment with him, as a matter of fact.  I know a Mutou: he's my Logic professor.  I know several Kenjis (Commonwealth Academy was funny that way).  What makes this different from genre tropes?  Well, at a basic level, I don't suppose much.  I can't take that away from the, of course, since the result is most often hilarious, and it does take a certain amount of skill to codify one's life experiences in such a way that you can epitomize them in a character.

For all the research that seems to have gone into this game to accurately depict characters with physical disabilities, the writers don't seem to have even bothered trying to accurately depict Japan or Japanese society.  This game takes place very firmly in animeland, and it's unapologetic about this fact.  The writers drop it for the sake of the story, and it's a stronger work because of it.

On the other hand, certain anime-isms like Misha's ridiculous pink hair are called out in universe and explained: Misha's hair is dyed for reasons that I expect I would know better if I were reading Shizune's path (Misha is Shizune's interpreter and best friend).

At any rate, Katawa Shoujo is definitely the product of people who love the genre and its tropes, but instead of being every cliche ever, it feels almost like a sort of Tarentino-esque tribute to visual novels: playing with the genre tropes, sometimes subverting them, doing them right when they are actually played straight, and ultimately creating something more than the thing which it would seem to do homage to.

Oh yeah, and there are sex scenes.  They flow as logical progressions of the narrative and were written by people who had maybe had sex before.  I suppose that comes with the territory.  If it were a normal novel, nobody would give a second thought about it, naturally, but Katawa Shoujo is most certainly not porn.  Mostly.

It made a very nice contrast with Mansfield Park, to say the least.  Mansfield Park is probably the "better" novel (if we are to judge novels by their influence and depth of content), but I know which one I enjoyed reading more.

Well, I wanted to talk more about the story, and maybe about some of its context, but it's too late at night now.  I might have to write some more thoughts on it in the next part.  We'll see, I suppose.

Again, I feel like I've written too much of a review and not enough of my personal feelings about the game, or even any sort of analysis.  What did I really spend all this time writing, in truth?  Everything I said I didn't want to write.  Oh well.

Incidentally, I want to play this game:

Katawa Shoujo is freeware, for PC, Mac, and Linux.  If you're curious, download it here.

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