**I’m gonna start this blog off by giving you all fair warning that the game I’m about to “review” most certainly crosses into NSFW territory. Although the content of this blog does not, Google searching this game and clicking some of the following links could very well be a trap.**
Katawa Shoujo, or Disability Girls, is a game/visual novel centered around a young man with a heart condition who finds himself at a school for the disabled that just so happens to be filled with cute, single girls. If that sounds like the setup for a bad porno or some kind of webcomic you’d find on 4chan, then you aren’t all that wrong.
Produced by 4 Leaf Studios, Katawa Shoujo does indeed find its origins on 4chan (/a/ in particular) where a thread popped up featuring the artwork of one RAITA. The piece featured all the building blocks for a dating game involving a private school for the disabled, and started quite a wave of interest in the subject. Of course, this kind of thing isn’t all that surprising to see on the Internet. Although surprisingly, from what I understand, this push for disabled and crippled girl content was actually urged on after a thread on /b/ featured the touching tale of a nurse at a nursing home doing his best to take care of a 7-year-old girl that had recently come under his care after having lost her family (and most of her limbs, plus an eye) in a terrible car accident. Kotaku posted a slightly more detailed history of all this on their site a little while back, for those interested in their article it’s here.
Regardless of its origins, though, the most important thing to remember about Katawa Shoujo is that it’s a game that would never have seen the light of day had it not been for the Internet. Now I don’t mean that in a “the web helped them put it together” kinda way that almost any project could claim these days. I mean it in the sort of “this game was developed and put together by people from many different locations all around the world without ever getting together in the fashion an typical game studio would” kinda way. This game is a shining example of the kind of quality projects that can only just now be made in this day and age.
No, you didn’t hear me wrong, I did just say that a game about dating disabled girls is a quality game; hard to believe, I know. Had someone walked up to me and described this game to me I would have just hung my head and been like, *sigh* “Oh Internet…” While I’d like to consider myself an open-minded person who won’t turn away from any kind of content, there does come a point (especially when the Internet is involved) when the question of being potentially trolled comes into play.
But after reading the rather interesting history of the game in the previously mentioned Kotaku article as well as finding out that the game itself was free (and honestly, how can you beat free?), I figured the least I could do was set my skepticism aside for a few minutes and give the game a try.
Thirty or so minutes later, I read through a first-person account of one of the most “scary” scenarios a person could ever find themselves in (having a heart attack before graduating high school). Then I listened to the internal dialog of said person as they find themselves slipping away from the life they knew as well as losing the friends and family they had as life “moved on” without them — only to then be forced into a new life with a heavy regimen of medication and the constant risk that any overexertion could be potentially fatal. And all of this being read alongside a truly touching soundtrack and some beautiful artwork.
Well as you can probably imagine, I was more than a bit surprised. “Wow,” I said to myself. “This sure doesn’t seem like a game from 4chan about banging cripples…”
Now granted, I had read that the game supposedly took its subject matter very seriously prior to booting it up the first time. But let’s be honest, the game is about hooking up with disabled girls. You can’t blame me for being overly skeptical. Nor would I blame any of you reading this blog for doing the same. But let me assure you, while the game is nowhere near “perfect” or “Game of the Year” quality, it has not only proven to me the value in small independently made games like this, but has also helped me grow as a person. Cheesy, I know. But I’ll get to that later.
First let’s start off with some of my gripes about Katawa Shoujo, because I feel I should clear some of this up before I move on…
Yes; you do have sex with disabled girls in this game.
Yes; these scenes are often pictured in their “full” glory.
Yes; more than a few of these seem a bit forced, and you might find yourself heavily facepalming when the talk of lube and anal somehow “pops up” into your story.
No; this game is by no means short. Each of the 5 girls you can romance has quite a long story path, so if you want to go through them all, don’t expect to finish even one path in a single night (unless you read really fast, of course). Which brings me to…
No; this “game” isn’t really a game. It’s a “visual novel,” which is to say it’s kinda like reading one of those choice-your-own-adventure books you read as a kid only with pictures and music to go along with it. That isn’t a bad thing, but certainly makes it an entirely different kind of beast to “play.”
Now it should be noted that all of the erotic content in the game can be turned off. If all the sex-related stuff I mentioned above were deal breakers for you, then don’t worry! Because you can just turn it all off. Not one to shy away from things myself, I played with it on (for better or worse). But if you’d rather go through the game and just enjoy the romance and story as Hisao (the main character) woos and falls for each of Katawa Shoujo’s five awesome ladies, then you are more then welcome to do so.
Speaking of awesome ladies! Let’s dive into what makes this game worth playing (see: reading): the girls! Now before you get ahead of yourselves and declare that a 25-year-old single white male is probably not the best judge of whether or not a female video game character is awesome (a fair complaint, let’s be honest), I feel I should mention that upon starting the game I picked a girl and decided that I was going to “go after her” first. Some of the girls just sounded cooler, while others seemed rather dull or cliche. What I didn’t realize of course, was that unless you know the ins and outs of the system (or just so happen to be really lucky) the likelihood of you ending up with the girl(s) you wanted to end up with is actually quite a bit lower than you may otherwise think. That’s not to say it’s impossible, of course, it’s just that I wouldn’t go into Katawa Shoujo trying to game the system. In fact, doing so might very well get you killed (in typical choice-your-own-adventure style).
As you may have guessed where I was going with this, though, I didn’t get the girl I wanted the first time through. In fact, I ended up with one of the ones that I found rather loud and annoying — a fact that I found slowly changing over the course of her path. As the main character grew to know her and learn more about her and her past, so did I. And in much the same way that he grew to love her, I found myself falling in love with the character as well. Her “loud annoying-ness” soon became plucky enthusiasm, and her ”overly stubbornness” eventually became the kind of steadfast determination that I could admire.
By the final act of her story, I was in love with her playful and stubborn nature, even when she used it to push me (the main character) away. I could see through it, and wanted to help her resolve the demons that haunted her and work to become closer to her. She wasn’t just some cute girl with a disability, she was a person I was invested in and wanted to help work through her problems. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a psychology major (in fact I’d wager that had a rather large part in my enjoyment of certain girls’ paths over others), but I really did find myself drawn in to the lives of these fictional girls and wanted to see how Hisao and their stories resolved themselves.
The second girl I “pursued” was one of the girls I’d had plans to ignore at first because she seemed kinda cliche and boring to me. But it turned out to be my favorite story line of them all! That might have something to do with it being the most “romantic” and “soapy” path to play through. And, well, apparently I’m a sucker for stuff like that, because I enjoyed the hell out of it. I even found myself a little teary eyed when it ended, and wanted nothing more then to take Hisao’s place and live happily ever after with my beautiful girlfriend…
Of course, if you find stories like that vomit-inducing, then fear not! Luckily, for us each of the five paths in the game were written by someone different. Why is that good? Because it means that at the end of the day each path feels unique and different. For example, the girl I wanted to hook up with in the first place? I hated her path. Well, “hate” is a strong word. But let me assure you, much like Hisao I was left frustrated and groaning more than once at the sheer randomness of some of the things she did. At the end of the day I still found myself caring for the girl, but I did not find the process nearly as enjoyable as I did with the others. Yet I’ve read more than one person claim that the girl in question had “the best path of them all!” Clearly to each their own; and there’s nothing wrong with that!
This brings me to my final point, though, and the one I mentioned earlier: Katawa Shoujo has just as much potential to change your life as any other book you read. Now I’m not saying this game is going to have the impact of something like The Lord of the Rings or Fahrenheit 451. But I’m a firm believer that any story, whether it be in movie, video game or book form, has the potential to teach us a lesson and change our lives. Even if it’s just in some minor way.
For example, while I would not have claimed to have been against dating someone with a disability prior to playing Katawa Shoujo, I can now with great certainty say that I’d be perfectly okay with it. Katawa Shoujo is almost flawless in its way of handling the girls and their disabilities in a mature and true-to-form manner. At no point in the story did I ever see them as “that blind girl” or “that girl with no arms.” Lilly might have been blind and Rin may not have had arms, but neither the girls or the writers of Katawa Shoujo ever let those facts define them.
That isn’t to say that they ignore the effects these disabilities have on the girls’ lives; on the contrary, the writers never flinch in handing you every detail that living without vision or hearing or arms or legs would involve. The fact of the matter is that by exposing you, the reader, to it so truthfully, they bring you along on the same journey as Hisao. Forcing you to except and recognize the girls’ disabilities for what they are: an everyday part of these girls’ regular lives. When you start to see Lilly’s exact and calculating movements as just another part of her personality, and not just a side effect of her blindness, you finally realize just how odd it would feel to see her as anything but an average girl with regular hopes and dreams and quirks all her own. Just like the rest of us. Her being blind becomes just another character trait, like her pleasant smile, polite demeanor, bright blond hair and beautiful blue eyes.
It’s for that reason, and that reason alone, that Katawa Shoujo will always hold a place on my “best games of all time” list. Not for groundbreaking gameplay or astounding visuals (although the game does look and sound wonderful). But for the simple fact that after playing through all five paths and learning about each of the five girls, I no longer feel like the person I was before I started playing it. Can the same be said for the last game you played? What about the one before that? I can only hope for a day when games of this quality become so readily available. The real shame is that most people will never give Katawa Shoujo a try. Because either a) it isn’t exactly a very well known title or b) it has such a strange (and borderline perverse) premise. But despite all that, the game really is worth playing, and passing it up to go play another generic FPS or feed your cows in Farmville would be an immense shame.
If at least a single person decides to give Katawa Shoujo a chance after reading this, then I’ll consider this wall-of-text/blog a complete success. Hopefully you’ll enjoy the game as much as I have.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
**For your listening pleasure I’ve included some of the soundtracks from the game. Each one here is one of the girls’ themes.**