Katawa Shoujo (かたわ少女 or freely translated Disability Girls) created quiet a buzz when it appeared in January 2012, but if failed to attract my attention. As a matter of fact I wasn't aware of the game despite its long history and I more or less stumbled on it accidentally. Manga, anime or bijuaru noberu isn't really my cup of tea, some exceptions notwithstanding.
The story of the making of Katawa Shoujo started over a decade ago. In December 2000 a manga fan art project contained a sketch imagining a game about disabled girls set in a Japanese high school. This idea was picked up seven years later by another group and slowly the plan emerged to turn this into a visual novel / dating sim (or eroge if you prefer the lingo of the initiated).
After months of brainstorming a volunteer group of twenty-one developers from around the world, joined up as the 4LS team. Then it took about five years to bring the project to a good end. According to the official blog:
The first year of KS project was a real struggle. We kept losing people, especially artists, and getting a full stable team was just seemingly impossible.
But slowly the job was brought to a good ending. What could easily have developed into a weird Japanese fetish-driven orgy became a visual novel where compassion, respect and love are central.
After a nearly fatal heart-attack and a long stay in hospital 17-year old male protagonist Hisao Nakai is transferred to Yamaku High School. In this school annex rehabilitation centre, with 24/24 7/7 medical supervision, he will be monitored while continuing his high-school studies. In the beginning he is as shocked as every visitor who enters a rehabilitation centre for the first time. He wonders what he is doing among the crippled and the burned, among the deaf, dumb and blind. It turns the place into a reservation for the unfit, hidden from the outside world. A prison and a sanctuary at the same time.
His bitter-sweet inner monologues sound a bit like Philip Marlowe's pseudo-philosophical - often ironic or mildly humoristic - musings, but slowly he starts to see the people behind their physical handicap and at the same time he tries to cope with his own condition. Here is where the dating sim comes in, as five possible arcs (written by different authors) can eventually evolve into virtual relationships - or not (every branch has two or three different endings, ranging from good to disastrous, including death). Hisao has to learn that the girls he dates all have emotional scars and that he must move rather carefully to win their confidence.
Contradictory to most games in the adult genre you can't get your girl 'in the sack' after a dozen of consecutive clicks. Each storyline takes several hours to develop before the girl can be consumed, but I admit this is a rather inappropriate (and frankly male chauvinist pig) term in this case. Do not really expect explicit sex scenes but a mild form of eroticism that fits in nice with the story. This is not a game about one-night stands (as even in ArianeB is the case) but about creating difficult relationships build on trust. Sort of.
Although written and designed by a western volunteering clique the game could be easily mistaken for a Japanese commercial production and for once this is meant as a compliment. There was some controversy when the concept was revealed and immediate online protest by people who were fearing fetishist sexploitation but the released product clearly shows that the controversial concept has been dealt with in an adult (meaning: grown-up) way.
Another controversial point lies in the title. Katawa is actually a derogatory term in Japanese, meaning something close to 'cripple' (literally: 'one wheel'). But the 'crippled girls' title was taken from the fan-art picture that started the project and at that time nobody from the 4LS team was fluently enough in Japanese anyway to understand its pejorative meaning.
A very slow path
As a visual novel each story benefits from a slowly evolving and meandering approach, but unfortunately this is where the dating sim as a game fails. It takes at least an hour to get through the introduction that is roughly the same for the five different story lines. Add an extra five hours to explore one of its many endings. A completist who is willing to track all possible paths in the game will be busy for weeks. For those that are impatient there is an express way using this walkthrough and the fast-forward button.
The game has a few crossroads where a decision of the player is asked. What happens next is arbitrary and not always logical, but since the butterfly effect we know such is life. For most of the time the dialogues are quite banal: conversations about the bus schedule, the food in the cafeteria, the exams... Weirdly enough this works quite well and creates an atmosphere that fully surrounds you. There is, in my opinion, one arc that seems out of place and doesn't interact as well with the others, but 4 good stories out of 5 isn't bad at all.
So if you are in for an airport novel that evolves more like Kurosawa's Dreams rather than Tarantino's Kill Bill this is for you. Some have baptised this the most boring game of the world but the simplicity and repetitiveness of things make it something special and unique.
Katawa Shoujo deserves to be read with attention and at slow pace. Those who are hastily clicking forward in a frenzy session will be duly disappointed when they arrive at the naughty bits. Those who want to be slowly immersed by these bitter-sweet symphonies (the soundtrack with 38 different tunes is excellent as well, by the way) will be agreeable surprised.
Tags: 99. adult gaming