Wednesday, January 16, 2013

katawa shoujo

i'd been browsing at Matt's house, looking up topics for the 8th episode of our podcast, when I'd found an article titled "Romance With Disabled Girls: How (And Maybe Why) An Unusual Video Game Came To Be". The game was titled Katawa Shoujo and I wasn't even sure what to think, but the article had my attention. I read it, first being educated on what 4chan is, how the game's idea was generated on it's forums, and then how a development team came together to make it into a real game. I read about how 4chan is allegedly full of awful people, and how the game was expected to be tasteless (at best). I finished the article, and downloaded the game that night, because every thing people said following it's release was unexpectedly positive. I've finished it and I can say that it is, hands down, one of the best games I've played in years ever. It became the focal topic of the 9th and 10th episodes of our podcast.

It's a relatively simple game, so full of dialogue that it's almost not a game at all, more a choose-your-own-adventure story. I've since come to learn these kinds of games are called VNs, or Visual Novels. No 3D graphics, no voice over, and you can play it almost entirely with the space bar. The choices you make are not unlike those in Persona 3 or 4, Mass Effect, or even Leisure Suite Larry. Your characters will engage in pre-written conversations and every so often you make a binary choice in terms of what your next move is. In my first play-through, which lasted about 6 hours, I made about 6 major choices (with several smaller ones). The entire remainder of the game was reading.

And this was how I felt
You play as a student who has recently discovered that he has a heart condition, and after taking the appropriate time to recover, is transferred to a high school for people with disabilities. What ensues is a fish-out-of-water story which evolves into a love story, becomes porn for like 10 minutes (we'll get to that) and goes back to being a love story. The romance is different depending on the choices you make, as there are five potential girls for your character to form a relationship with. Each girl has a very distinct personality, and one of the early decisions you make will set you on a path with one of them. It's not as robust as I'd hoped for upon hearing about the game; you are pretty much put on a single-girl story based on what your first moves are. I'd been hoping for some kind of point system that would keep you more ambiguously attached to them, like you might see in other games that have social gameplay. That just seems more interesting to me, but the game does take advantage of its chosen format, to really develop each of the 5 stories.

It's pretty funny too

Your playthrough will likely differ from mine, but the specific story I wound up with was one of the most satisfying I've seen or heard in a long time. It reminded me a little bit of 500 Days of Summer, with how well it puts you into the shoes of the male protagonist and takes you along for all of the highs and lows love stories are known for. I laughed. I cried. Or would have, if I did those things*. Your character flies high on endorphins, hates life when they're taken away, ultimately grows from his experience and learns a lot about himself.

And you can too!
He doesn't just learn from his relationship; a substantial portion of the story is spent on his acclimatization to the new school. Your character will meet a very diverse cast of characters, which is not limited to his potential girlfriends. The school nurse, your teacher, dorm buddy and everyone in between have very distinct personalities and character designs, and will all usually contribute to the story proper in some way. The visual style and character design clicked with me really well. Everyone is multidimensional despite the fact that most of them are based on tropes.

When your character first arrives, he's uncomfortable, regularly makes faux pas, and generally doesn't know how to react to his new classmates. Because of superficial shock and a lack of familiarity, it takes him a while to get used to interacting daily with people who have lost limbs, are covered in burn scars, walk with canes, and so on. This part of the game is actually something I'm pretty impressed by. It raises not only the topic of living with a disability, but the topic of how people react to it. I won't spoil the emotional experience too much more (most game review sites would have told this much), but it's an incredibly rewarding story in this regard. The game treats this topic with a more-than impressive level of sincerity, thoughtfulness, and maturity, and I think most people should play it.

Foot in Mouth Level: JOE BIDEN!
I'm sure I did it at some point in that last paragraph. It's something you don't think about twice by the time you get far enough for the sex scenes, which occur more towards the end. Sex is handled with almost as much maturity, but the game seems to make an exception in favor of pandering maybe once or twice. Arguably. I'm guessing the largest demographic for the game is young males, after all, and it's pretty graphic. Still, they have their emotional weight to contribute, and in my experience served the story positively, to the degree that the story would just not be the same without it. It's thematically appropriate, but if nudity and graphic sexual content make you uncomfortable, they can be disabled.

'Cause it goes pretty far beyond this

I've finished it once, which for all intents and purposes is "my playthrough". Many people play VNs without worrying about the choices too much, but I try to make honest decisions when I play this type of game. My second playthrough that I've started now is being made deliberately to read the 4 stories I missed. There's about an hour of dialogue before you even make your first choice, which is a little irritating if you're trying to get to the new content. Because most of the backgrounds and characters are static images, it can also be difficult to remember exactly where you should start tuning in if you're fast-forwarding. Not a huge problem, but if you're a completionist (I'm not), it might annoy you. Even in the normal game, the amount of text can be a little overwhelming. On one or two occasions I found myself wishing I could hammer through the conversations with the librarian or school nurse so that I could move on with the main storyline. Legitimate gripe, or personal impatience: You decide.

Like I said, there's no voiceover, but the music composition makes up for it. It's mostly delicate piano or keyboard arrangements that go well with the more emotionally heavy sequences, but there's some acoustic guitar that goes with stuff like sitting in class. Most characters have a theme that compliments their persona. It's an inspired composition that goes with the art style like peas and carrots, as Forrest Gump would say. Very well suited to the action and story, and catchy, but not annoying-catchy. I'll embed one of the songs below; it usually plays as your character is lost in his own thoughts during the day. It's not going to immediately strike you as an interesting song (I don't think, anyway. It may even sound cheesy to you), but I think it's meant to not interfere with your reading.

This one plays after you've gotten to know one of the characters, and she opens up about her past. If you can't tell from the song, it's a sad story.

There's not a lot for me to say in conclusion. I can't sing this game's praises enough. Very few games have made an impression on me the way this game has. I've been a hobby gamer since I was 4 years old; I'm very opinionated and picky, and have collected precious few favorites over the years, but I'm pretty sure this is going to wind up being one of the all-time top 3. Stop wasting your time reading my opinions on it, and go go see for yourself. It's probably worth pointing out that this game will not cost you anything; the makers have released it free of charge. Here:

*Fine, I did cry. Once.

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