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The Un-Sexy Dating Game

TR Juro | 6 Apr 2012 08:00
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Presumably the basic reasoning behind these R-rated inclusions is that contrary to the wishes of Fox News et al., teens are going to have sex - to shy away from that in a romance-based story would be unconvincing. Deaf, blind, paralyzed people get freaky, too, so as to why the act of love-making between two (albeit fictional) disabled people is in itself more unpleasant than normal is a little perplexing.

Katawa Shoujo is a genuine attempt to tell an engaging story from a perspective that is often unrecognized by the mass media.

Rather than an offensive Leisure Suit Larry with Wheelchairs, Katawa Shoujo is a genuine attempt to tell an engaging story from a perspective that is often unrecognized by the mass media, let alone the brave new medium of videogames. I can't remember the last time a Western title explored physical disability as anything but the exclamation point to a punch line - remember that foul-mouthed wheelchair-bound kid in Tony Hawk's Underground 2? Truly groundbreaking stuff, ladies and gents.

On the other side of the politically-correct spectrum, a possible danger of exploring such a sensitive topic is that an overtly clumsy "right-on" attitude can easily be construed as condescending. The avoidance of disability clich├ęs is perhaps the greatest strength of Katawa Shoujo's writing - the creators have avoided an exploitative exploration of disability by defining the cast not by their afflictions but instead the content of their character. These are fully rounded, believable young people - the boisterous Emi hides her emotional problems behind a cheerful facade, while local space-cadet Rin is a witty and talented artist. The fact that both are missing limbs is a minor aspect of their multidimensional personalities - physical "handicaps" do not and will not define them. Actively patronising your romantic partner in some of the story paths effectively destroys the relationship, cleverly subverting an old and tired aspect of these games. Damsels in distress, these ladies certainly ain't.

So far, so commendable. However, for all its sophistication in handling the presentation of disability, certain design problems within Katawa Shoujo may well sabotage our enjoyment of the story. Immersion is easy due to the constant first person narrative and an atmospheric ambient soundtrack but in terms of actual "engagement", the interactive gameplay is altogether non-existent; as is the case with visual novels, the vast majority of game-time is spent reading lines and lines and lines and lines and lines and lines (and more lines) of text. Visual-wise we get tedious static images of generic anime people, although the expressionistic rotoscoped backgrounds are rather lovely to look at.

As for limitations in the writing-style, English majors may scoff at the game's repetitive descriptions and sophomoric "purple prose", but from the get-go its intentions were never to rival Ulysses. Even if it's more HarperCollins romance than Herman Melville, it's always nice to see the concept of literature being an integral part of a game, and with its references to Haruki Murakami and Franz Kafka, Katawa Shoujo's inter-textual books could be seen as - pardon the pun - rather novel (You're fired- Ed.). Each story-path had a different writer, meaning that the quality of the writing content can vary from the sublime to the ridiculous - certain ill-conceived plot choices elicited a raised eyebrow or on two memorable occasions a full HTKC (head-to-keyboard collision), when innocent choices to comfort a close friend end up in Hisao "getting" some proverbial "nookie". It's these rare moments when the protagonist does something completely out of the blue that the game snaps you out of its emotional rollercoaster and reminds you that regardless of personal immersion, the player has played a passive role throughout this experience.

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