As reviewers, we’re sometimes torn between a sense of private admiration for a text and the demands of a good critique. It’s why “guilty pleasures” are so common – we might enjoy cult games like God Hand, Earth Defense Force or the seminal Cho Aniki, but then feel obligated to tear them a new one from a critical perspective.

To attempt to review a visual novel like it’s Super Mario World is missing the point of the medium.

It’s important to bring this up before talking about Katawa Shoujo, a free Western homage to Japanese bishoujo visual novels that was released earlier this year to minor fanfare. To attempt to review a visual novel like it’s Super Mario World is missing the point of the medium. A sense of gradual immersion is more important than flashing sensory stimuli in these games, and Katawa Shoujo is no exception to the rule, its 20+ hours of text-based game-time comprised of relaxed, essentially mundane life experiences. Typical scenes might consist of painting school murals, drinking tea with blind Scottish girls, and bromantic picnics with a misogynistic young man dressed like a certain boy-wizard.

The back-story behind it is just as oddly compelling. The game is the first and last project of 4 Leaf Studios, an amateur team originating from 4chan’s /a/ board; its provocative title (literally “Cripple Girls”) taken from a sketch by Honjou Raita (character designer for Valkyria Chronicles) that served as inspiration for the project. Now after five long years, a zero-figure budget and a word-count that almost rivals War and Peace, it’s finally out. You can check out the team’s blog here, complete with download links to the game itself, and I’d encourage anyone with an interest in amateur game development to have a look.

The game begins with Hisao, a young lad with undiagnosed arrhythmia, having a cardiac arrest in front of his high school crush. Now, because the Plot Wills It, our brave hero must join an academy for disabled students (a school for gifted youngsters if you will) where he meets five girls, all physically handicapped, with whom he interacts over the course of a school year. Depending on the choices the player makes, Hisao will take one of these relationships a step further, for better or worse. Over time he falls in love and discovers things about himself, hopefully coming to terms with his affliction. What has got people hot under the collar is the inclusion of certain sex scenes scattered throughout the story.

“So far, so eroge, so what?” you might say, all the while chuckling to yourself over your witty bon mot as you sip from a fine Merlot. “This sort of game often has a bit of rumpy-pumpy, in-and-out action. Why, should I, a sophisticated Gameur, care about a sordid little dating simulator?” The devilish twist in the tale, dear reader, is that all of the participants in these coitus-filled episodes are (you guessed it) the disabled students themselves, thus causing certain morally indignant members of the gaming community to declare that the entire game is nothing more than crass, exploitative, fetishistic hentai fap-fodder.

Fortunately the people going into Katawa Shoujo looking to be outraged by handicapable hand-jobs are going to be sorely disappointed, as will the deviants actively looking forward to them. Instead, moral crusaders and chronic onanists alike will find a poignant collection of stories dealing with love, sadness, disability and growing up. The few sex scenes themselves are Objectively Un-Sexy – it’s clear from their presentation that they serve more to advance the plot than titillate the audience. Small but important parts of the characters’ stories, they’re about as erotic to read through as doing your tax returns, and for those that find that analogy arousing, all I can offer is my congratulations and the contact details of a good shrink.

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 clichés 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.

It’s clear that Katawa Shoujo has some glaring problems in spite of its engaging stories and endearing cast of characters. However it’s easy to forgive such mistakes when confronted with a game that is so honest in its convictions and clear in its artistic integrity. Because of its free-to-play roots, there really is a sense of the creators having complete artistic control and making a product exactly as they envisaged it – with a thematic focus on “imperfection,” it’s oddly fitting for the game’s design to be aesthetically flawed.

For better or worse, it’s a title that refuses to adhere to the trappings of modern Western game design.

For better or worse, it’s a title that refuses to adhere to the trappings of modern Western game design; even the bad endings don’t seem like you have “failed” simply because the sequence of the story lends itself to a clear sense of finality. With a generation of games seemingly over-reliant on graphical wizardry and overused cinematic clichés in order to tell a good story, it’s refreshing to see a title focus less on flashy visuals and gimmick-ridden gameplay and more on simple yet powerful story presentation.

Our changing response to the game’s content mirrors the developers’ desire for us to look beneath the surface, to challenge our preconceived opinions of beauty and prejudice by presenting a very human story about love first, disability second. As it is however, the game lacks the polish and editing that would make it one of the classics of the romance genre, and as such the critic is left uncertain as to whether it’s a noble failure or a flawed success. Nevertheless, Katawa Shoujo serves as an endearing introduction into the world of the visual novel, and undoubtedly its devoted cult following will continue to grow – with a $0.00 price tag there’s very little reason not to at least try it. For all its faults there’s a lot to like about Katawa Shoujo: its heartfelt ambition, its unashamed sentimental drama, the knowing-but-never-cynical commentary on teenage romance. Ultimately we’re left with the image that true love, whether real or fictional, is never skin-deep.

TR Juro is an impoverished London-based writer who works as a script reader by day and strips for money by night. He can be reached at notthatmistert@gmail.com, and he’ll be sure to reply back to you/find out where you live.

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