Katawa Shoujo – An Overview
「かたわ少女」 (Katawa Shoujo)
Can you tell me what you think?
Can you see what I see?
Can you face your fears?
Can you stand up for yourself?
Can you seize the day?
These questions from the official website summarizes the themes of the game concisely. The player explores these key questions not just for their answer, but also for whom these questions are directed towards. Is it the girl the protagonist befriends? Is it the protagonist? You? Katawa Shoujo may be a visual novel about disabled teenagers, but that is merely the springboard to see the characters that live facing these questions every single day.
Note, if you are aware of the history and synopsis, you may skip the next three paragraphs.
Before expanding on what that statement means, a brief history and overview should first be mentioned. Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel developed independently by Four Leaf Studios, a group of people whose origins hailed from the /a/ board of 4chan. In 2007, after anon posted concept art from RAITA’s doujin Zettai Shoujo, instant support exploded on the board. This “big bang” eventually consolidated itself into a group called Four Leaf Studios, who, over the course of five years of development, recruited and laid off members, created and completely scrapped art directions, completely rewrote storylines, and overall struggled to keep production for their ultimate goal, the visual novel Katawa Shoujo.
In the end they did manage to succeed and released the full version, free of charge, this January. Aura, one of the writers, does a wonderful job of describing Four Leaf Studio’s journey through development of the game and I would heartily encourage you read through his/her blog posts if you have the time. It’s a gem of insight onto how to proceed on developing a project, not just a visual novel.
As for plot, here is a quick synopsis. The setting is in Japan’s Yamaku High School, a school for disabled (and not disabled) high schoolers. The player plays Hisao Nakai, who enters Yamaku for the first time after having spent months in a hospital after a heart attack. Although at first apprehensive of his new environment, the faculty and students at Yamaku try their best to help him adjust both to school, his own condition, and how to approach the conditions of others.
Now that background is done, time to comment on the logistics. Graphically, although the still CG scenes and movies may not be as brilliantly drawn as commercial VNs, it definitely is a commendable effort coming from a group like 4LS. Certain scenes like Rin’s or Lily’s are beautifully drawn, whilst some, such as some of Shizune’s CG or the infamous Emi scene, are drawn a tad awkward. The movies, although well paced and storyboarded, are a bit simplistic in drawing. However, considering how ALL the movies were all done by ONE person in a year (that staff member joined late in production), it’s a fine job.
The OST is done well. It gets a tad repetitive if you’re playing through all five arcs, but for their respective stories the placement of music is tasteful. Particular tracks I enjoyed were the main theme, Parity, and Air Guitar (yes I’m a sucker for instrumental music). Although collectively the OST isn’t memorable, there are certain tracks I find myself playing in my head as I go about my day, even now.
However, where Katawa truly shines is its story. What is in the story that causes this visual novel to stand out amongst others? For starters, the premise is unique. Although having a disabled protagonist is not anything new (H2O: Footprints in the Sand) nor is having disabled characters (Kanon), to my knowledge, this is the first visual novel that approaches the disability factor honestly and in-depth. Although such themes may act as a huge turn-off, or possibly even offensive, it is in my opinion that is not the goal, nor the main focus, of the visual novel. I’ll make this clear now. It’s not a visual novel for those with a fetish. Granted, the ‘scenes’ are all there, but they’re not essential to the plot and can be omitted via the options panel (you’ll still see the characters semi-naked still, but the actual scenes are replaced by images of animals and food).
However, here’s the thing: in the end, the disabilities fade into the background and instead leave the player to face the actual issues that are at hand. Whilst in some arcs the disability lingers in the speech more, eventually every arc focuses on the questions posted above, which do not need the disabilities to be answered. Rather, it is the disabilities that help guide us to that answer, something this visual novel does well.
Take for instance the character Tezuka Rin, who hasn’t any arms to slam with. Although this is how we are introduced to her character, via her inability to pour paint or pull down her pants, all that soon fades into the background as players get lost in her random and non sequitur dialogue. The way that she handles her daily life just fine with only her feet accents her unorthodox way of living and thinking, rather than being a standalone driving force of her story.
Rarely, if ever do any of the characters mope and groan about their disability (minus Hisao), which all the more allows us to focus on the real problems they face. That perhaps is a big reason why I enjoyed this visual novel: the developers didn’t take the disability factor and stuff it in our faces. It’s a plot device that allows us to see the characters in different lights, yet doesn’t highlight itself enough to distract from the dialogue of the “questions”. Now of course we can’t completely ignore their disabilities,
However, that is all I can truly say about the story without spoiling it for you guys. That kind of in-depth analysis would require details about the characters, something that’s reserved for the future ^^. This post is meant to be a test dip into writing about visual novels, something neither I, nor this site, has ever tried before. However, do expect following posts (along with my anime coverage) on certain (or maybe all) of the characters and a discussion of their routes.
For those of you who have not played yet, I shall leave you to discover which questions fit which characters. That perhaps, is a small part of the enjoyment of playing this game, and it would be a tragedy to spoil it here ^^
Before I close this post though, I would like to share a small shoutout to the in-development visual novel Missing Stars. If you liked or will like Katawa Shoujo’s premise, then perhaps this visual novel’s take on mental disorders may be up your alley as well. Let’s give them our support as they bring this challenging concept into fruition! ^___^
Please leave suggestions for future visual novels to cover, as well as any comments about me covering visual novels, in the comments below!