Thursday, July 16, 2015

Katawa Shoujo

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous sent in this e-mail last week after the Friday link about people with disabilities. I haven't played the game he mentions, but I'm going to, and I can attest that he has always been a thoughtful and perceptive correspondent.

When I saw this thread (A powerful reddit thread reveals what it’s like to have a disability), it immediately got me to thinking of a game I played once. I was wondering if you might have heard of it. It’s called “Katawa Shoujo”, and is a visual novel, a Japanese genre of game very much like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Like many visual novels, it falls into the category of “dating sim.” Essentially you play the part of someone who has recently developed a disability, trying to adjust to his new life at a school for the disabled.

The reason I ask is because the story of the making of Katawa Shoujo is one of the most fascinating stories in all of gaming in some ways. It was put together by a group of people from 4chan of all places, the armpit of the internet. So you would expect it to be the most horrible thing ever created by a human, full of crassness and cruelty. Somehow the exact opposite happened. It is a frank, thoughtful, nuanced game that deals with disability in a mature manner. I’m not sure I have ever been so surprised at when I saw the result of the efforts of this bunch of people from the worst community on the internet. Not only that, Katawa Shoujo is an amazing example of what games can accomplish as an artistic medium.

The reason I bring it up is (and it shames me to say this), in my life I’ve always been a little afraid of those with disabilities. I wasn’t sure how to act around them, because I’d never known anyone with a disability. It sounds simple to say “you act the same way you would with anyone else,” like that’s the most obvious thing in the world, but I don’t think it’s obvious at all. For all I knew there could be a whole etiquette around this, and by acting normally I might do something extremely rude without meaning to. Essentially, I was terrified of hurting someone’s feelings, so I just avoided people with disabilities all together. It was something that had always bothered me, but I didn’t know how to go about changing it, because if I asked someone about it, I might end up hurting them inadvertently.

When I first heard about it, I immediately wanted to play Katawa Shoujo, though I had never played a visual novel and thought “dating sims” were pretty silly. It occurred to me that playing this game might provide a safe environment for me to work through some of these issues that had always bothered me, without the danger of accidentally hurting someone or asking rude questions through ignorance. It worked like a charm. I got answers to my own questions, and odd as it may seem, by spending a lot of time with these characters, it desensitizes you to the discomfort a lot of people feel around the disabled. By the end of the game you don’t even notice the disabilities anymore, and you certainly don’t care about them. The cast are just a bunch of characters you’ve come to care about and feel comfortable with. I honestly think that Katawa Shoujo made me a better person, and playing through it and feeling my own perceptions and attitudes changing was a powerful experience. I say without hyperbole that it changed my life. I am eternally grateful to those who made it, because it allowed me to fix some things about myself that I had never liked, but wasn’t sure how to change.

The reason I wrote this email, though, was because this is such a clear illustration of the power of games. They allow you to experience things in a way that a book doesn’t, through agency and immediacy. By taking on the role of the main character directly, a game’s experiences can be more powerful than those you read about happening to a character in a book. Moreover, their distance from reality can allow us to experience things safely and comfortably that might otherwise be very frightening and uncomfortable for us. Well, and also, because the story of such a thing, this strange, sensitive work that came out of the bowels of 4chan is such a noteworthy one.

If you’re interested in reading more about it, I think this Kotaku article covers the high points well.
[He also sent in this follow-up later in the day]
A few pointers:

First, as a “dating sim”, this game does contain explicit material. As I recall there is an option to disable adult content, which is common for this type of game. I would however be hesitant to do so in the case of the Hanako story branch, since the most powerful scene in the arc occurs during one of these sections.

Secondly, if I’m not mistaken, the five arcs were written by five different amateur authors. As such they vary widely in quality of writing. I’d say the Hanako arc is strongest, and the Shizune arc the weakest, with the other three falling somewhere in the middle. The Rin arc is probably very hit or miss depending on whether the reader has an artistic bent, because it delves into that mindset a lot.

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