Katawa Shoujo (Disability Girls)

Oh, PlayThisThing. Truly you are the thinking man’s non-defunct LittleFluffy, and I wholeheartedly blame you for causing me to play Katawa Shoujo, a game from a group derived from 4chan.

Katawa Shoujo is not really a game. The developers call it a “visual novel”, not a game; it describes itself as a dating sim, but it’s closer to a CYOA with very long intervals between very narrow choices. Moreover, it’s unfinished as yet; the first chapter only is available.

My main obstacle in talking about this is that it’s a genre and medium with which I am neither familiar nor enamoured. This is a piece that is working within a heavily conventionalised genre, aimed at people who like the heavy conventions of that genre, and explicitly challenging conventional attitudes to disability. The basic premise is that the protagonist has developed a dangerous heart condition and been transferred to a specialist high school for disabled students.

The game’s structure is that, according to the scanty choices, you end up making time with one or another of the girls (or else alone, drunk and miserable). It’s not always obvious which; you can easily aim for one girl and end up with her best friend largely through being nice. The conventions of the genre dictate personality; the job of the authors is to superimpose disability onto those personalities in interesting ways. So you have a Vivacious Competitive Leader (deaf-mute), a Bouncy Little-Girl Athlete (legs amputated beneath the knee), a Tall, Serenely Polite Angel (blind), a Terminally Shy Girl (severe scarring) and a Blunt Spaced-Out Chick (no arms above elbow.) (The game contains no obvious porn (okay, there’s one panty shot in a non-sexual context) or anything I could really construe as disability-fetish.) There’s also the vivacious girl’s interpreter, a Loud Girly-Girl with inevitable pink hair.

Because of the basic setup of the game, there’s an effect of being mobbed by eligible girls. Because of its low interactivity, there’s an effect of being constantly pushed around by those girls. Much of the content is the protagonist’s angst about how to deal with his own condition and how to react to everyone else. This is not generic angst; specific practical issues come up.

Everything I dislike about this is a product of convention that is clearly important to its intended audience. The only way that this clashes with the content is with the vivacious leader girl; the text characterises her as using sign-language fast and with great emphasis, but the art (there’s no animation, but rather heavy re-use of character images with changing expressions, as per genre) never really depicts anything that conveys this. I was curious enough about this to replay through five different endings (thank you, fast-forward option), but I wouldn’t say that I had fun, exactly. Most of the point of this is to pick out characters that you like and then spend time with them. I found that I liked vivacious deaf-mute girl but couldn’t stand her interpreter, and I liked blunt spaced-out girl but her path mostly involves avoiding a) the overtures of every other girl and b) ending up drunk and alone.

I would not exactly recommend this to people who like videogames but not theory; I would certainly recommend it to people who like the genre and medium. Its main success, ultimately, is that it manages to be a Game For Change(tm) while neatly threading the Scylla and Charybdis of patronising lecture and minimisation.

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