A freeware visual novel/eroge based on the drawings of a doujinshi artist, developed primarily by 4chan users in which the player romances and, yes, sleeps with one of five disabled girls. Oh, and the title’s best translation into English is “Cripple Girls”.
Depending on what corners of the internet you inhabit, that was either a stream of useless gobbledegook or a series of alarm bells. But I’m here to tell you today that such fears are actually pretty unfounded. I’m not sure I can really say I’m a fan of Katawa Shoujo, but it is a brave, bold game that deserves credit for even trying to tackle its subject matter in the way that it does.
Yes, 4chan looked at porn and said “let us come together to make a respectful game about love, relationships and disability.” Also, dear 4chan users out there, I know I am riffing on the bad reputation the site gets but I know that you and the site are not the greatest hive of scum and villainy on this side of the galaxy. You guys do have some freaky porn, though.
And yes, while I’m addressing things I feel the need to point out two things Katawa Shoujo has. Romance, and sex. If you’re not into romance, then only a real interest in the representation of disability and disabled characters could possibly get you interested in this game. If you’re just here to get your rocks off with the sex scenes, they are both brief and rare. This game is not porn. And finally, if the inclusion of sex is a dealbreaker for you, then…well there’s an option to turn the sex scenes off but I wouldn’t recommend it as the sex scenes help give us insight into the characters and they can be just as important, if not more so than a lot of the surrounding scenes.
Down to business. You play as Hisao Nikai, a third year Japanese high school student who has a heart attack when a girl asks him out. Insert joke here. As it turns out, Hisao actually suffers from a form of arrhythmia and this is just the first time it’s ever amounted to anything. After four months of depressing hospital care, his parents transfer him to Yamaku High School for the rest of his final year, as Yamaku specialises in providing care and assistance for physically disabled students.
While there, events contrive to ensure he meets five girls. Hyperactive sporty Emi (a double amputee with prosthetic legs), artist and all around oddball Rin (who was born with no arms), Student Council President Shizune (who was born a deaf mute), severe social anxiety sufferer Hanako (whose right side of her body is covered in severe burns) and the half-Scottish Lilly (who was born blind). Your actions will set you on the path to a relationship with one of these girls.
I’m no expert on the subject of disability in general or any of the specific disabilities the cast have, so I can’t really say how good the representation of disability is here. From what I can gather, there aren’t any major criticisms people have with this game’s handling of its subject matter from a representational standpoint.
Still, this is the internet and I’m sure somebody does have a problem with it. Nothing jumped out at me, and to be honest the way that the game incorporated both the practical issues of life with these disabilities as well as using them to inform rather than define the characters was what kept me playing well after the point when the saccharine romance was losing its charm.
For example, in Shizune’s path, Hisao starts learning Japanese Sign Language so he communicate with her when her friend Misha (her usual interpreter) isn’t around. He realises how the loss of vocal tone means that a lot of conversational nuance is difficult or impossible and comes to understand why Shizune can be so blunt. He also realises the difficulty in using a rather rigid language to articulate complex thoughts and emotions, and how something like holding a box or eating lunch renders you unable to communicate. Through this, we’re given hints as to why Shizune is the way she is without it ever having to be stated through character conversations or ever outright confirmed as the truth as it relates to Shizune.
Getting back to that ‘saccharine’ comment…Don’t get me wrong, there are external and internal problems for both characters in every romance path that complicate and impede things, but the prose here is rather purple. Thus, when things are happy or contemplative, saccharine. When they’re downbeat or introspective, angsty purple. While the dialogue won’t win any prizes, it’s not a purple as Hisao’s internal monologue and each character has a distinct voice. A professional editor would gleefully take pruning shears to the script, but it’s by no means unreadable.
Though for a freeware indie title from a team of non-professionals, the production values are rather high. Each character has a range of expressions and poses, the background music is pleasant enough and each path gets its own little animated sequence. The backgrounds do kinda suck, but I can forgive that.
This not a review is starting to sound an awful lot like a review, but I’m not really here to critique or pass judgement on Katawa Shoujo. Instead, what I really want to say is how glad I am that this title exists. Also, SPOILER ALERT.
Yes, each girl does have an ‘issue’ that their relationship with Hisao helps them face. This issue is always ‘letting somebody get close to me’, and may or may not be related to their disability. Instead, it’s Hisao who has to grow and change to ensure the happy ever after. He comes to Yamaku as literally and figuratively a broken-hearted boy, and each of his relationships help him find a way of coping with what he’s going through. And in doing so, he develops the kind of unhealthy trait you get from putting all your eggs in one relationship basket. Then it’s the girl he’s romancing that helps him snap out of it.
Take Hanako. She suffers heavily from social anxiety in addition to her burn scars. When the game starts, the only people she can bring herself to talk to are Lilly and Lilly’s sister and she regularly skips class to hide away in her room or the library. When you romance her, Hisao is too afraid of acting on his feelings for her because he sees her as too fragile for such things and is happy with just taking care of her. When you finally get to the big climactic moment of her arc, she tells you that it’s exactly that kind of condescending ‘care’ that’s stopped her from wanting to enter a relationship with you. She calls you out on seeing her as some scared child, and not a person and equal who, yes, sometimes needs time to herself or that little extra bit of TLC. The only way to achieve the happy ending is to have recognised throughout her path that your smothering approach might not be right, leading to your ability to truly realise your mistake and want to change.
Contrast this to when you’re romancing her friend Lilly. Because Hisao isn’t worrying over how to treat her or whether to make a move on her he treats her much like any other person, but becomes mindful of the fact that she likes her space and that not every silence has to be filled, or every absence checked up on. Because she has this new friend that shows she can interact with the world around her and her past experiences won’t necessarily be indicative of her future, she becomes much more open and outgoing than she started out as. She even joins a club and makes a friend outside of her little trio with Lilly and Hisao, something that is done firmly on her own terms.
Also, with regards to the sex scenes. They’re not porn, or even really erotica. Yeah, there is plenty of amazing first times and simultaneous climaxes to go around but there’s also scenes that are uncomfortable for the characters, whether it’s because they’re not emotionally ready or they’re trying something physical that doesn’t pan out.
And like I said earlier, the attitudes of each of the girls to sex and their actions in the scenes aren’t the sort of stuff harem animes are made of. The sex scenes are, by and large, used to inform the characters. Any titillation is really more a side bonus than an intended effect.
Also also, the most you’re going to see is some boobs. Everything else just so happens to be out of shot.
Katawa Shoujo deserves to exist. It has earned its place in this world more than any of the dozens of mediocre AAA titles that get shovelled out every year. It deserves to be played and examined and debated. There are plenty of reasons not to like this game, be it the premise, its handling of disability, relationships, sex or female characters, the writing, the setting, the genre or the characters themselves. But that shouldn’t stop you from giving it a go.
If you’ve got time to spare that is. Seriously, there’s a damn lot of reading to do to get through this one. It can be a good few hours before you even start a romance path. Thankfully there are dialogue skip buttons available in the menus for repeated playthroughs.