Rarely do I ever come across a game where I actually feel emotionally shaken after finishing it. Games like Bioshock and Pokemon made me feel…different after completing them. I can now add Katawa Shoujo to this list of games. Despite being a 2D visual novel, the characters found within Katawa Shoujo are more three-dimensional than the characters I’ve come across in first-person shooters and action-adventure games.
The origin of Katawa Shoujo is a very interesting one deserving of its own article. The idea for the game originated on the /a/ (anime) board on 4chan, a user named RAITA posted some of his drawings which included sketches and ideas for a visual novel set in a disabled school. Interest grew among the 4chan community and eventually several developers around the globe agreed to create the game under the moniker 4 Leaf Studios. Development began in 2007 and the game was released on January 4th, 2012. Katawa Shoujo literally translates to “Crippled girls”, and that is what the game is about. The main character, Hisao Nakai, suffers from a heart attack and discovers he has an arrhythmic heart. This forces him to move from his current normal public school to Yamaku High School, a school exclusively for students with physical disabilities. It is here where Hisao learns to cope with his disability, meet others who have their own impairments, and perhaps find love.
In Katawa Shoujo, there are five girls that Hisao is able to have a relationship with: Emi (whose legs were amputated), Rin (who lost her arms to a birth defect), Lilly (who is blind), Hanako (who was severely burned as a child), and Shizune (who is deaf). Each has their own personality and is much more than their “disability”. Each love interest has her morals, dreams, and likes and dislikes. Each playthrough allows you to see this for yourself, and I actually felt a special bond with every girl after I finished their story. The writing throughout the game is very sincere and heartfelt, with each path having its share of happiness and heartache.
In my first playthrough I ended up with Hanako, who is a shy, quiet girl who suffers from severe burns on half of her body. She was often found reading in the library, inside the safe world of her books instead of the social anxieties the outside world placed on her. However, as I got closer and closer to Hanako, she revealed more about herself and I found that she was not as fragile as she appeared and I was reminded that people do not want to be treated like an expensive vase or brittle piece of glass, but rather as an actual person with their own strengths and deserving of respect. In this playthrough I actually ended up with the “bad” ending: where the girl breaks up with Hisao. I was heartbroken but it also helped me to understand that point. When I went back to get the “good” ending, I found myself learning how people want to have their own sense of independence and do not want to make others worry or become obsessed with their care. And this is perhaps the most endearing and important part about Katawa Shoujo; it teaches you how people actually want to be treated in the real world and the lessons from this game are not only applicable to the girl you are romancing, but are rather relevant to interacting with the world as a whole. I can think of several “Hanako”‘s whom I’ve met within my life who I treated as very delicate and emotionally sensitive, when perhaps I was not giving their individuality and strength enough credit.
My last playthrough also made me think a lot about myself and my own past. The girl I saved for last was Rin, who is an armless girl who is obsessed with painting. However, she is also a bit “out there”, with no one being able to truly understand her. Even Emi, her closest friend, admits that she cannot understand half the things Rin says. And as I continued along Rin’s path, I often found myself frustrated with how Rin seemed impossible to connect with, she seemed to have a disconnected view of the world, with her own thoughts being unintelligible to how most people think. However, occasionally Hisao and Rin do link on one point and another, and in that instant they are able to truly understand each other. Throughout this playthrough I often found myself asking the same questions Hisao asked himself as he was trying to decipher the puzzle that is Rin. She lives on another “wavelength” than other people that makes her truly difficult to understand, and I found myself relating to how people are unable to fully understand one another because of their thought processes and upbringing. Navigating Rin’s route is much like trying to figure out a complicated and intricate maze, every turn seems to only confuse more and more. However, when you get to the end you feel like you truly accomplished a great ordeal and you come out a smarter person. Rin’s path is where the writing of Katawa Shoujo truly shines as it effortlessly conveys complex ideas and makes you realize something about yourself along the way.
I won’t go into details of the others paths in order not to spoil the entire game, however I will mention that every path is worth playing and has something to important to take away from it.
Being a visual novel, I also feel like it is important to address the art contained in the game. All of the girls are drawn beautifully with each of them having their specific quirks and personalities visible in their faces and animations. The background art is also magnificent, it seems to have an almost dream-like quality where a lot of the colors and shades blend into one another while still portraying a full landscape. Each girl also has a special movie played after the first chapter which showcases Hisao’s relationship with them, and while these are not the most professional works of animation I have seen, they are still better than one would expect from an indie game. Being a mature game, there also sex scenes present, however they are presented in a tasteful manner and feel much less like fetish porn but rather feel like an intimate bond between Hisao and his love interest. There are many pieces of artwork for each girl and despite being 90% complete with the game, I still have 10+ items not unlocked in the gallery.
Another spectacular but oft-overlooked aspect of this game is the music. The music was composed by NicolArmafi and Blue123, and it is absolutely beautiful. Each piece conveys the exact emotion of the scene through sound and affected how I experienced each chapter of the novel. Even now as I listen to it I can recall an exact scene which incorporated this song, how I felt that the moment and the choices I or Hisao made, and how it affected Emi or Shizune, or any of the other girls. The soundtrack draws you in makes you experience the game as if you were actually there. This is not a game that can be fully enjoyed without the sound turned on.
Overall, Katawa Shoujo is definitely one of the best games to come out of 2012, personally going into my top 5 games released this year and likely into my top 10 of all time. The emotions and thoughts that I experienced throughout this game were like no other and I certainly look forward to a new playthrough of Katawa Shoujo, and hopefully, a new game from 4 Leaf Studios in the future.
Download link for Katawa Shoujo