Novelty is a strangely powerful thing. A world full of new, unique, and downright odd things are now permanently within arm’s reach. All thanks to that beautiful thing called the internet. All it takes now is an offhanded mention of an oddity on a website, and with a Google search I am right there. An ancient crypt decorated with thousands of human skulls? I am clicking hi-res photos right now. Someone writes a mysterious book all in cryptic images and code? I am downloading the PDF file right now. A small team of guys make a computer game about disabled high-school girls? Of course I am installing the demo. Why wouldn’t I?
But let’s backtrack a minute.
It was April, 2009. I am doing my morning routine of checking my favorite video-game news sites, with a steaming cup of tea in one hand. My alarm clock is hiding itself in a corner of the room, nursing a badly abused snooze button. When an oddly titled article pops up. The words ‘disabled girls’ and ‘game’ are seen on the same line of text and my curious, sleep addled mind commands me to click the link. Seconds after reading the article I was at the developer’s website, downloading the demo.
What I had expected to find was a strange game. Every scrap of info I had found pointed me towards believing that this was some strange exploitation meant to shock people and gain attention. Most likely I’d witness this, think it was weird, put it down, and never return to it. Much like all novelties.
I started up the demo…
The game is a visual novel called Katawa Shoujo. Visual Novels shows wall after wall of story and dialogue. These story bits include background images of scenery with static sprites of the story’s characters standing on screen. Just like the choose your own adventure books of my youth, at certain points in the story you can make decisions that (sometimes) drastically alter the course of the story. The visual novel genre is much more common in Japan, but there have been some recent games that experimented with the same mechanics, such as Ace Attorney, 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, and its sequel Virtue’s Last Reward.
The story starts out with the main character Hisao, meeting the girl he’s had a crush on behind the school on a snowy day. He is just about to reveal his feelings for her when his heart flutters, and he feels butterflies in his stomach. And by heart flutters, I mean cardiac arrest. This high-school boy just had a heart attack.
His recovery is long and lonesome in the hospital. It gets even worse when he learns he has something called “Cardiac Arrhythmia”. A permanent condition that he will forever be on medication for. With his old life shattered, his parents send him to Yamaku High-school. A school for youth struggling with disabilities.
The demo of the game covered the first part of the game introducing Hisao, his bum ticker, and the first week he spends at Yamaku High. During that time he meets five girls who all have their own disabilities and duties at the school. Depending on your choices in the game, he will end up befriending and even falling in love with one of them.
That last line is where some people started to feel uneasy about the intent behind this game. Many had unfairly assumed that this was a lot more exploitative about the subject matter than it ended up being. After finishing the demo waaaaaay back then, all of it, I knew this was a compassionate and legitimate project. I had investigated this looking for novelty…and ended up finding quality. A much more permanent substance.
I followed the production of this game like a hawk. I was an instant fan. And when the full game got released back at the start of 2012, after five years of development, I plunged into it with fervor. Rarely can one find a story with such touching depth and sincerity while still feeling new and interesting. The characters are not defined by their disabilities and have all overcome them in unique and inspiring ways. In fact the story focuses more on Hisao’s ignorance and inability to accept and deal with his own disability, with him ultimately growing as the story progresses, and growing differently based on your choices.
This is one of those games I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys a good story and a finely made game, with a touch of something brand new. It’s not the best looking game, or the most technical, but it still earns a place of recognition. This is a work of love on the part of the developers and it shows when they are willing to release the full game for free for everyone to play. Visual Novels are a niche genre, I’ll admit that, and there are those who argue that it cant even be called a game, but Katawa Shoujo is still worth a try.
Even if you have no interest in videogames or have never played them before, download the demo and sit down with it for a few minutes. I know that those few minutes, will turn into an hour or two.