The Let's Play Archive

Katawa Shoujo

by Falconier111

Part 141: The Future

Update 128: The Future

Katawa Shoujo OST - Wiosna

I was in high school and regularly frequented 4chan (yeah, I know) when the full version of Katawa Shoujo dropped a little bit over 10 years ago. I had my ADHD diagnosis then but didn’t consider myself disabled yet; the positive reception intrigued for the game intrigued me, but I didn’t have any real connection to the topic and took a year or so to get around to playing it. I downloaded KS to my clunky old MacBook, booted it up, and blazed through Act 1 until I realized I hit Emi’s route – I’d already decided to start with Lilly, you see. A quick restart later, I reached the first choice in her route, then saved and quit for the night. Thus began a pattern: I’d think about the choice on and off all day, open the game, make the choice, play until the next choice, and stop for the night, every day for over a week until I was done (Lilly’s good ending, first try). Then I closed KS and didn’t play it again for several years. As far as I was concerned, I’d beaten the game.

While both Emi and Misha have made solid pushes over the years to dethrone Lilly as Best Girl, I still remember how invested I was in getting it right with her back then. In the end, I settled on simple rubric: being a good boyfriend. I modeled my behavior on every healthy relationship I knew and any advice I got from the people in those relationships: if your partner has a concern, address it if you can or at least acknowledge it if you can’t; be supportive and help your partner when asked but respect their boundaries if they don’t want or need it; assume your partner is as competent as you are and don’t hide your problems when they come up. Lo and behold, I breezed through the route picking what I thought were the obvious answers and remember being shocked when I found people complaining how hard the route was. I was like, “did you try being a good person?” Four years later I came back to KS, tried that, and got Hanako’s Bad Ending for coddling her too much, but that’s beside the point; at the time, I was almost giddy at having so successfully navigated some very tense (simulated) social interactions at a time I knew I was failing at that in the real world every day.

The lessons it taught me to teach myself never really went away, but for many people KS had an even larger impact. Go to any YouTube video of the OST – it’s been uploaded several times – and go find somebody in the comments talking about how the game stopped them from committing suicide, or helped them repair their relationship with her sister, or made them choose this song to propose to (all of these are real, by the way). Even at the time people immediately understood there was something special here. I remember people joking about “Katawa Dick Syndrome”, coming to masturbate to something weird and ending up too overwhelmed with emotion to get it up (Rin’s name showed up a lot there, with a lot of people implying their horny impatience accidentally helped them relate with her frustration; I doubt that was intentional, but if it was, holy shit, dude). The devs helped by being accessible and charismatic, right down to releasing April Fools announcements for everything from voice acting to an anime by Studio DEEN to what looked like an announcement of two new, genuinely compelling routes before the post dissolved into letting you hit on Kenji and buy branded body pillows.

They even released a physical copy. In French, unfortunately.

But nothing lasts forever, and the team decided to part ways after specifically denouncing the idea of a Katawa Shoujo 2. By 2018, 4 Leaf Studios had gone dormant. The initial flood of fanwork, enough to fill entire subforums with routes for other characters, elaborate hand-animated music videos, and attempts to dub the whole game, slowed to a trickle. The devs scattered and started working on their own visual novels (a few made that their careers) or just vanished into the Internet. News articles discussing KS dried up and other projects (ones that came out later) would later be dubbed the earliest successful non-Japanese visual novels. The project was over.

It wasn’t forgotten, though. Over eight years after KS’s full release, a mod called Doki Doki Blue Skies hit the Doki Doki Literature Club community, its stated goal turning the original game into a psychological drama with a strong focus on realistic mental health issues. It, of course, named Katawa Shoujo as its biggest inspiration. It really isn’t surprising that the people putting together a visual novel in English would be familiar with it, though. Visual novels were already a thing in the West by 2007 – Phoenix Wright already had two sequels out in English – but at that point all the quality ones were still just translated Japanese titles. The KS demo in 2009 didn’t just blow minds because they’d managed to take such a god-awful concept and turn it into something interesting and complex: it may have been the first time someone actually released an original English visual novel of any real length. Certainly the first to get recognition outside visual novel circles. One year later, Digital: A Love Story came out, netting awards on the indie circuit. The full version of Katawa Shoujo dropped in 2012, months before the release of Analogue: A Hate Story and Long Live the Queen, both of which tend to show up early in the histories of the medium. 2014 saw We Know The Devil, 2016 saw VA-11 Hall-A (no LP in the archive, sorry), and 2017 saw Doki Doki Literature Club, a work made specifically to criticize visual novels by somebody who hated visual novels – which, like many good deconstructions, became a breakout hit (in this case the genre’s first). The years since have seen a slew of visual novels ranging from instant classics to garbage clogging up your Steam page – it’s a whole industry now. And yet, five years after release, when asked how they got into visual novels, English-speaking VN fans more often than not named KS. 10 years after release, someone could assert Katawa Shoujo was the only worthwhile Western visual novel and get grudging universal agreement from other fans (DDLC got No True Scotsman’d into a VN non-VN fans read). I’ve noticed, as a historian, there’s a certain level of notoriety a work or person can achieve where the public at large forgets they exist, but scholars and enthusiasts keep talking about them forever. Katawa Shoujo sits comfortably at that point. It’s the Metropolis of original English-language visual novels, which is one of the most specific metaphors I’ve broken out the last few months.

They still have all the downloadable material available, ranging from wallpapers (like this one) to the soundtrack to artbooks.

Meanwhile, a couple weeks ago I was chatting with a neurodivergent coworker about the state of acceptance in the world when she brought up she never would’ve dreamed of talking about neurodiversity at work six years ago. A lot has changed in the last few years. Had I tried to run this LP 10 years ago as it is now, it would have either melted down into toxicity or been killed by trolls long before it finished. As time goes on, attitudes towards disability really are softening; I’ve watched it happen. But progress is piecemeal and so frequently reversed that it’s heartbreaking; people constantly slip through the cracks to the complete apathy of the people around them and we face challenges all the time, everything from diversity hiring initiatives offering “competitive” salaries they won’t define to stripping away our ability to vote in the rush to strip other people’s ability to vote. How do we stop this?

The answer, I think, lies in relationships. My uncle and his now husband came out in the 70s, and my parents (who met in the community theater) were the first members of our family to support him. My godparents are my Aunt Rae and Uncle Bob; my sister’s godparents are my Uncle Nathan and Uncle John. I don’t really remember my first introduction to the idea of queer people being people because that’s been a part of my life from the beginning. I do remember my first introduction to the other side, though, because it happened when my Scout troup found out my uncles were gay and demanded I renounce them in front of an assembly. To them, they must’ve been testing my faith or trying to save me from something, I don’t know. To me, it was baffling and inhuman, people I didn’t know demanding I denounce my uncles who had a model train set in the basement and kept small-to-medium dogs and expecting me to act like they were doing your favor. And that, I think, is the key: they tried to leverage prejudice against personal relationships, then got smacked when I pulled out and told my now-furious parents exactly what happened. People have a knee-jerk “this is corny” reaction whenever someone brings up the Power of Friendship and/or Love, but that cliché is a cross-culture moneymaker for a reason. If you try to tell people someone they care about is a fucked-up stereotype when they clearly aren’t, it makes them a lot more likely to just give you the middle finger and shift their worldview to fit their reality instead. That’s a big part of why queer rights seemed to accomplish as much in decades as other civil rights movements accomplish in centuries. I think the way forward for us, too.

Trouble is, a lot of people see us as, well, baffling and inhuman. We are seen as Other, separate from them in both place and lifestyle. Except, we’re not. Something like 15% of the world’s population is disabled, and that number isn’t falling anytime soon. In fact, it’s increasing, with a pandemic-driven rise in disabilities both mental and physical in populations that previously thought themselves perfectly healthy. This isn’t the first time a pandemic caused severe long-term health issues – polio and AIDS come to mind – but this time we have a densely-networked disability rights movement in place to start spreading the word and recruiting allies on the Internet. As ghoulish as this is to say, we’re looking at an opportunity to change a lot of people’s lives for the better here. But it won’t happen unless we can get people to listen to what we have to say.

And that’s where Katawa Shoujo comes in. KS isn’t just special because of its unlikely origins, or because it turned out so well, or because of its content or its community or its legacy. It’s special because for over a decade Katawa Shoujo has been quietly saying that for us. 4LS didn’t make it as some kind of grand sweeping ideological statement, but that doesn’t really matter; to a huge swath of the population, disabled people being treated as full people IS an ideological statement, one they’ve never had to seriously consider before. And KS forces them to consider it not by browbeating them or guilting them or presenting statistics or sob stories, but by making them connect with characters as people who are also disabled. It uses that connection punch through bias just to tell a good story.

Now, over the years KS hasn’t exactly escaped criticism, some of it valid. A lot of people dismissed it out of hand because they thought it sounded gross, accused it of being disrespectful because it included sexual content (I wrote a disability corner in part on what’s wrong with that), or hit it with genre-driven double standards: either they leant too far away from visual novels and accused it of being too dialogue-heavy and uninteractive, or they leant too far in, slavishly compared it to Japanese visual novels, and dinged it points because it wasn’t Japanese. The ones that stick are that it’s overwritten and its characters are ultimately clichés.

But then… That’s kinda why it works, isn’t it? The game’s gimmick, the psychological hook that sets it apart from other games, is how it builds expectations, hides information disputing them in the text, and punishes you if you don’t pick up on it. KS isn’t just a digitized novel, it’s a video game, one that uses mechanics to enhance the experience by offering challenge. The game doesn’t explore character archetypes in ways other media hasn’t before, but the presence of disability is enough of a psychological baffle for many that the game subverting those archetypes can still come across as a surprise. The game drags on and on at times, but that provides players with enough time to pick through the text and assemble the information they need to really understand the characters in question while burying it in enough noise to make the process challenging. Whether you enjoy the process or not is very much a matter of personal taste, but it is a major reason why it keeps hooking people years later.

Every route keys off those two elements. The bright and cheerful girl has a dark past that torments her. But she can actually get by on her own well enough, and trying to sweep in and fix all her problems like she’s helpless will just get you shut down. The shy, traumatized wallflower needs your help to come out of her shell. But she’s a lot stronger than she looks, and if you don’t pick up on that she’ll progress right past you without stopping. The tsundere is rude and domineering to you even though she really wants you around. But that blunt assertiveness isn’t a mask, it’s her actual personality, and her inability to reign it in can hurt the people around her. The spacey art student has trouble connecting with other people. But her problems aren’t the ones you’d identify just looking at her, and trying to pin her down enough to bridge the gap is exactly the wrong thing to do. The proper rich girl is kind, welcoming, and willing to listen. But that doesn’t mean she’s at all submissive, and she’s the one in the leading role, not you. Each route uses game mechanics to further its message in various ways, with varying levels of success; Shizune’s route is only barely interactive and that doesn’t help its many issues, but Rin’s is a shining example of how video game mechanics can be used to tell a story in a more emotionally engaging way then pure text, the kind of game design that on a larger scale wins awards. Katawa Shoujo, whatever its faults, is a Good Game.

A full cast shot, for breaking up the text’s sake.

It is also an old game. 4LS stopped updating and patching it in 2015 and had disbanded entirely by 2018; before they wrapped it up, the devs formally renounced the idea of a Katawa Shoujo 2. The subreddit may be active, people may still be rediscovering it, but it isn’t the kind of thing that still puts people in seats.

And so we come to this thread. In all honesty, I was expecting Our Stories to fill up quite nicely, especially given how broad I was planning to set my criteria. I was not, however, expecting it to grow until it displaced the other content I included because otherwise it would’ve broken the post character limit. The response, abled and disabled, old fan and newcomer, has been overwhelming, as has the level of trust and openness so many posters have displayed by sharing some very personal stories.

I called it Our Stories because even when talking about disability, our stories are usually drowned out by other voices with wider impact; when we remain, it’s usually as a dissenting voice listed in one paragraph of the article or a couple quotes (usually taken out of context) to support somebody else’s conclusion. There are abled people whose posts were included there, but that was by design; partly because a lot of disabled people either haven’t realized they’re disabled or don’t want to admit it to a potentially hostile world, but partially because the whole point of a civil rights movement is getting the majority to treat us as equals – and cutting them out of the conversation is a great way to keep us separate and alien. I would say “I’ve taken great pains to make sure every abled voice included wasn’t also excluding a disabled voice”, but except for one time when the thread was melting down anyway, that really hasn’t been a problem. The abled posters who offered insight into these issues and how they look from their end have mostly been both receptive to what we say and straightforward in expressing what they think. That’s vital: we can’t have parity without people both knowing enough to treat us appropriately and being confident enough in their knowledge that they don’t pussyfoot around issues and let them fester. It hasn’t been perfect, at all, but I never expected it to be. And as for our disabled posters? You guys have been extremely brave and extremely well spoken, sharing stories I doubt many people would’ve even considered with such vividness I know a few people in this thread actually realized they were disabled because of it, and facilitating this kind of self-discovery is the sort of thing many activists can only dream of.

I’ve also been surprised (with, again, one exception during Shizune’s route) how both open and confident the thread has been in debate. I’ve only needed to step in a few times, in a subject where the debates ruin relationships. Disability activism can be a vicious, self-destructive world sometimes; there’s so much at stake, there’s so much against us, so many of us have fallen victim to aspects of internalized ableism in ways subtle or overt, and we have so many different needs that we tend to dissolve into infighting. But for the most part this thread has balanced general respect and a determination to stand your ground without holding too many grudges. We need that kind of approach to actually change things. I think that, in spite of my best efforts, some people HAVE felt the need to leave the thread, or decided not to out of discomfort or general lack of spoons. I also know several people said they doubted their contributions were worthwhile, and I bet there were readers who decided against posting for that reason. And while I understand why you said that, I do have something to say: that’s the ableism talking. It doesn’t matter if your story’s similar to one someone else is told, it doesn’t matter how much or how little it’s affected your life, it doesn’t matter if you think other people have it worse than you (and that one’s a particularly insidiously misleading idea); your experiences with disability, to use a cliché, are valid by the fact that you experienced your disability. Some of the hardest-hitting posts in this thread came from people who said just that. Either way, even if this thread wasn’t enough, I hope one day you can find somewhere you feel safe enough to share, if you haven’t already. I wish that could’ve been this thread, but… The thread is over, and I think it’s time for us to look forward.

Well, the thread is almost over. I’ll be leaving it up for a week after this post to give people a chance to react, comment, and wrap things up on their end. If you need more time than that to get your thoughts in order, PM me or leave it in the thread and I’ll do so. At the end of that time, I’ll send the thread along to Baldurk for entry into the LPArchive. I’ll include some final instructions in a post after this, but I do want to add that everyone reading this is now invited to participate in the discord I set up for us. The invitation goes for you whatever you identify as, or whether you’re reading this post in the thread or the archive. I encourage everyone to swing by and keep our relationships growing.