The Let's Play Archive

Katawa Shoujo

by Falconier111

Part 64: Hanako, Agency, and Assumed Helplessness

Update 59: Hanako, Agency, and Assumed Helplessness

College was… Stressful. Back home, I had a support network that was almost unhealthily intense; at college, it vanished and left me kind of unstable. I remember one time where I ended up cramming a particularly depressing book right before class, and as I reached the end, I felt something shift in my head. When I say I’m not sure what happened next, I’m not saying I don’t know what happened (it was probably a dissociative episode featuring depersonalization with a dose of stress-based amnesia). I mean I literally do not remember the presentation I had to give that day. I thank my lucky stars I decided to draft out a structure to the presentation beforehand, since the only memory I have of it was looking at my notes and realizing I had no idea what I’d covered more than a few seconds ago – but I knew what I was currently talking about, so I just wrapped it up and moved to the next topic. I felt like some kind of puppeteer halfway in control of not only my body, but my mind; my sense of self was so profoundly divided I wasn’t even in full control of what I was saying, like I was giving orders only for someone else to interpret them. Had something catastrophic happened, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to react. I might have sat there screaming internally as my body failed to respond.

My memory kicked back in shortly after I finished the presentation. More amused than anything else, I sat back down, participated in class, and went home and played Crusader Kings II. I got a B+.

This particular flavor of resilience, the ability to take symptoms or issues that would stop many people in their tracks and just shrug them off, blows a lot of abled people’s minds. I mean, we’ve already talked about how many people see just being alive while disabled as some kind of profound act of bravery; the fact that we see our issues as just another element of our day-to-day lives often just doesn’t register. I’m not saying that most disabled people barely notice their disability, or that the resulting issues can’t be huge problems, or that we don’t have to take great care to make sure everything altogether, just that that struggle is a part of our lives instead of all of them.

I haven’t talked as much about the pitfalls of misguided help, though. Which is frustrating to talk about, because I don’t want to convince anyone not to help! Lots of people choke at the opportunity, whether it’s because they fear criticism or just because they aren’t sure they know what to do (reminder: ask and respect their answer and you’re golden). But there comes a point where help just… Isn’t appropriate. Even if they do everything right, there comes a point where relating to us as people in need of help instead of relating to us as just people gets infuriating. It’s a fine line to walk, and one that defines Hanako’s route. So today we’ll talk about that.

As with most routes, the last few choices you make in Hanako’s are the ones that determine your ending – in this case, deciding whether or not to go into the city and whether or not to listen to Lilly’s advice. If you go into the city but don’t take her advice, you get the Neutral Ending: Hisao and Hanako fail to engage with each other and start to drift apart. The final scene ends with them playing chess again as Hisao convinces himself that a platonic relationship is for the best. If you don’t go into the city, though? It doesn’t matter whether or not you listen to Lilly’s advice: no matter which option you pick, the game tells you you can’t bring yourself to listen to her. Instead of letting her take her time and come out on her own, Hisao oversteps his bounds and goes to her room to pry her out. He condescends and condescends and pushes and pushes and pushes until Hanako finally lashes out:

A hypothetical Update 55 posted:

HISAO: "Hanako...?"

HANAKO: "I'm telling you... please, go away. You don't understand anything..."

HISAO: "If we just had a talk, you could tell me what I don't understand. I just want to protect you, I don't really see..."

HANAKO: "Get... out, p-please..."

HISAO: "Just locking yourself in your room again isn't going to help anything, Hanako. Please..."


HISAO: "Hanako, I just want to help you—"

She suddenly storms off her bed, turning to me with an expression that takes me completely off guard."

HANAKO: "Get out of my room, get out of my room, get out of my room...!"

Hanako yells at me with such force that, for the first time in a long time, I feel genuinely frightened. I... I have no idea how to react to this, and from Hanako of all people.

HANAKO: "Leave! I'm telling you, go!"

HISAO: "B-but... I was just trying to... help you..."

HANAKO: "I know I need help! I know I'm broken! I don't need you to tell me that!"

HISAO: "I never said you were broken, or anything like that!"

HANAKO: "It's written on your face, it's written on Lilly's face, it's written on everybody's faces! I see a therapist every week, Lilly dotes on me as if I were her child, and now... even you! Nothing's changed, nothing at all! I hate Lilly, and I... I hate you more than anyone...!"

Her face moves in strange, almost grotesque ways. I've never seen someone completely lose it before, but it looks like the usually quiet and withdrawn girl in front of me is going into just such a destructive cycle before my eyes. I don't know what to do. I have no idea what I should say or do.

HANAKO: "Go! Leave me alone! Get out of here!"

I take a step back, then another, and then another. My retreat is only halted when I feel the door against my back. I can't fix this situation. Nothing I say would change anything, now. I feel like I'm in a strange and deeply unsettling foreign world. I don't want to be here any more. The door handle fights my clumsy attempts to open the door without turning my back to Hanako. Eventually, thankfully, the handle moves downwards. I open the door as fast as I can and almost leap backwards through it. As I go through, I keep my eyes on the girl in front of me. She's not broken. Hanako isn't broken. If she was broken, then I'm just as broken as she is after all that's happened to me. Lilly only ever did the best by her, and I only ever tried to protect her as best I could.

Hanako looks down, all her energy spent. Now that I've stepped out of her room, the worst of her fury is gone. But even now, I can't bring myself to argue with her. It's not just the deep shock at what she said... it feels like something else is stopping me. Something deep, that makes me feel physically sick. Without a word, I slowly shut the door. The creak of the old hinges sounds almost deafening.

Bad Endings in KS are usually like getting punched in the throat, but hers is especially bad. It’s also highly instructive. It’s culmination of a bunch of factors that all boil down to Hisao – and the player – not paying attention. I remember someone describing this route as fetish porn with anxiety instead of feet, and while that’s the sickest burn I’ve ever heard someone deliver this game, it’s also the result of how the route writer structured Hisao’s internal monologue with a goal in mind. Up until the culmination of the Good Ending, it consistently infantilizes Hanako. He likes her, appreciates her, tries to do right by her, and even has a crush on her, but he doesn’t really respect her, and his narration reflects that. But it also doesn’t reflect what’s really going on. The whole route is littered with little moments calling his belief into question that get drowned out by everything else going on. If you don’t pick up on those clues, you (as the player) fall into the same trap Hisao does and get spanked by the Bad Ending. If you DO look for those clues, you get the impression instead of a woman who’s constantly pushing her boundaries while gradually emerging from her (extremely thick) shell.

Most of these hints are well hidden, easily overlooked, and ambiguous, which is by design. Alone, they’re easily dismissed. Together, they point to something bigger. Let’s take, for example, something I called out back in the very first update of this route:

Update 36 posted:

After seeing Hanako's reactions to me over the past couple of days, I can understand why that is a boon. That, and Lilly being able to get some quiet away from her class as well. I take my seat last, after Lilly's poured the tea for us and sits down.

:eng101: Wait, hold on a sec. So they’re at a table with four seats by a window. Hisao’s sitting next to the window, Hanako’s sitting next to him, and Lilly’s sitting across from her. Though he may have just moved past Hanako to sit down, Hisao’s position implies he got there first and moved in. Lilly sat diagonally across from him. Hanako had a choice: she could either sit next to Lilly, the only person she feels comfortable around, or Hisao, the boy she just met. So did she deliberately choose to sit next to him instead of Lilly? :eng101:

A few people in the thread pointed out that from that angle her hair covers up most of her scars. That’s true. It’s also true that she could have sat across from him and spent her time looking to the left to the same effect, or tried to beat him to that spot, since it’s easily the best place for her to sit if she wants to hide everything away. But no, she sits next to the boy she just met. Likewise…

Update 40 posted:

We arrange the pieces, and before long we are sending pawns charging to their inevitable fates. I take my time and intently examine each move and its consequences, nostalgia for the game taking second place to the matters at hand. For a time the game is a lengthy battle of attrition, but I spot an opening and tear a line in her defense. A few moves later, her king is cornered by several of my pieces.

HISAO: "Checkmate. You're not bad at this, are you?"

An honest appraisal. Her technique is pretty good, but several times I was able to exploit her lack of prediction. I pick up a piece and examine it. It looks relatively new, yet worn for its age.

HANAKO: "I... I guess not."

HISAO: "Does Lilly play?"

The absence of Hanako's answer causes me to think about my question.

HANAKO: "A... A bit... T-this is the first time I've played against someone... other than her, or..."


She cuts herself off abruptly, leaving the answer hanging in the air. Someone she knew before coming to Yamaku, maybe.

HISAO: "Well then, I'm honored to have played against you."

HANAKO: "Um... can we play again?"

She asks as if she were asking me to cut off my own hands. The spirit of competition's gotten into her?

HISAO: "Sure. Though don't expect me to go easy on you this time..."

Not that I was before, mind. She seems to appreciate the competitive tone.

HANAKO: "S... same here..."

It’s not particularly bold, at least not at first glance, but you wouldn’t expect competitiveness out of someone who seems so nonconfrontational. And as we learn later, once she comes out of her shell even a little bit she starts kicking his ass.

Update 41 posted:

HISAO: "So, why all these weird things? Mixed Spice? Why would you need that in school?"

HANAKO: "I... sometimes... like to m-make food."

HISAO: "Well, yeah, so do I but... spices? That's a little more advanced, don't you think?"

HANAKO: "N-not really."

Update 41 posted:

As I take a bite, I notice Hanako trying her hardest to not look like she is looking at me. It's nothing special, but then again I can't really complain. I'm pretty lazy when it comes to cooking for myself.

HISAO: "Not bad, I guess this is made with the stuff you bought yesterday?"

HANAKO: "Y-yes."

Hanako's eyes shout at me, begging for some kind of feedback.

HISAO: "Well it was clearly worth it. Thanks, Hanako."

HANAKO: "I... I wanted to show you this... after yesterday..."

HISAO: "It's okay. I was just a little surprised at the stuff you were buying."

LILLY: "Hanako's always liked to experiment when it comes to food. I think it's good... most... of the time."

While Lilly's smile doesn't waver, the slight change in her tone tells me that things have not gone so well in the past. And it's not like Hanako has many people to sample her cooking...


Hang on... was Lilly waiting for me to go first? She didn't start eating until after I said it was all right... Her cheeky grin tells me that this was a deliberate action on her part. I'll have to try and work out how to get one over her in the future, to make up for this.

Remember, at this point she hasn’t known Hisao for more than a week or two. She already trusts him to some extent, something which has to be a leap of faith given how little she interacts with anyone who isn’t Lilly, but then he casually insults her ability to do something she seems to enjoy. So what’s her response? She tries to prove him wrong, putting effort into using the ingredients he poked fun at to create something for him – making herself vulnerable in the process. Judging by Lilly’s reaction, not only does her cooking not always turn out edible, but she knows this is the case. Hanako, who was bullied so thoroughly as a kid she only ever talks to like two people, took a big risk on him. Sure, it may have been a calculated risk given what she knows about him, but it’s not what you’d expect from her if you’d only paid attention to her social anxiety.

And then, of course, we see the big reveal.

Update 43 posted:

Every ten or so seconds she peers over the top of her book, but when our eyes meet she quickly ducks behind the covers. I guess she did want to talk about something after all.

HISAO: "What's up? You look like a prairie dog on lookout."

HANAKO: "N-... it's nothing."

HISAO: "I've told you before, “nothing” means “something” when you say it like that."

Hanako squirms a little in her beanbag, hoping that by changing her position she'll find the words she's looking for.

HANAKO: "I... I was in an accident."

HISAO: "Accident? Just now? Are you all right?"

Hanako shakes her head, her hair flowing around her shoulders in wisps of amethyst on a background of pale and dark flesh.

HANAKO: "N-no. When I was y-younger."

Katawa Shoujo OST - Painful History

Realization crashes into me like a semi.

HANAKO: "When I... when I was..."

HISAO: "It's all right Hanako, you don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to..."

Again she shakes her head.

HANAKO: "N-no. I want... I have to tell you."

The event she describes is the most traumatic thing she ever lived through. Its aftermath changed everything in her life for the worse. She can’t relive it casually, and if I remember right she hasn’t even told Lilly. But, as she says later in the scene, she brings it up to him because Lilly spilled the beans about Hisao’s heart condition and she felt she needed to even the playing field. And even though Hisao encourages her not to go through with it, she forges ahead and tells them anyway.

I know I must sound like a mad prophet connecting all of this, but these masked risks on her part show up over and over again throughout the route – hell, all these are from the first two acts alone. Whenever I spotted one, I deliberately screenshotted it and used the space break to draw attention to it. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. But one moment defines her ability to venture out:

Update 48 posted:

The girls' dormitory is especially rowdy today, with a number of girls loudly playing games and watching the television in the common room on the first floor. I can hear their voices even now, standing in front of Hanako's door. It's an odd contrast to the emptiness of the floor she's on. The voices from below make the emptiness feel all the more lonely. I had hopes Hanako would be in class today, especially after the talk Lilly and I had with her last night, but I feel like I shouldn't hold it against her. It was a pretty awful episode, and to have experienced it firsthand must be all the worse.

Not knowing what state she's in, I take a small breath before giving a few sharp knocks on her brown door. All I can do is stand and wait, doing my best not to feel anxious. As the seconds wear on, I begin to think she might be asleep and didn't hear me knocking. The door handle rattles a little before I can raise my hand to knock again, though.

The door opens a sliver, an eye appearing in the gap only just large enough for it to peer through. I'm sure this girl would install a peephole in her dormitory door, if only such a thing was allowed. I just stand and smile at her. I don't think words would really help here, after all. The act is returned in kind, with Hanako wordlessly looking at me. The gap's not wide enough to see her expression, and I can only guess what she's thinking. Time passes as we look at each other, the only sound being the disembodied gaiety from the ground floor. I'm not sure how long it takes, but eventually the eye moves away. I keep wondering whether she'll let me in or shut me out until the door slowly begins to creak open.

Katawa Shoujo OST - Comfort

Now that I have a full view of her and her bedroom behind, the first thing I notice is that Hanako's hair is quite damp. She's recently showered, which is made even more obvious by the scent of shampoo wafting towards me. The look on her face seems one of curiosity, as if she's not really sure what to make of me. Even so, I'm not really all that sure of what she's thinking. It feels as if she's gone away for a long time, and having now returned, neither of us knows what to say to the other. Hanako realizes she's staring, looking away awkwardly before turning to the side and gazing at her feet. I decide to take it as an invitation and step past her into the room, closing the door behind me as I do so. I can see her hands fiddling in the folds of the oversized gown that hangs from her shoulders. I try to concentrate on what I want to say, but the scent from her addles my senses. To my surprise, it's not me, but Hanako that breaks the silence.

HANAKO: "Why..."

HISAO: "Because... uh..."

… Why did I come here? I was worried about Hanako, so I came to her room. She let me in, as I had hoped, and then... what? What did I mean to do? What did I mean to say? Why didn't I think this through before coming here... I want to make up for what I feel I caused, at least partly. I want to try and remove the distance I feel between us since then, and to see her happy. How can I do that when I don't know the first thing about her?

I wonder... I wonder if this is how Iwanako felt when she saw me lying in that sterile, pastel blue hospital bed.

HISAO: "I uh... I... um..."

A deep sigh steadies my nerves a little and ends my stammering. I don't think I've ever felt this nervous around someone before. When I'm like this, I don't think I can lie. Even if I could bring myself to, Hanako would see through it right away.

HISAO: "I don't know. I just... wanted to see you, I guess."

Her fingers stop moving, giving me a little surprise. Looking up to her face, she gives a sweet smile and a nod. That was a satisfactory answer for her?

HANAKO: "Um... since you're here... I'd like to... play a game of chess with you..."

I almost hang my head in disbelief that all she wants to do, after I've been winding myself up so much, is play a game. Looking at her face though, a tentative smile perched upon it, I realize that this is more than that. She could have not bothered answering the door. She could have shut it as soon as she saw my face. She could have asked me to leave. She could have rejected me at many points, but she didn't.

Now, with this calm face, she wants me to play the same game that we played when we first really spent time alone together. A feeling of relief washes over me.

We just watched her have a breakdown in class and refuse to leave her room for days. Hisao’s savior complex is in full overdrive. And she just… Recovers. She isn’t done yet, but she’s clawing her way out of the trauma pit on her own. The author even got a neat detail most people would miss: during a serious depressive episode, personal hygiene is one of the first things to go. Hanako showering symbolizes her making her own way out and handling her issues on her own, even if she turns to others for help when she can’t (I mean, it’s also there because it turns them on a bit, but this game isn’t shy about linking sexuality with deeper themes). It also, not coincidentally, gives Hisao a blueprint for how to behave the next time something like this happens, one that dovetails with everything else we’ve been seeing: give her support and friendship but listen to her when she tries to set boundaries, supporting her AND her decisions instead of just generically supporting her. That’s how you give help and respect agency.

And then the worst – and best – choice in the route blindsides you.

Update 52 posted:

Lilly gives her farewells to the both of us with a fair measure of reluctance.


Without further ado, the driver starts the engine once more and they begin the journey down the hill, and towards the airport. The two of us stand at the gates for a long time even after they've disappeared from sight, not really knowing what to do.

HISAO: "So, what do you want to do?"

HANAKO: "I... don't know."

>How about we call it a day?
>Do you want to go into the city?

On the one hand, presenting these options like this was a bad design decision because of how disconnected they are from the results. KS has a nasty habit of leaving the wording on some of its most important choices ambiguous (with a particularly egregious instance coming up I’ll point out). While we know Hanako enjoyed her last outing to the city, it happened under different circumstances and there is no guarantee it will go as well this time. Plus, the idea of going into town comes out of the blue – it’s so abrupt the narrative stops to call attention to that fact if you choose that option – and since Hisao hasn’t gone to town on his own initiative since Act 1, it feels a little fake. And then this awkward, unforeshadowed decision determines whether or not you get the Bad Ending. It feels bad, the whole situation just doesn’t jibe narratively.

On the other hand, it’s an excellent design decision on a mechanical level, one that makes use of the visual novel format. Someone who doesn’t already know what’s going to happen next and hasn’t been paying attention will probably just decide to go home, and then the Bad Ending will kick them in the emotional balls. If they’ve gotten invested in the story, they’ll revisit various decisions to figure out what went wrong, ideally examining everything they read based on what they learned when Hanako finally snapped. That is when everything I’ve talked about so far becomes clear, when players start spotting their own misconceptions and reevaluating everything they believed about her and her life, driven by the knowledge that the standard visual novel structure guarantees a better ending.

At some point in early development, somebody leaked a beta version of KS now lost in the bowels of the Internet. Apparently, this early version of the game deviated wildly from the finished product. I didn’t mention it last time because Emi’s route didn’t change much, but apparently every other route underwent major revisions – Hanako’s most of all. Sometimes, those differences were relatively minor: Hanako, for instance, went to a foster home instead of an orphanage and had a previous love interest who died in a car accident immediately after confessing. But instead of the standard Good/Neutral/Bad Ending structure, by default her route had three Bad Endings in a row, some of which killed you or her. The players had to go through Lilly’s route and take a hidden off-ramp to get to her Good Ending. And honestly, thank fuck they changed that: unless the devs found a way to warn you beforehand, most players would probably just assume she couldn’t be saved and give up on the route entirely.

Instead, they changed the route in the finished product, keeping its structure meta in in the way I covered above. Instead of punishing players for not exploring the rest of the game, it compels them to go back and replay the route while looking at it from a different perspective, deepening their investment in and appreciation of the storyline. It's a great way to get players hooked, and if you ever need an example of whether videogame mechanics can enhance a narrative experience, you can just point to how this route forces readers to engage with Hanako’s character. Of course, that doesn’t mean every player got the memo, and I bet plenty of people just tried things at random and made it through the route that way or approach it some other way: I’d be interested in hearing how the thread experienced Hanako’s route and if I missed something. It also doesn’t fix the awkward writing necessary to accomplish all of these goals at once, among other things kind of burying the lede on the romantic side. But it still manages to hook readers and drive them along, leaving it immortal in a lot of players’ minds.

As with last time, I skipped over plenty of possible subjects: Lilly’s influence in Hanako’s life, for better and for worse; the symbolism behind Hanako’s dolls and Lilly’s blindness as they relate to her appearance; the contrast between Hisao and Hanako’s approaches to their conditions and the differences between visible and invisible disabilities; how Hanako and Emi, despite being very different people on the surface, had their lives shaped by trauma directly related to their disabilities, and how Hanako’s dealing with hers better than Emi; whether making Lilly able to hold her liquor is racist against Scottish people. But speaking of disabilities, just like with Emi, Hanako’s scars are mostly a big plot device. Her issues do not revolve around the scars themselves. Instead, they revolve around the horror of losing everything in an instant and the way she was bullied and isolated by those around her. Her injuries were never the issue: other people’s judgment was. I won’t go into how shame creates and enforces prejudice against disabilities because that’s a whole other essay and this thing’s pushing how long I can make a post before it gets too big for me to edit all at once, but it’s worth noting that, just like last time, her disability did not define Hanako. It only defined the circumstances around her, ones she’s coming to terms with on her own.

Creating a vulnerable-seeming character that both triggers someone’s protective instinct and earns their respect is a delicate art. Usually, you have to underlay a cute exterior with some kind of exceptional inner strength: I’m thinking Nanako’s almost tragic maturity in Persona 4 or Nunnally’s (another disabled character!) incredible resilience in Code Geass. When done right, that character can lodge itself in the hearts and memories of readers, players, or viewers - just like Hanako has, with her peculiar combination of vulnerability and boldness. She regularly tops character popularity polls (usually followed closely by Lilly), gets the lion’s share of fanart posted in the still very active KS subreddit, and is the proud namesake of As always, with the route over discussion of the route, including parts we haven't seen can now be discussed without spoilers. I'd love to hear whether this all sounds on-base to everyone. Our next focus character has a… More contentious reputation. I'll be taking this Friday off, but on Monday, we’ll kick off the most anime route in the game and get to know Shizune Hakamichi.