Visual Novels and Katawa Shoujo

According to Wikipedia, a VN is “an interactive fiction game featuring mostly static anime-style graphics…“, a kind of choose your own adventure game for adults, if you will. In fact, there’s very little of a games element to most of the VNs I’ve looked at. They are all composed as a linked collection of story nodes that include (a) a static locational graphic, often a photo, (b) a (mostly) static character figure, often drawn in anime style, superimposed, and (c) a text narrative stream from either the POV character or the character figure. Periodically, there’s a decision point, where the player/reader can drive the plot, based on the decisions they make.

Katawa Shoujo is a recently released VN, one of the higher quality examples, all the more impressive because it was done by an international team of volunteers, one that managed to hold together, despite the fact that few of them ever met face to face, for over five years.

The Katawa Shoujo

The game has gotten excellent reviews, some less lauditory but deeper analyses, and evidently touched a lot of people’s hearts.
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In Act 1 of Katawa Shoujo, we meet the POV character. Hisao is a high school senior with a bad heart and bad taste in sweaters, who starts Act 1 with a heart attack, a diagnosis of arrhythmia, a forced change of lifestyle, and a transfer to a school for students with special needs. The other major characters include (in the order shown in the picture above), aristocratic Lilly, and her friend Hanako, the shy girl. Then there’s Rin, the enigmatic artist, and irrepressable Emi, the runner. Finally, we have boisterous Misha (the only one shown who doesn’t have a path of her own), and Shizune, the take-no-prisoners student council president. The goal of the game, the McGuffin, is to find love with the girl of your choice. It’s a coming-of-age novel, a romance, a novel about coping with the world. Your choices determine how your life at the new school develops. Of course, once you have found your true love with girl A, you can always go back and try it again with girl B. That’s what makes it a game. In a regular novel, the author would have decided, and you’d just be along for the ride.

So, this is more like a collection of five stories than one long novel, one for each girl. No, it’s six stories, because Hisao has a story as well. Actually, it’s more like ten stories, because each story arc lets Hisao develop his own character differently. And, were the truth known, it is more like ten and three halves of stories, because Yuuko, Kenji, and Misha are all recurring secondary characters, and we see part of their stories, as well. Other characters have walk-ons of greater or lesser import, but we’d get into extended decimal places if we counted them.

Act 1 has the most complex structure, because this is where we meet all the characters and make the decisions that will take us through end of the VN. Decisions here drive which girl Hisao ends up with.

In Act 2, we follow Hisao and his chosen girl to the end. There are fewer decisions, some of which merely drive a choice of small talk, but most of which decide if you are going to have a happy or sad ending.

Hisao is a typical HS boy, driven by angst and misinterpretation of signals. He hates his newly-imposed disability, and he’s unsure of his relationship with any of the girls. His story, told multiple ways, is one of learning to cope, learning to accept, learning to deal with it. He’s a generally nice guy who is capable of making the wrong decision because of his own shortcomings and inability to communicate.*

What makes KS stand out, however, are the women. There’s not a weak one among them. They have all had to learn to deal, just as Hisao is learning, and they have survived and grown strong in the process. That doesn’t mean they can’t fail because of uncertainty, or because they have their own character flaws, or that in the ancient Greek fashion the characteristics that help them succeed in one situation turn out to be flaws in another. Those flaws are sometimes the source of the unhappy endings, or, more often, the cause of the dramatic conflicts that make each story worth reading. The women tend to be paired in the game, not as couples, but as friends or dorm mates. Rin and Emi, Lilly and Hanako, Shizune and Misha. A given story arc will include the pair, even when you are past the final decision point. Of course, that doesn’t mean the others disappear, they just don’t play as big a part.

There is adult content in this VN, which is understandable, since much of a coming-of-age story deals with this issue (and here, as often, it’s the followup of the two declaring their love for each other). It’s possible to turn the content off, and in most cases it doesn’t hurt the story, much. Actually, turning it off doesn’t do all that much. In one case, for example, we go from underwear to a suggestive photo of a canteloupe (cut pole-to-pole), and end up back with a naked girl. In another, it’s suggestive-looking sea life. So the X rated stuff is gone, but the R-18 is still there, and even with it off, you are left with no doubt as to what just happened. My recommendation is to leave the adult content on. There are some key story elements involved, and you are not going to be able to play this in the office anyway.

In most cases, it’s the girls who are driving the process. [Insert spoiler warning] Shizune does it because she’s a take-charge type, as is Emi, except that Emi has her own demons to fight. Hanako does it to resolve a situation she not-so-mistakenly thinks is about to spiral into an unhappy ending where she loses Hisao, but her almost-mistake thereby risks a different unhappy ending. Lilly realizes how much she loves Hisao when he has another heart incident, but things almost fall apart when she is called to fly back to her family overseas, and we have a Doctor Zhivago style ending. Rin has the most heart-breaking arc of all. Her story is one of an artist seeking to find herself as an artist, and driving herself to destruction in the effort. It’s for her art, and it’s worth it to her, even if you don’t think so. One sits back in horror at the emotional train wreck in progress, all the while being overwhelmed with admiration for the strength of character needed to follow that path. Rin’s story is not a happy one. In fact, one could be forgiven for deciding that the unhappy ending is the best for her.

It’s not all unrelieved tragedy; they are called happy endings for a reason. The last scene of the Hanako arc is particularly sweet. The Emi arc has some moments (in the adult content, another reason to leave it on) that are pure fun (Rin and the cloud, their assignation in the sports shed), and the interactions between Shizune and Lilly are always fun to read (particularly when you find out about their backstory).

Since this is an art-based story, and since it’s been in development for years, there is, of course, a large collection of fanart (click on ‘posts’). Some of it is pretty-to-beautiful. Some of it is workmanlike. Much of it is amateurish. Lots of it is pornographic, or sick, or worse. As usual, each drawing says more about the psychology of the artist than about the story, and let me tell you, there are some submitters out there who need to put their therapists on hazardous duty pay. It’s worth glancing through the collection, but be warned: things seen cannot be unseen, no matter how much eye-bleach you use.

I bring this up because there’s one particularly poignant set of cartoons that captures the emotional depth of KS better than any summary I could give, even though it’s not part of the game (click ‘previous’ to follow the sequence). Shy Hanako is saying that there’s this boy she really likes, and that he’s bought her a birthday present, and that makes her think he’s special. Then she says that what he bought her was a doll with brown hair, and you realize that we are on Lilly’s arc, not Hanako’s, and that she is doomed to disappointment.

The game isn’t perfect. Some of the conversations sound stilted. Misha’s booming laugh and bubblegum hair, and Kenji’s paranoid misogyny are often over the top, as is Shizune’s father, but these are minor flaws. In some cases, the romance-leading-to-sex seems almost perfunctory. When Shizune decides to have sex with Hisao, it’s like it was something she checked off on her day-timer. Despite that, by the time you are done, you care deeply about these people. They are real folks fighting real battles. Sometimes things are a little contrived, perhaps even operatic, but I will say I didn’t see most of the plot twists and in some cases was emotionally gobsmacked at how they unfolded.

So download the game. Play it — it takes about four hours for each of the story arcs, if you play through the parts you have covered already, but it takes much less time if you select the skip option to fast forward over the bits you’ve already read. If I had to make a recommendation, I’d say play the Lilly and Shizune arcs first, then Emi and Hanako. Save Rin for last…and when you play the Rin arc, think of the great fanfic that could be generated by the Nomiya/Saionji backstory.

Download the music. It’s a set of 46 music clips that run about an hour and a half total. It’s clean, simple, tunes, evocative of each of the story arcs and their heroines, the kind of music you wouldn’t mind being on hold with. I use the Passing of Time clip as the wake-up alarm on my cell phone. If you want to listen first, here’s the full set on SoundCloud

—– More on Visual Novels —–

In addition to the elements discussed above, sometimes a Visual Novel will have animated flash graphics. Sometimes (in commercial games) there are voice actors. Often, there is music, of varying levels of quality. VNs tend to be short on words. The one VN that I have an actual word count on is just shy of 13,000 words — what would be normally classed as a novelette. Of course, part of that is because a lot of the descripton is turned over to the graphics. Of course, you could triple that length and it still wouldn’t count as a real novel.

I find that I am not a big fan of VN, and not just because it’s an area where Sturgeon’s Law holds supreme. I think it’s because the genre is made up of exactly the wrong elements of the ones it rubs Venn diagrams with. They can’t compete with books for narrative detail, and the need to keep clicking next, or to pace yourself to the speed of the autoreader breaks up the flow. They don’t have the action an anime has, because the characters are essentially static (eyes will move, mouths will smile), as if they were painted on fans, like they used to do in the old days. The limited number of body positions for the characters, and the limited number of background graphics, means they don’t do as good a job at static art as do comic books or graphic novels. That said, a number of exceedingly good anime got their start as VN: Kanon, and Clannad, and Air, being the obvious examples. Katawa Shoujo has been garnering lots of compliments recently, and I’d like to hope that it could be be the basis for an anime, but I think the disconnect between the KS license and the requirements of the anime business model is probably insurmountable.

*Note: whenever I write a line like that I am reminded of someone’s comment on anime: 80% of the troubles of the world are due to miscommunication. The other 20% is split between magic and giant robots. We’ll there’s no robots, and no magic, except maybe in the stories.

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