Sunday, June 3, 2012

Katawa Shoujo Will Change You

Have you ever had a great idea and wished there was someone you could share it with? Apparently, the history of Katawa Shoujo can be traced back to a discussion on 4chan some odd years ago. I don't personally know the full story, but it was a single community effort between anonymous individuals over the internet, collaborating to create pieces of art, fiction, and technology. Their independent efforts, unfettered by the usual corporate bureaucracy involved in video game development, have yielded one of the most immersive and complex stories ever created.

Without ruining too much of the plot, shortly after the story begins, your character is forced to attend a new school for the disabled by certain life events. Part of the storyline involves your own character dealing with what it means to be disabled, and what normal actually is. Linked into this are the various students you're introduced to. On your first few days, you're given the opportunity to identify with each character and choose whose storyline you would like to follow. There are multiple endings to the story dependent on the choices that you make throughout.  I suggest that every time an option arises, you stop and think about it from the perspective of the main character, and all those affected. By the ending of Act 1, you will have narrowed down the branching paths to a few focused around a character (or two).

To be fairly honest, I began this game like I usually would with any other bishojo graphic novel, through a shallow metric based on the characters' looks. Most bishojo that I have come across, tend to stick to a few cliche female personalities that are about as interesting as sopping wet cardboard. After reaching the end of Act 1 however, I detected that there was something more to Katawa Shoujo. There was a feeling of deja vu, or more accurately when you recognize someone at a glimpse, but have to double take to scrutinize them more closely. I started over with a new purpose. I searched for the personalities of the characters on a quest to uncover this strange aura around the writing.

My Notes on the Characters:
  • Shizune is the deaf and mute class representative of 3-4. Possessed of a strong personality, she believes in aggression and domination, and takes much pride in these aspects. I rate her as most likely to become an evil dictator. I certainly consider her storyline, but since she is introduced first, I wait to examine the others.
  • Misha is the translator for Shizune. She has a problem keeping the volume of her voice below a shout, which is complimented by her extreme friendless and naivety. I'm not really sure what to make of her off the bat, since she's attached to Shizune, who tends to take control of the conversations. I note that she may have hidden potential, but put her in the back of the list.
  • Hanako was caught in a fire and burned much of her body. My first thoughts when I saw her was that she may be the girl from the opening scene who felt misplaced guilt over Hisao's hospitalization and burned herself in order to attend the same school as him. Her timid personality and phobia of people lends a little bit to this theory, but Lilly mentioned that Hanako's injuries occurred at a younger age. Still, I feel like there's more to her story than just post traumatic stress disorder.
  • Lilly is the blind representative of 3-2, a class for blind or mostly blind students, and mortal enemy of Shizune. They don't fully explain this enmity in Act 1, so it definitely piques my interest. She's the tallest person in the game that isn't a teacher and apparently raised as a proper British lady. She's also one of the few people Hanako trusts, which would mean that there's a great potential for her story to reveal parts of Shizune's and Hanako's respective pasts. There seems to be a lot of potential here.
  • Emi is a track and field runner, sans legs, with an exuberant and childish personality similar to Misha's, but more exaggerated. Despite her disability, she loves to run everywhere, on the track in the morning, rain or shine, and through the halls during the day, much to the ire of taskmaster Shizune. She worries the most about Hisao's health, and encourages him to join her for practice in the mornings. Her dialogue and emotes are the most light hearted of any character in the game. Definitely a storyline that can cheer someone up and very worth considering.
  • I was immediately repulsed by Rin. It wasn't because she didn't have arms, it's because I'm not a feet person. Again with the shallowness, I know, but feet seriously creep me out for whatever reason. Since she was introduced eating lunch with a fork between her toes, you might not think that she'd be the story I'd be interested in, which is what I felt on my first innocent play through Act 1. However, the second time...

I couldn't place it at first. Rin is an artist that paints with her feet. She's always looking around, looking for things that no one can see, or looking through people at what she imagines of them. I thought she reminded me of an old high school crush I had that was never truly resolved in my life, and that's why I originally chose her path. Perhaps her story would present another way of looking at my own past and understanding it.

Her story revolves around the concepts of self and identity. Her abstract style of art reflects a tragic search for who she really is, and a conservatory effort to preserve the past selves that she can hardly remember. Consider every scene with her for a long period and you'll discover multiple layers that build up to the fourth wall. Questions bleed over from the game into real life. Are thoughts like clouds, ephemeral and high above the world? What is art? What does it mean to change oneself? Does the previous self have to be destroyed to affect change? What is important in life?

A strange thing occurred. The main character and I drifted apart in understanding. He became frustrated with her aloof nature, while I began to examine it more closely and came to a truer understanding of why I chose this path. When he began scolding her for the choices he had encouraged her to make, I wanted to defend her against him. Still within the mindset of thinking of her as the analogue of a high school crush, it took me the majority of the game to realize why I wanted to defend her. The way Rin acts, and thinks...

She's like me.

I know it seems from this long expository that I might be the talkative type, but, in person, my conversations come in torrents or one liners. My thoughts are constantly in flux, often separate from the real world. The subjects of what it means to change and to have an identity are things that I have been wrestling with for years. When I pour myself into a work, it's like a dam is opened and I can finally be me, so long as I continue to draw or write. My memory is like a foggy ocean, full of ghost ships and distracting light houses. Rin is the only character I've known that has come so close to describing who I am.

More than anything, I wanted her life to work out, and so I took every choice as if they were the most life threatening events in the universe, paused in front of me while I decided on my actions. At that point, I was no longer deciding for Hisao, or for Rin, but instead for myself. The choices were about the themes and the concepts brought up by the narrative and filtered through these characters. Carried by the author's words, I began an introspective journey that deepened as I continued through the game. When I arrived at Rin's good ending in my first try, it was like I had found the path to my own good ending. Now, I just have to figure out what that means.

Rin may not be the character you choose. Every person is mostly different, after all.

If you haven't played Katawa Shoujo, you can grab a free copy from their website. Keep in mind that it is aimed at adults, but you can turn off adult scenes in the options menu.