And now for something completely different.
A few days ago, I ran across a blog post recommending the preview version of a visual novel entitled, Katawa Shoujo, Japanese for “Disability Girls.” The story was about a high-school-age boy who falls victim to a heart ailment and is transferred to a boarding school for disabled kids, with a specially-trained faculty and medical facilities on-site. It sounded interesting, so I took a look at it.
A visual novel is a very simple wedding of storytelling and technology. Text is accompanied by pictures, music, and sound effects, and the reader is offered a choice of actions at key points during the story. The reader’s decision changes the story’s outcome. It’s part book, part movie, and part game. Some of them have in fact been ported to videogame consoles, and they’re very popular. If it’s done well, a visual novel creates an immersive atmosphere that can draw the reader into a story in a way the plain text may not. If it’s not done well, you’ve got a noisy “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.
Katawa Shoujo is basically a coming-of-age story. I like coming-of-age stories. I write a lot of them myself. They highlight one of the most dramatic moments in life: the moment you stop being a young pudd’nhead, just a little bit, and realize you’re not the center of the universe. Some people never get there, but if you do, it rocks your world.
The preview is Act 1 of the story, about 15% of the planned final product, and it takes a couple of hours to work through, reading at a moderate pace.
After a dramatic near-death experience, the protagonist of Katawa Shoujo begins awkwardly assimilating into his new school. It’s harder than usual, because he’s still struggling with the reality that he’s disabled, and he’s not sure how to interact with all these handicapped folks–is it more polite to acknowledge and talk about someone’s disability or to ignore it? Should he feel sorry for them, or will they find that attitude insulting? He meets an assortment of staffers and fellow classmates, including several young ladies, all of whom have some physical challenge–blindness, deafness, missing limbs, burn trauma–but most have come to terms with their handicaps and challenge him to stop seeing himself as a freak and begin taking action to make his life better. He even makes friends with his goofy, paranoid dorm neighbor, a loner who’s convinced of some global feminist conspiracy.
So far, so good. The character depictions were sensitive and tasteful, and although the writing wasn’t polished, there was a surprising amount of sophistication and humor in their interactions and some thoughtful introspection. There were some very nice backgrounds (a combination of photography and graphic illustration), and the music and sound effects enhanced the atmosphere of a boarding school in a woodsy suburban area. Frankly, I’d never seen anything in a story/game format that confronted disabilities in such a straightforward and affirming manner, but maybe I don’t get out enough. Pretty cool, thought I, especially for an amateur production.
Then I clicked over to the developers’ blog & forums, hoping to gain some insights into how they came up with this idea, and how they planned to complete the project.
Sigh. They plan to conclude the various story arcs with a physical consummation of the romance. There were the usual arguments for explicit content you find in any media: it’s reality, teenagers fall in love and hook up–get over it; there’s nothing wrong with erotic art if it’s tastefully done; censorship is bad and we shouldn’t submit to it; if people don’t like this, they don’t have to look at it; nobody will pay attention or take this seriously if we omit the explicit scenes; we’re already committed, and it will be too hard to change things now; and so on.
I wasn’t terribly surprised. A lot of visual novels fall into the category of “dating sims,” where a character must figure out how to approach a girl, considering her personality, likes, and dislikes, and form a relationship with her, usually concluding with an obligatory hooking-up. It’s a genre, and the audience has certain expectations.
The initial review I read had me hoping this one was different, and the preview made an even stronger impression. The teen romance seemed secondary to the protagonist’s journey toward becoming a more mature and complete person. Aside from one scene with some strong language, there wasn’t anything depicted that went past a PG rating. The story didn’t need anything beyond that, and most of the feedback I saw in the forums reflected that fact. People were fascinated enough with the unique concept, characters, and storytelling to keep reading, and they appreciated the hard work and talent evident in the product’s design and execution.
An interesting theme that emerged in the forum comments was that a couple of the developers seemed to experience a “coming-of-age” moment themselves and realized they’d created something with an uplifting element they hadn’t expected, something that carried a profound positive message. There were suggestions to tone down the mature content or omit it entirely, or perhaps create a parallel “clean” version. The final compromise was to provide a switch in the options menu that would black out any explicit visuals in the final product. Of course, they’ll still be there, embedded in the program files, available at a mouse click. Do I want that lurking on my hard drive? No, I don’t.
I have no interest in censorship, as if I or anyone else could possibly enforce it
(UPDATE, 28 May 09: Actually, the U.S. Government seems quite willing to enforce on this issue. If the developers proceed as planned, they’ll be on some very thin legal ice with regard to the Protect Act of 2003. Creation or possession of drawings of even fictional minors fall under its purview, and an American manga collector was recently convicted for violation of this law. Do they really want to explain to a federal judge why their artwork shouldn’t be interpreted as obscene or exploitative? Another reason to just not go there).
I was simply disappointed to find that a group of people who spent so much time and effort showing how wrong it is to objectify and stereotype people based on physical appearance and other external issues, and demonstrating how it’s possible to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles with determination and ingenuity, are about to obscure that message by catering to simple-minded adolescent lust. There’s nothing particularly mature or even edgy about doing that. It takes something special and turns it into just another dating sim.
Who knows? Maybe the positive message will still win through, but it shouldn’t have to compete with the noise. A lot of people who could benefit will avoid the story based on the content tags it will inevitably accumulate in the final version. The people who come for the ‘naughty bits’ won’t be listening anyhow–they’ll be speed-scrolling through the story, looking for the path that unlocks a particular shot of their favorite ingenue.
Katawa Shoujo Act 1 offers an intriguing story concept and a hint of the potential of the visual novel format for storytelling, but the decision to include explicit content in the full version of the story undermines some very positive central themes about accepting other people’s differences and overcoming adversity. Great start, very disappointing finish.
(UPDATE, 4 Jul 09: Requests for a non-explicit “all ages” version of the final product continue on the Katawa Shoujo forum, including posts from a couple of folks in the UK, whose laws regarding explicit content in electronic media are stricter than in the US, and about to get even tougher. The developers basically told them to get lost, and tossed them a link to a freeware data encryption program that promises “plausible deniability.” Classy. In support of those people who tried to be an island of reason in an ocean of stupidity, I’ve removed all links on this site to the Katawa Shoujo web page. If you feel the need to go there, use a search engine.)
(UPDATE, 5 Jan 2012: The full version of Katara Shoujo released on 4 Jan 2012. I probably won’t review it, given the problems I’ve discussed above with downloading what are likely to be sexually explicit illustrations, in the blind. Even if I select the option to black out explicit content, the images are still present and accessible on the hard drive and may cross the line into pornography. The developers have also indicated in their blog that some story content will be lost with the “blackout” option, which makes a review problematical. We’ll see. If mainstream Christian reviewers don’t seem to have trouble with the content of movies like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I expect is much more extreme than anything that’s going to be offered in KS, maybe I’m being too restrictive here, and I’ve thrown quite a few darts at this product sight unseen, based on blog comments from the developers. I need to mull this over a few days.)
(UPDATE: 9 Jan 2012: After reading some of the initial feedback on the KS forum, I’ve decided not to review the full version of Katawa Shoujo. Potential users should note that the blackout filter option apparently does not restrict all explicit images, just those actually depicting sexual activity. Several viewers using the blackout filter were surprised by images of female teenage characters in various states of undress.)