Book Review: Katawa Shoujo, Act 1

ks01

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.)

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: Katawa Shoujo, Act 1

  1. …If you’re that terribly disappointed about there being porn in the game, why not just turn it off? Everything the developers have said so far about that option has pretty explicitly been ‘yes, you will be able to toggle the porn scenes’.

    It’s still going to be a damn fine game. Half of your review being what is effectively a complaint about the porn is akin to somebody reviewing Jak 3 and complaining about the third purple gun.

  2. Bilbo,

    First off, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. You hit the nail on the head. It’s a fine game and a fascinating set of stories within a story. Frankly, I’m astonished that what was basically a pick-up team of interested people sustained a two-year effort to put out something of this quality, inspired by a couple of pictures on an artist’s website, and they’re not finished yet.

    I also think it’s a piece of work that aspires to be a lot more than just entertainment. It deals with some very heavy issues in a fresh, lighthearted, and accessible fashion. It sees the disabilities, and doesn’t look away. The lead character has to confront his fears and prejudices, and overcome them.

    And that’s really the focus of my disappointment. Act 1 stands very well on its own merits, without the explicit material. To finish Act 1 and discover the final product is going to roll up in the standard dating-sim fashion was like having a great meal at a nice restaurant, then being served a partially-thawed slice of lemon pie from Walmart for dessert. In my opinion, it obscures and confuses the important and powerful central themes of the story, and it settles for the conventional when something exceptional is within reach.

    My expectations were probably unrealistic. As you pointed out, it’s a dating sim, and you know what you can most likely expect going in. The toggle may be enough for some people who don’t care for that material, But its presence is still enough to get the game tossed into the Hentai bin, and a lot of people won’t even look at the game for that reason, no matter how artfully the explicit stuff is handled. Why limit its potential audience? To me, it feels like a missed opportunity.

  3. I would be interested to hear your views on other media that sometimes contains erotic/sexual content, such as movies or books. Does River God suddenly become smut because a couple of sex scenes are written?

    A physical aspect is a common part of adolescent romance, and I see no reason why properly delivered sexual scenes cannot communicate affection and progression in their relationship as any other medium could.

  4. Rutherford,

    Thanks for commenting, and thanks also for a reasoned, thoughtful comment. I appreciate that folks who have left a response to my review have kept to the high road rather than turning this into a flame-fest.

    Human beings are sexual creatures. Art and literature tell the story of humanity, so naturally, sex is going to make an appearance from time to time, and the line between pornography and artful erotic content essential to the telling of a story can be hard to pin down. Even the legal standard has sometimes boiled down to “I know it when I see it.”

    My take: it crosses the line when the erotic words or pictures objectify human beings, turning them into tools for someone else’s gratification or amusement, whether we’re talking about the reader/viewer or the participants. I think it’s very difficult to avoid crossing this line with any explicit portrayal of sexual intercourse. Not impossible, but very difficult.

    I find sexual scenes in books, movies, or other media often distract from a story rather than enhance it. Your caveat, “properly delivered,” is key. I think it’s usually more effective and powerful to acknowledge sexual content indirectly or via metaphor. Everybody at or above middle-school age is familiar with the mechanics. I believe sexual activity is fundamentally personal and private, and portraying it solely for the purpose of entertainment robs it of its essential dignity.

    I’m also a Christian, and my faith informs my position on this issue. Sexual relations outside a committed, married relationship between a man and a woman are less than what God intends for us. Stepping outside those bounds is a poor choice that can have far-ranging negative impacts on our life. I’ve got three kids, teens and above, who see their friends struggle with the consequences of poor choices, sexual and otherwise, every day.

    Does this mean that I condemn those who don’t adhere to my standard or that I vilify realistic portrayals of human beings who make choices I disagree with? No. We all make mistakes, and chronicling the human story is partly, if not mostly, talking about our mistakes, and, hopefully, how we overcome them. By the same token, I don’t believe literature and media should endorse counterproductive behavior.

    Which brings us back to Katawa Shoujo. I thought Act 1 did a good job of telling the story of Hisao’s growth as a person, as he begins to learn to live with his condition and accept the people he meets at the school. The more he opens up, the richer is his experience, culminating with a budding friendship that clearly could become something more. Very engaging and touching story, everybody loved it, and no explicit sexual content.

    On to the yet-to-be-released full version, which we can only evaluate based on the developers’ comments. Hisao’s “good outcome” involves bedding one or more of the girls, accompanied by a CG depiction of that encounter. Beside the fact that these are teenagers of indeterminate age, and the distribution of even fictional images of this nature *may* be illegal in the US and elsewhere, The story seems to have gotten lost in the mad dash to the finish.

    I expect there’s more character development along the way–Hisao may grow up some more, and he may begin to really escape his self-centeredness and even begin to help the girls overcome whatever mental/emotional challenges they may be dealing with. There’s plenty of story there, but again, it doesn’t need explicit content to put an exclamation point on a strong romantic attachment. It just makes a very powerful central theme of accepting oneself and others and overcoming profound obstacles in life simply a means to a self-gratifying end.

    Ultimately, it’s the developer’s product, and I’m not trying to jump on a soapbox and tell them what to do, even if they would listen. As a writer, I see it as a missed opportunity to defy genre expectations and create something truly original, with a positive message, that reaches the largest possible audience. I think it’s a poor choice.

  5. Anon,

    My comments are based on what the developers are saying on their blog and forums, and they’ve been pretty up-front about their intentions. However, as you’ve pointed out, the opera isn’t over ’til the fat lady sings.

  6. Well, that was an interesting read. Though I agree with you that if the game had an extremely explicit, vulgar sex scene for each end, it would be seen as hentai and would certainly detract from the overall message and/or story. However, I do believe that sex scenes do not need to detract from the experience as a whole. There have been many examples regarding this in the VN genre, one being Fate/Stay Night, a game that had sexual content but was heralded as one of the best VN’s of all time in Japan. The reason was because it wasn’t simply a trashy dating sim who’s only goal was to get in a girl’s pants. No, it had an engaging, overarching storyline, unrelated to sex, and the sexual content was a part of it because realistically, people have sex. Underage people have sex as well and though I abhor any games that use this explicitly, it can be tastefully done.

    Other games also imply sex and sometimes even show brief snippets of it, such as Mass Effect. The media had a firestorm over that very game when it was found it to have a sex scene in it and was blown way out of proportion, with such baseless talk that it allowed “virtual rape” over the internet and it turned women into “sex objects” and the main character was a man that could basically molest anyone or anything he came into contact with. This is entirely, even laughably, untrue and the controversial sex scene in question amounted to a 1 minute little scene where you saw almost nothing, which was a small climax to a side story you could or could not have ventured through over the 30+ game which involved getting to know the person, interacting with them, and, in the case of the game characters, had the two characters in question fall in love and consummate their relationship in a scene I would call anything but trashy or forced. And this wasn’t even the focus or the climax of the whole story, as it involved saving the galaxy from an evil army of spaceships even after the scene. But I digress.

    I understand your concern, and even share it a bit with you because as you’ve pointed out, it is indeed a visual novel which will likely be much more lenient concerning what is and is not shown during the sex scene. But think about this: if they handle the subject of sex between two underage characters, who have hopefully slowly fallen in love with each other over the course of the story and have considered the ramifications of what they plan to do and whether they are willing and prepared to go through with it, as tastefully and sensitively as they have the matter of disabilities, then I do not believe there would be any reason to fret. Sex scenes need not be the smut and hypersexualized events that the internet paint them out to be and can be sweet and the consummation of two individuals who truly feel and believe that they have someone that truly makes them happy and, dare I say, whole.

    On the other hand, if they handle the scenes badly, force the characters into them the second they admit their love for each other, or even worse before they do, as if their lust only needed the keyword “love” to be unleashed and cause the girls to become nympho-maniacal whores right in the middle of it, then I will wholeheartedly agree with you that they wasted a perfectly good story with smut to appease the less than mature individuals in our society. Sex does not need to be the focus of a story such as this. And having it as a small, yet story driven and story pushing, event will make it infinitely better than having it as a no holds barred orgy.

    One small thing I must also say is the placement of the scene in regards to the story. If the scene is in fact the climax of the story, this will only push the idea that getting them in the sack is the focus of the story and drive it lower in regards to quality. However, if they are able to make the main character’s development the focus of the story and have his epiphany and/or rebirth regarding life become the climax, with the sex scene hopefully before it or even later as falling action if they play it right, then the story becomes about his awakening in life rather than the act of sex.

    Overall, I see no real chance of them coding a version with absolutely no sex and merely hope they will handle the subject tactfully, as they have done so well and readily with the subject that makes this game so unique, with extreme disappointment if they don’t.

    Anyway, these are just my ideas. I’m certain some parts of it will go against your beliefs and that’s fine. It’s your right to believe in them as it is my right to believe in mine. Thank you if you read this and thank you if you respond, as you have done most skillfully before.

  7. Theta,

    Thanks for dropping by. I thought you did a great job of penciling in some boundaries on that terribly fuzzy term, “tasteful.” Again, it’s a tough issue, particularly because this is a VN and we’re talking about *depictions* as well as descriptions.

    My beliefs and personal experience make it impossible for me to view sexual relations between underaged people outside marriage as anything but a mistake, so I can’t be neutral on this issue, while I don’t expect and would not demand that everybody take my side.

    Is it realistic? Sure. Natural? Sure. Maybe even an activity with loving motivations involving two people who *ought* to spend the rest of their lives together? Yes. It’ll still cause problems down the road, and those problems may be serious enough to sink the relationship–the ultimate “bad end.”

    So, can the developers walk the tightrope you’ve described and integrate this issue into the story in an unoffensive manner? Well, teen liaisons aren’t the taboo issue they used to be in American culture–to use a really lousy example, we’ve got a popular television series whose focus is *precisely* that topic: “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” There are plenty of precedents providing evidence that you can talk about teenage sex in America without generating riots and boycotts.

    As you’ve pointed out, they’re going to have a heck of a time convincing me, and I still think it will be hard to avoid crossing the line with that part of the audience not currently immersed in the VN culture, but it *could* be done, and I’m frankly curious to find out if they will.

    What makes me skeptical right now is the general tenor of the comments on the developers’ forums (from the developers, not just the fanboys), and their response to the folks who have expressed serious concerns about the issue. I understand that they’re probably beyond tired of answering questions about it, but that’s not an excuse to be rude and dismissive. Beyond that, they’ve stopped listening to a segment of their audience, a segment that may be larger than they realize. Apart from the moral/ethical issues, why alienate a new market?

    Anyhow, I’ve rambled on enough. Thanks again for weighing in, Theta.

    Fred

  8. It’s me again. Thank you for responding but I just felt a need to say something. I’m not sure what would constitute a neutral view on this issue and it may be I’m not looking at it from that view point, so I apologize if it seems like that. Anyway, I just have to respectfully disagree with you on the underage sex out of marriage being a mistake. I’m sure your beliefs may make it seem like it is no matter the circumstance but I don’t think putting a ring on someone’s finger can really change a situation so drastically from being a terrible mistake to being a match made in heaven. And I personally believe teenagers of at least 16+ years old can understand just fine what they’re doing and if intelligent enough can engage in sexual activity without it being a mistake. An example in a piece of television would be That 70’s Show, which had the two main characters engage in sex, though off screen, and their relationship only faltered when faced with normal relationship issues, most of which had nothing to do with the fact they had sex. They even got back together at the end. Now, that may not be the best example but…….

    Of course, I’m biased on this point because I’m an atheist and thus I don’t really conform to the moral and ethical issues a Christian may take a stand against. I may not agree with your views but I will defend to the grave your right to have them as well as the right I have to share my views on the subject.

    In any case, I don’t really have a moral or religious agenda regarding this sex scene so I can’t really say much about it. The only gripes I have with it are from an artistic view point, as I do not want them to sully this project with over the top smut. I accept that it will have sex scenes and I can only hope that they will do it tastefully, at the very least without out of character moments in the scenes that turn it into a raunchy XXX clip. I will be playing it with the scenes turned off, of course, as I’m in this thing for the art and not the smut. Anyway, I’m thanks again for responding.

  9. Theta,

    You’re absolutely right that the ring isn’t magic. Ultimately, it’s a symbol and public declaration of two persons’ love and commitment to each other, and that their relationship is about something more enduring than a hormonal attraction. That love and commitment helps keep each partner from using the other as a means to an end. People who don’t take the wedding vows seriously, and put their own needs ahead of their partner’s, can make their physical relationship as meaningless inside the marriage as outside it.

    I agree with you regarding the artistic issues. This is ultimately a story, though it has a game element with the interactive decision-making, and a story needs to be internally consistent. What happens needs to make sense, and the people in it should act in a way consistent with their character. What we’ve seen so far has been a pretty consistent tone of mutual respect, empathy for others, and encouragement in the face of difficult problems. To turn that upside-down into a self-centered focus and/or exploit the characters’ affection for the purpose of a voyeuristic exhibition would be a disservice to both the characters and the story.

    Thanks for the insightful comments and discussion!

  10. i recently played the demo, and I was very impressed by the writing. It was clever and engrossing, and the story is as much about the main character coming to terms with his new situation in life as it is about the girls.

    As for the sketchy legal footing the final game will be on, I don’t expect it to be much of an issue. The developers plan to distribute this game for free, and both they and their original target audience is a tech savvy bunch.

    1. Anon,

      Thanks for leaving a comment.

      Act 1 is a very appealing story presented with a lot of sensitivity and some surprising depth in places, and I liked it. Even if they’re able to maintain that tone through the rest of the story, It’s hard for me to believe the explicit content in the final product won’t leave the reader with the final impression that the whole thing was exploitative. I could be wrong.

      The developers are multi-national, which would probably make any law enforcement actions against them difficult. Prosecution of people who possess or distribute the final product would be a lot easier, at least in the U.S., given the precedents that have already been established.

      I think there’s still the potential for people who enjoyed the demo to be blindsided by the content in the full version. What bothered me about the developers’ comments in the forums is that they didn’t seem to care very much about this. From their point of view, it wasn’t their problem.

      You’re right, though. A free product focused on a niche market of gamers might not attract enough attention to inspire government intervention, and it all depends on how the questionable material is presented. In the latest version of the demo, for example, they’ve adjusted a couple of the character designs in such a way that its more plausible to say everybody in the story is about 18 years old, so that may be an indication that the devs are thinking about this stuff.

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