Katawa Shoujo is an Original English Language Visual Novel, started by a thread on 4chan and gained traction to become its own development project. It was released on January 4th 2012 for free, after 5 years of development. It is a wonderful example of how an online community of people with similar interests can come together to produce something, though from what I heard it had its own share of internal problems. Despite being in development for 5 years, I never heard of it until 2DT wrote a post about his brief involvement.
The story, without giving away too much, follows the main character Hisao who was hospitalized due to a heart attack from heart arrhythmia. Because his condition can worsen to become fatal, and he has to take a large amount of medication to stay alive, his doctor and family advise him to attend Yamaku High School for disabled children after he was discharged. Initially enraged and uncomfortable at suddenly becoming “abnormal” as well as having to get used to a new surrounding of different types of people at his new school, Hisao takes a while to adapt. After meeting the main female characters, you follow a route to pursue a girl based on decisions you make.
So far I only played one route, and reached Hanako’s happy ending (my One True Love in this VN). Hanako is a girl whose body was heavily scarred in a fire, which caused her to become extremely shy and terrified of human contact and interactions. The original cause was physical, but her current disability is traumatic and psychological. Not the typical ‘shy girl’ type you see in anime and other VNs, far more extreme than that. The only person she talks to is her friend Lilly. Oh, and 2DT was the one to give Hanako her name (see above link).
When I heard about the story, the first thing that came to mind was whether it would treat disabilities as just another trait that happens to be there and focus on the personalities of the characters, or would it wave a flag saying “HEY LOOK THIS GIRL IS DISABLED ISN’T THIS NEW AND WEIRD?!?” (I think people used the terms Empowering VS Exploitative?). I was very pleased to find out that it was the former, and the disabilities aren’t thrown in your face. You’re told about the girl’s disability when you first meet her, but afterwards although it affects her actions you don’t really notice it, and just focus on her personality.
The only other VN I have played so far is Aoi Shiro, so I don’t have much to compare Katawa Shoujo with. The game itself feels very solid and smooth, and the parts that had animation (e.g. when you enter a girl’s route before the first Act transition) were really beautiful. It feels like it was made professionally. However there were really few choice selections, and each selection that I’ve encountered only had 2 choices to pick. That’s understandable for a fan-made game though, considering how there are 6 different girls you can pursue, and each of them have different routes that lead to different ends (luckily I reached Hanako’s Happy Ending on my first try, in Aoi Shiro I had to watch Yasumi die several times before I can be with her).
The writing for this game (or at least for Hanako’s route) is superb, which is extremely surprising considering the kind of place 4chan is. Like I stated above, they approached the disability issue really well. I can tell that a lot of care was put into the characters, and their actions and thoughts feel like how actual people would react to situations. I can sympathize with many characters, and can empathize with Hisao on a less intense scale (I had two spontaneous pneumothoraxes in my right lung, and I’m often paranoid that my left lung will randomly collapse). Although unlike Hisao who prefers to hide his past, I can’t shut up about my experiences to anyone willing to listen (if you’re curious, feel free to ask about it). Hisao’s monologues occasionally drag on too long in my opinion, but I’m an impatient person and I’m really nitpicking here. There’s one part of Hanako’s route that made me cringe and send several WHAAAAATTTT tweets, but I won’t talk about it to give many people the chance to finish her route without spoilers. Apart from that part the Hanako route is fantastic, and my heart swells up each time we get closer and she starts opening up more.
If you want a measure, my attention was glued to Katawa Shoujo for 6.5 hours straight and playtime would’ve been higher if the route didn’t end there. I’ll probably go back to play other routes, but for now I’m content with reaching the happy end of my one true love. When I went to eat in the cafeteria earlier I was frightened by the large crowd of people, possibly an indication of how absorbed I was into Hanako’s route.
One of the most important factors in how much I like a story (whether it’s anime, manga, VN) is the amount of emotional attachment I have to it. Katawa Shoujo really delivers in this department, and I have a large emotional investment in Hanako. It’s not just with the character I’m pursuing either; I actually care for many of the characters, and feel like Lilly really did become my friend. I could sympathize, and I felt really “in”, as if I’m actually in the story. The writing is that good (or maybe I’m just that delusional).
Because I reached the Happy End, the ending was really sweet and cute. After entering her route, my times with Hanako had my heart thumping the whole time right to the end. And when the end finally came, I was happy for them, but at the same time I was really sad that it ended. It left a large gaping hole in my chest, which is an indicator of how emotionally attached I am e.g. Heartcatch Precure, Ebisu-san and Hotei-san, The iDOLM@STER, and writing that delusional Takane post. I wish that their story would continue on, that I can find out what happens next in their lives. The emptiness I feel when I quit the game and return to my lonely life really makes me wish Hanako was a real person.
The following screenshot is my favorite, it’s very heartwarming and hopeful when you know about Hanako’s personality.