Ladies and gentlemen whose first experience with a visual novel was Katawa Shoujo, please raise your right hands. Very good. Very good, ladies and gentlemen. Now, those of you who have never played it, please raise your left hand. No, m'Lady, watching a Let's Play can't possibly count as a playthrough. I beg your pardon? Why, yes, it's completely different. But this is for another time, is it not? Well, then. To those who failed to raise either hand when prompted, be it because you were already a seasoned visual novel player when it was released or you just happened to come across it when you were just starting out, I apologize. I'm afraid this won't be a very interesting read to you. It wouldn't be for me.
I say so as I belong to the last group I mentioned. I'll keep both my hands in my pocket, thanks. To be honest, I don't really share the nostalgia of those who spent hours reading an Emotional Narrative Clickable Slideshow (this is what "visual novel" means in Japanese) for the first time with Katawa Shoujo, nor do I share the perplex skepticism of those who have watched the hurricane of hype from a safe distance. Unfortunately for you who are reading right now, no distance is safe enough.
I hope that, by the end of this humble piece, you are all able to mutter "so this is what Katawa Shoujo is all about!", yes, even you who raised the right hand. Especially you. Because you see, it has been four years since the most popular non-Japanese visual novel was launched. Your views on it may have changed now, but can you reflect on what about the game roped you in? It could have been both your first and your last visual novel, but it wasn't. What, then, can you tell to your fellow readers who have yet to play Katawa Shoujo?
Let's start with where most of the stories take place. We have probably all been to Yamaku High. It's Oblivious Garden's homonymous setting. it's Everlasting Summer's Sovyonok, as well as Ever17's LeMU. These aren't worlds or cities - rather, these are smaller places you end up knowing all too well, places you could get tired of. What is special in such settings is that they are a monument to the character - it represents a fundamental flaw or condition of the protagonist, one he cannot fight against and, because of that, will always mirror the way he deals with said flaw or condition. After all, he's there because of that condition, in one way or another. So it's one giant mirror for a character's development, a characteristic that enhances storytelling by keeping one element intact but changing everything else. Yamaku tells a story not through flow, but through contrast. Now, there is a very particular institution in real life that has this effect on us, that has us looking directly at the changes in us when we look at the changes in the place or how we deal with the surroundings.
Home is a place you know all too well. It's a place you could get tired of and that always embodies a certain aspect in you - childhood, a particular struggle, a series of fortunate events. Thus, this type of setting is capable of emulating both stability - inexorability even - and change and this is why it's so powerful. It's both a hurricane and a mountain and, as such, it's capable of condensing a multitude of feelings that the story can extract and use for its own benefit.
Consider here that Yamaku encompasses its student body, too. Sorry, sir? Oh, how could I forget? I'm not usually this careless... probably. I'm verry sorry. I'll explain what Yamaku is. It's a school for students with special needs, ranging from the hearing-impaired to amputees to those with a chronic and dangerous diseases, the latter being Hisao's case.
You could expect transferring into a new school to be difficult, but transferring into a school like this is even more difficult - and not comfortable, as not any disability you may have keeps you from connecting with the fictional world - and so doesn't Hisao's. But more on that later. Case in point, you are an outsider and have no idea how to deal with your new current life. Now this is, of course, a pretty relatable and common situation. However, Katawa Shoujo very cleverly turns that which is internal to external, plain to see difficulties. It is hard to communicate with and reach common grounds with a figure of authority you barely know. Shizune, as president of the student council, is no different. However, because she's deaf, even those who normally have no difficulty in dealing with this kind of thing are forced to concede and are caught wondering whether it's right to look at her while she's talking or to look at the interpreter, Misha.
Likewise, it's hard enough to approach a shy person and make friends with them. But even if you think you're good at this, at "getting people out of their shell" (could you be any sillier?), Hanako is a challenge. Her shyness is made visible and physical by her burn scars. I don't mean to say the girls' disabilities are metaphors. They are what they are, but they have a very practical effect of forcefully reducing most players to Hisao, beating their feet to fit in his shoes. It's very hard for someone to think ahead of Hisao in his situation, because he struggles as much as the player to behave normally in front of all the people he wants to talk to, but doesn't know how.
Therefore, a certain magic occurs: daily life becomes a challenge. A simple shared meal is a novelty and a puzzle; ordering in the cafeteria is as complicated at first as choosing from a French menu (given you aren't French, I suppose); the most trivial smalltalk can become a sequence of faux pas. However, it's unavoidable - it's daily life, after all. The sun will rise every day (or as Super Mega Comics so brilliantly put, there is one day every day), you want it or not. As we wanted to demonstrate, a hurricane and a mountain, all at once. And since we're at it, I'd like to think we all took school life pretty seriously when we were there. The person we admired but who didn't think much of us was a big deal; being too ashamed to talk to a classmate for the first time even if it's been three years since you started studying in the same class was a thing; wanting to bury your head in the sand for the slightest mistake was normal.
Katawa Shoujo emulates the seriousness of daily life artificially, by giving you small, but quite difficult problems, one at a time. In this scenario, slice of life narrative gains value, gains stakes. Thus, in the player's head, few moments are useless - they all become a part of learning how to live as Hisao.
This is how the game drags you in its universe, which is mostly self-sufficient, since it's you who makes of it what you will. Hisao's disability, a heart condition that nearly killed him and had him imprisoned in a hospital for four months, was carefully chosen - it doesn't impede Hisao from doing mostly anything, but it's perfectly possible to relate, because it entails feeling like you don't know what's going on within yourself - a feeling we all know, have felt at some point and which scared the hell away of us even if it wasn't life-threatening at all.
But it isn't easy to make a fictional setting feel like home, even if it works in the narrative. The allure is not in the mechanism itself but in how you experience it. Therefore, the feeling of familiarity with the setting, and by corollary with the visual novel as a whole, is built through small repetitions here and there in different contexts. By doing this, each and every aspect of life in Yamaku becomes unique, but paramount. You could say these are the smaller reflections that make up the "hurricane, but mountain" approach.
Now, Katawa Shoujo's soundtrack gained a lot of praise and I will be the first to declare myself a fan of NicolArmarfi and Blue123's work, but I'd like to argue that much of its effectiveness in conveying feelings comes from the music direction. For instance - and I know this technique is common in visual novels, but humour me nevertheless - not all late afternoon scenes are accompanied by the song Afternoon, but this song will only play in late afternoon scenes. This being the case, the reference for "afternoon time" becomes special in Yamaku. Everyone has to go through afternoons every day, but afternoons in Yamaku feel like something special due to the music that slowly collects your memories and throws them back at you every time it plays. That's the role of a leitmotif and there are plenty of them. The same happens to the heroines' themes - and it is very clear, due to clear presentation of each girl from the start, whose theme is each song.
A series of nods and shared themes help weaving a complex net of fond memories in the game, each scene being important at least in the atmosphere if not exactly in the narrative. Wiosna - the title theme -, Hokabi and Stride, for example, play in completely different scenes and have specific moods, but the shared theme connects them and makes Katawa Shoujo feel more focused, as if walking towards something. The absolute commitment to the color beige and a few symbols like the heart patched with bandages somewhat helps countering the full jarring effect the conflicting art styles would otherwise have, too.
So Yamaku is presented at first as the complete impossibility of dealing with our shortcomings. It's how it feels for Hisao, it's how it feels for us. Having forced to play his role, we are kept mulling over the smallest issues - would pushing ourselves a little further do us any good? How do we want to cope? You can fight against it and keep in shape or simply give up on everything that having a weak heart makes a little harder. This is our common route. It has a theme and all choices are supposed to reflect how much you want to distance yourself or dive in this new world and your newfound circumstances. And all of the heroines are better than you - they deal with their own selves much better than you do and know their way around whatever difficulty their disabilities might impose. Of course they have their troubles, but you are not there to help them out. Isn't there someone you should be taking care of before starting to think you can take care of other people? That is, of course, yourself? There is a certain virtue they show that you must learn to access their route. And there's a virtue you already have that they could use.
This creates five different Hisao guys and you slowly shape yourself to be one of these. In each case, there is a virtue you as a person (or as a player following a walkthrough) possess and something you could work on. Take Lilly. The choices that lead to her route - and the second to the last one, especially - are all about how honest you are with others regarding your limitations and specialties. All that surrounds Lilly, thus, is a big question of "can you respect yourself enough to rely on others?". Being aware of your weak heart doesn't mean you accept it as an integral part of yourself. Lilly, however, with all flaws she may have, for she is a human being after all, is who she is not in spite of her blindness, but because of it.
This is the conclusion Hisao reaches in, if I'm not mistaken, every route: if it wasn't for the heart attack, his life wouldn't have changed. If it wasn't for the heart attack, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to like the people he comes to like across the routes and to do the things he does, with all the trouble his heart causes. If it wasn't for the heart attack, he wouldn't be able to thank the heart attack for everything it catalysed. But he reaches this conclusion through five different means and having faced five different challenges regarding how to deal with people, how to love himself and others. And it's only like this that he can finally deposit his feelings again in the endless stream of day-by-day.
The emotion carried out doesn't derive from them. It derives from you. Through the heroines, the story changes Yamaku. Through Yamaku, the story changes Hisao. Through Hisao, the story changes you. It's a spell that only works because all five routes follow the same principle and work under a single logic, which is to include the extraordinary in the ordinary and vice-versa, changing your perceptions of both of them. By blurring the line, it allows you to draw your own line again, almost from scratch, and making you feel like you've learned something.
This is why, ladies and gentlemen who raised the left hand, the game is still very much adored. It is something, a well-crafted gear with a specific intent and effect. Its production values are not high, especially not compared with Japanese commercial visual novels. However, Katawa Shoujo squeezes the assets they have until the very last drop and blend them in the most specific way in order to create a remarkable experience above all things. I hope I have clarified to you who raised your right hand, or even you who kept your hands in your pockets like I did, what remarkable experience is this. It is not on a technical level, but it's built through very much technical means. Few visual novels are so focused - but also so broad in its themes.
And like this, I would like to end this piece in a positive tone, a message that the game itself conveys. Please let these words guide your actions, if not in times of pressure, in the small troubles you come across everyday and that brought you here just as much as your merits. At the very least, it's a tip to be successful when playing Katawa Shoujo for the first time: you are not alone, and you are not strange. You are you, and everyone has damage. Be the better person.
Have a safe trip home, wherever that may be.