In Part 1 of my writeup of Katawa Shoujo, I talked about my general thoughts on the game’s handling of its subject matter. Here I’ll be talking about my specific experiences, so be warned that it will contain spoilers (as if there was any shred of possibility of you playing it).
For my first playthrough I avoided attempts at over-thinking the system and decided to just see where the game would take me. Fate delivered me to the refined half-Japanese blind girl, Lilly, by means of a series of choices which at the time I had interpreted as innocent self-preservation and politeness. Based on comments that I’ve read, I get the impression that many players are caught off guard upon seeing which path they’ve ended up on, due to a lack of the obvious flirtatious dialogue you would expect from a game like this.
It’s worth noting that token half-Japanese characters are something of “a thing” in anime/manga entertainment, something even I have caught onto with my limited exposure. Lilly’s story spans the full scope of this archetype, all the way to its climax (no, not that climax, filthy-minded readers). For a game that sets out to be something different, it seems odd that such a large portion of its story would be so routine, unless you look at the origins of Katawa Shoujo:
The image above is part of a sketch (its history being too complex to delve into here) which appeared on 4chan jokingly pitching a visual novel, kindling its slow but dedicated creation. The caption of “She’s a bit clichéd” was evidently taken to heart, as the half Japanese half Scottish Lilly germinated. But this is not to say that her story is played for laughs.
Lilly is upper crust yet unspoiled. Her unerringly polite mannerisms complement her taste for tea, chess, and reading. She’s taken Hanako, the burn victim, under her wing since Hanako can only be comfortable in the company of the unsighted.
Eventually we learn that Lilly hasn’t seen her parents in six years, after they sent her from their home in Scotland to Yamaku Academy in Japan (we later learn that they ditched her due to her disability). When she goes back to see them for a short vacation, Hanako withdraws to a dangerous place inside herself in Lilly’s absence. Upon return, everything is great again, and then we learn that she is going back to live in Scotland after graduation. She’s a bit clichéd.
Visual novels can have failure states, and so what is the worst end that can occur in a game about high school relationships? Yes, I received the dreaded “bad end” on my first playthrough of Katawa Shoujo. And it was cruel. Interaction was distanced, delicate between us during the days leading up to our terse goodbyes at the school gates. She left for the airport, and that was that.
Well, I’m actually glad that it played out that way. I’m someone who can appreciate an unhappy ending, and it was more effective than if I had succeeded and then gone back to see where the cutoff for the untoward ending had been. I sounds silly, but it hit like a ton of bricks. I give Katawa Shoujo credit for portraying a harsh fail state that I’m certain happens to millions of real people each year.
I can’t claim that I’ve been one of those people, but “end of high school” scenarios tend to hit close to home. The end of my high school days was abrupt and without fanfare. I was the first of my group of friends to leave, moving out of state within a week or two of graduation. House sold, its inhabitants branching out to different parts of the country, it was a tense, rushed, confusing time. There was no sending off; like Lilly, I went to the airport and that was that, a chapter that feels as unclosed as this bad ending.
Would this ten-hour experience have been as appealing if it weren’t for a very specific evoked nostalgia? We all bring our own baggage when we interpret new things or when we revisit them later. What is Katawa Shoujo like in the eyes of a player who is currently in high school, or hasn’t yet entered into it? In my case, nothing in a high school dating sim should actually be relatable. I certainly didn’t have any romances at the time, not being the least bit socially ready (if anyone really is). Here I am, talking about the ups and downs, the idealism and clumsiness, of the most complex incarnation of social interaction — high school — like an expert when I pretty much sat that one out. Are high school relationship games like Katawa Shoujo and Persona a way of virtually filling in the blanks of rites of passage that I skipped?
I’ve heard many people say that they can’t replay games with branching paths because it wouldn’t feel real to them, that it would be like a fake alternate dimension in which you’ve betrayed the “true” story. As much as I love the idea of wildly different experiences inside a single game, I’m a completionist whose main obsession becomes that of seeing all of the content, even if it means replaying a fifty hour RPG like Mass Effect.
I’ve never understood that mindset until now. I may never feel it with another game, but now I at least know it. The idea of choosing a new path other than Lilly seems like a betrayal, more so than when playing as Commander Shepard’s evil twin. Lilly, who I currently know and understand better than any other character of Katawa Shoujo, though that will eventually change, relegated to a mere support role? Perhaps as the “best friend” in Hanako’s path? In the world of visual novels, that’s probably downright cliché.