I Can’t Play Visual Novels—On Katawa Shoujo

Warning: Spoilers Ahead for the Visual Novel Katawa Shoujo.

As some of you (if you follow me on Twitter) might know, I’ve been playing a Visual Novel called Katawa Shoujo for the past week or so. And, after that long playing, I’ve come to realize that I’m not sure I’m the type of person who can play a game like this.

Before I get into the details of why I’m not sure I can continue playing this visual novel, let me give you all a brief history of my experience with the game to this point. Katawa Shoujo is the first VN I’ve ever played—sure I’ve heard about then, seen people play them in anime, seen anime based on them, but I’ve never actually played one myself.

Try #1: Let’s Play Like It’s Real Life

My first try through the game, I got the Manly Picnic ending, in which Hisao goes up to the roof with Kenji, gets drunk on whiskey, falls off the roof, and dies. Let’s just say I was a little bit upset. And why, you ask? Why get so wound up about a stupid game? Because, the way I was playing Katawa Shoujo the first time through was as if it were really me in those situations, really me making the decisions. Except it wasn’t me—it was a depressed (annoyingly so) Hisao who made the choice to go up to the roof with Kenji and died, leaving me infuriated.

Katawa Shoujo

Too much like a real life girl fight—you lose no matter what you say…except this is a visual novel.

And why? Because I had played the game as if it were me going through those events and I reacted as I normally would have in those situations. Some people on Twitter informed me that the choices I must have made were those of a “sociopath” and that “you have to be basically anti-social/make no attempt to get that ending” and “all the choices needed to get to Manly Picnic are like the opposite of ‘not burning’ any bridges.'” Naturally, I was a bit miffed to be told that playing as myself in this game meant that I’m an anti-social sociopath who makes no effort to make friends and burns bridges as he does—especially as I recalled my choices and considered them, coming to the conclusion that I had made only one really “bridge burning decision” (not telling the art teacher that I wanted to join the art club).

Try #2: Fine, Let’s Shoot for Emi’s Route

So, I started the entire file over from scratch to get the bad taste of Kenji’s whiskey out of my mouth and decided I was going to aim to get Emi’s route, as her pleasant demeanor was charming and because I knew which choice I had made previously that had gotten me away from her route.

But, of course, things didn’t go so smoothly…

But, at least this time, I could easily pinpoint which choice I had made to end up on the Kenji route again. I hadn’t thought enough about my answer to Misha’s questioning about my accident on the track, and picked Hisao’s sarcastic answer. Of course, Hisao being Hisao, he didn’t leave it at sarcasm and acted like a totally jerk, thus guilting himself into avoiding Misha and Shizune and ending up on the roof once more.

Try #3: Aimed for Emi, Played Like Real Life, Got Shizune

Katawa Shoujo

“GOOD ROUTE” I said. Heh.

Luckily, I had learned from my last misadventure that saving after a while was a good idea in this game. I didn’t have to repeat everything all over again, just went back before the track incident, almost had a heart attack and picked the “right” answer in the classroom. This lead me to my first real clear-cut choice between girls: Emi or Shizune/Misha for lunch? And then, I let myself get off my predetermined goal of going after Emi, and let my real life self take over for a moment. At this point, I was very fond of the Student Council duo for their energy, personalities, and general enthusiasm towards me. So, I did what I would have done in real life—I went with the girls I was more attached to because they seemed like my friends.

Why did I do this? Why did I shoot myself in the foot deliberately like this? The last two times had been unintentional, but this time I made a conscious choice to follow the route my investment told me to choose. Why?

Play Like Keima Katsuragi, God of Conquest

The way I see it, there are only two ways to play the very specific medium known as the visual novel. Now, I know The World God Only Knows‘ Keima Katsuragi only plays dating sims, but they are close enough in mechanics that I can use them to illuminate my point. Keima is really good at dating sims, but he’s emotionally stunted when it comes to real life women. This is, as I see it, only way to play a visual novel like Katawa Shoujo—you treat the girls as only prizes to be won, routes to be unlocked, goals to be achieved. You put yourself into a goal-oriented mindset and simply read the text to help you reach your goal. It’s a very detached perspective, but it’s effective because you can see your choices and rationally/logically pick the one that will get you to the next step with the girl of your choice.

The World God Only Knows

If you want to unlock all the routes, get the full experience of the game, this is the best (and maybe only) way to play a visual novel like Katawa Shoujo.

Follow Your Heart

But, of course, it’s not that simple. At least, not if you’re me, easily sucked into media experiences like games and anime, and very free in emotionally investing in such experiences. And that is the devious trap that Katawa Shoujo set up for me—just look at the paragraphs detailing my three paths through the game. I couldn’t help myself. I just couldn’t write “Hisao chose this. Hisao did that.” It’s all, “I did this. I made the choice.”

It’s an illusion. A brilliantly immersive, dangerous illusion. Katawa Shoujo invites you to think of the girls as your friends, as your potential girlfriends, as yours, not as Hisao’s. And despite the disconnect between the (for me) ever frustrating Hisao, who trash talks his girlfriend’s (Shizune’s) father for the sake of his pride, generally sucks at doing boyfriend things, and can make horrible decisions like cheating on his girlfriend with her best friend, I cannot distance myself from this experience like Keima can.

Katawa Shoujo, as I’ve said, casts a spell, a fantasy in which Hisao is me, not the other way around. And so, every decision, every event that happens in the game happens not to an avatar from which I am distant, but to me. After all, the novel lets me think I’m in control, by presenting me with (very rare in the second and third acts, you know) choices. The truth is that I’m not in control at all, but Katawa Shoujo tries very hard to and often succeeds in getting me to believe that I am. And that, of course, gets me to invest deeply in the game, in the characters, and play (once again) as if this is real life.

Why I Might Never Finish Katawa Shoujo

And so, I’m telling you right now, I don’t know if I can do this. I don’t know if there will come a time where I can distance myself enough from the characters of Katawa Shoujo to make the choices that will get me to the “goal.” I don’t know if I can ever make the choice to “Comfort Misha” when I know that it OBVIOUSLY means cheating on Shizune, just for the sake of seeing the ending. I would never do that in real life, and if this is an experience that feels like real life, how I could I do it here? How do I reorient my heart and forget about Shinuze enough to move on to a different girl’s route?

Katawa Shoujo

“VERY GOOD ROUTE,” I said.

And, I’m not sure I want to be the type of person who can do that anyways. At least, not the type of person I personally would have to feel I’d become to see these girls as nothing more than goals to be achieved. Do I want to be so emotionally distant from this media experience that I lose the very charm of playing the game?

“But iblessall,” I hear some of you saying. “Your favorite anime is Blast of Tempest, which you say has characters who use logic to mask their rioting emotions? Why can’t you do the same here?” Because everyone in Blast of Tempest has the agency to make choices at every stage of their lives. Katawa Shoujo doesn’t offer me that luxury, the luxury (and burden) that real life does. I can only make a predetermined set of choices that lead to a predetermined set of choices. And still, the illusion persists.

11 thoughts on “I Can’t Play Visual Novels—On Katawa Shoujo

  1. “Why I might never finish Katawa Shoujo” – But dude, you did! You reached more than one route’s ending, meaning you finished it more than once!

    There’s something to be said for finishing “New Game+”, or for games where only after you finish them new routes, or areas of the game unlock, or where even most of the game is to be had after you “finish” it (Disgaea).

    But the mentality of where you “didn’t finish” it if you got to an ending of the story but not all of them…? It even contradicts the meaning of the word! Is one’s life finished when one’s life ends? Yes. If you play Mass Effect Trilogy, but didn’t play it enough times to get with all the potential significant others, or to go as “neutral”, “paragon” and “villain”, does that mean you didn’t complete or finish the game?

    In the words of Death of the Endless, written by Neil Gaiman – “You get a lifetime. Just like everyone else.”

    I find the concept of platinum or 100% achievement ratio of video games very interesting. But you did finish Katawa Shoujo. In fact, you’ve done so more than once. You didn’t get all routes, but that makes sense from your perspective of treating it as a “real life, different situation simulator.”

    I think if anything, it might be this expectation, this culture of “100% completion or bust” that is making you enjoy the whole experience less. Yes, games are often designed this way, with some routes only opening once you finish others. But decide yourself what “finish” means, especially when another’s definition might impinge on your fun.

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    • I don’t consider getting Manly Picnic finishing anything haha. To be totally honest, I would not have been disappointed to have never seen it or heard about it.

      I guess the interesting question for me is this: what is the point of playing a visual novel like Katawa Shoujo? Is it to play through all the routes? Because, as I think I hinted at in the piece, to me doing that seems to bastardize the entire experience the game is attempting to set up for you. If the game is constantly trying to pull you into a deep emotional involvement (which it did successfully with me) with the characters, to the point where you are living the game as yourself and not as an avatar, then to pull yourself out of that for the purpose of achieving a specific end goal compromises the very experience. And if you aren’t getting the full experience, you aren’t really playing the game anymore.

      As I set out in the piece, I don’t really think there is a middle ground where you can be both detached and engaged at the same time. Either you allow your emotions to lock you into a single route, or you ignore the immersion to get “100% completion.”

      You definitely raise an interesting point, though. In one sense, yes, I did finish the game. I reached two “ending” points, one of which was the completion of an emotional journey. For me, that might have to be good enough. And maybe I just need to take a break from the game, allow the emotions to disperse, and then come back to it later on.

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      • Weren’t both endings the completion of an emotional journey? Even the one you didn’t like? No one said the end of a journey would be a good one, and in fact, I think your outrage might be further proof of the game’s success, at getting you emotionally involved.

        What is the purpose of the game? The same as the purpose of any game, or story. Also, you decide what the “goal” is, because games and stories only exist with the viewer who completes them. Forget the intended “purpose” by the designer, the “goal” of you, the person, matters more.

        And you said what your goal is – to get emotionally involved. To get attached. Now you can banish from your head the whole bit about “multiple routes”, treat each VN as a “one-playthrough story, for now” and get emotionally engaged.

        The “VN as a game” approach ruins enjoyment for you? Then forget it.

        I’ve seen someone put it this way for competitive games, “The goal is to win, the point is to have fun.” Focus on that point.

        Also, it’s a visual novel, there are multiple ways to approach it. For some people they still get emotionally invested when they don’t pick “their picks”, and I don’t think it’s as weird as you make it out to be, and I can easily draw an analogy that’ll show you you agree – books and movies and series. You can get emotionally invested even when you, the watcher or reader, makes no choice.

        Likewise, when I play RPGs, sometimes I don’t make choices that fit me, Guy, but fit how I see the MC would act, or I invent a personality “Self-assured rogue,” or “Self-righteous paladin” and make the choices that character would make – and the story can still be emotionally engaging, just like any story.

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        • Ah, this actually raises a really interesting point that didn’t make it into the post. I was thinking about emotional investment and why I think it’s different between a visual novel like this and movies, books, or series.

          My contention is that visual novels (or at least Katawa Shoujo) specifically and deliberately cultivate the illusion that you are living Hisao’s life. “Hisao is me, not the other way around.” The illusion is that I am the one building these relationships, without an avatar or another buffer in between me and the characters.

          Books, movies, and series are an exercise in empathetic emotional involvement—it’s relational, but not…ah, what’s the word for it…well, it’s different. There is automatically in books, movies, etc. a certain level of detachment, one that the visual novel medium takes direct steps to erase. You don’t empathize with yourself. You empathize with others. RPGs, as well, have a built in level of detachment because of the avatar. All those walls are down in the visual novel—at least, that has been my experience.

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          • I’m saying, you can have both. Have a playthrough with you as Hisao, then a playthrough with “Hisao as Hisao”, then a playthrough with “Hisao as a lady-killer” – not in the terms of getting to specific routes, which requires “specific decisions”, but just to see where each Hisao would end up.

            And well, that’s certainly one take on it. Not everyone plays with “Me as the protagonist”, and thus they may not be pulled “out of enjoyment’s reach” when they make decisions they disagree with.

            Also, there are table-top RPGs. There’s only as much detachment as you’re willing to create.

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  2. Romance games of this kind are very numerous (and Katawa is not half bad within the genre, I suppose), but there is more to visual novels as a whole. Check out stuff like Umineko no Naku Koro ni (no player choices – literally a novel, not a game), or Urobuchi’s classic Saya no Uta (horror).

    Listening to your heart is a very fun way to play, though. Not all games will kill you for it, unlike Katawa. You just have to give up on the 100% completion idea from the start. You don’t get a 100% in real life, either, so what.

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    • On the topic of other visual novels, I am actually part way through Narcissu, but it’s been a bit of a slog for me thus far because it, like Umineko no Naku Kono ni, has 0 player choices. At that point, I wonder if I’d actually just as soon play a book. Horror really isn’t my cup of tea, so I doubt I’ll ever try Saya no Uta—it may just be a matter of jumping into Narcissu with commitment sometime and reading the whole thing.

      I am planning on trying to go with the “play like it’s real life” method next time I boot up Katawa Shoujo, because I’m fairly certain I was a single choice away from getting onto Rin’s path.

      EDIT: I suppose a lot of the 100% mentality, for me, comes from stuff I hear people saying like “What’s your favorite route? Which route is the best?” because that gives off the impression that they’ve done them all and liked one (or some) better than the others.

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  3. I apologize for making all those “sociopath” related comments. They were wild exaggerations more or less meant in good fun.

    Visual novels, for me, are this sort of balancing act between agency and a lack of it. People are partially influenced and reflective of the media they consume, and it’s not a surprise that visual novels are somewhat doubly so owing to its need to make the audience influence the progression of the story and the development of the characters with a decision. The decisions presented in Katawa Shoujo in regards to Hisao’s characterization is testament to that. And, in spite of my
    “sociopath” related comments, our heartfelt decisions can inadvertently or not offer a window to ourselves that we might not otherwise glimpse because of the pretensions we uphold in our normal lives. The consequences of our decisions can make us think about how we conduct our own lives through the deceit that of us thinking we have absolute control over everything that happens in-game. It might be an exaggeration to say one has to be “sociopathic” to get to Kenji’s route, but one does have to make Hisao come off as “self-centered” and “self-absorbed,” and it’s not unreasonable to question the reason for why one made Hisao so.

    That being said, I also agree that I don’t think it necessarily equates to we, the audience, being indistinguishable from Hisao, nor does it necessarily mandate we have to think of ourselves, through Hisao’s skin, as boyfriends. As you know, Hisao ends up doing things tied, but ultimately external to our decisions that we wouldn’t find ourselves doing, that make us infuriated. After imputing a set of orienting variables, he ultimately becomes his own character, and the future choices we make are less possibilities in the context of our own character as they are possibilities in the context of his, and then we look in wonder, horror, fury, or feels as to the consequences of Hisao’s actions. Every initial decision we make in the common route determines Hisao’s world view, but every subsequent decision in routes after become reflective of that world view.

    The Completionist mind set is also something I don’t particularly like in general, but it works with Katawa Shoujo to a certain extent because it encourages us to explore and allow us the possibility to take value from other stories that we might otherwise neglect trying out.

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