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.
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
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.
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?
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.