Group project summary by group leader Victoria Keating
A common mistake about romance is that it is an easy genre to write. It’s simple you may think. Person meets person. They fall in love. They face adverse circumstances. Someone may even die. Love prevails in some way or another. As someone who is a sucker for a good romance, I would have to disagree. One requirement not mentioned was good characters. For a romance to be successful, the audience needs to have a reason to care about the characters. In some cases, we care because we can easily imagine ourselves as the main character. In other cases, we care about the characters because they have such good backgrounds and stories that we can’t help but be drawn in. Katawa Shoujo is a perfect example of how having good characters can carry a romance far.
Created in 2012, Katawa Shoujo is a rather typical visual novel romance game. In the game, you play as Hisao Nakai. Hisao, after having a heart attack during his crush’s confession, has recently been diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia. Essentially, his heart is fragile and he is recommended to attend a new high school: Yamaku High. Yamaku is a school that specially caters to students with disabilities. While Hisao is uncomfortable with his new status as someone with a disability and attending a school where such statuses are common, he has no choice in attending. Luckily for him, Yamaku has a sex ratio of 60 to 40 in favor of females. Hisao meets five beautiful girls, one of which he may choose to romantically pursue. Each girl has a unique personality and disability of her own (hence Katawa Shoujo which translates to “Disabled Girls”). Whomever Hisao chooses, he learns how physical disability does not preclude people from having hopes and dreams. Disabled people can be very resilient and have lives and problems of their own that do not center solely on their disability. Further, he learns to accept himself more.
At face value, Katawa Shoujo is not special. It has very generic formulas and employs several cliché romance tropes that can be found in many romance media. For instance, your choice of girls can be summarized as between: the small, cute, upbeat athletic one (Emi); the smart, ambitious class president (Shizune); the quirky, blunt, artist one (Rin), the shy, quiet bookworm (Hanako), and the motherly, kind, half-foreign (a typical character in Japanese anime) one (Lilly). For a couple of the girls, you can even have a meet-cute like when Emi literally runs you over in the hallway. The game also can’t escape its origins from 4chan or visual novels with its moments of upskirt or weirdly angled shots and with (admittedly skippable) adult content.
It could be argued that what sets Katawa Shoujo apart is its focus on disability. All of the girls have disabilities and deal with them in credible ways. Emi, with both legs amputated below the knee, walks and even runs using prosthetics. Shizune is deaf and mute and requires the help of Misha to communicate with others using Japanese Sign Language. Rin was born with a birth defect that made it so she had no arms. She copes with using her feet for all things including eating and painting. Hanako was in a horrible accident as a young girl that scarred her body terribly and she is very self-conscious about it. Lastly, Lilly is blind and uses a cane to walk around. Hisao’s disability is “invisible” but still does greatly impact his life. Hisao, through learning from the girls and adjusting to this new school, begins to learn how to cope with his own issues. As every person does have a disability of some sort, these issues are not ignored but rather incorporated. An important point made throughout the story is that disability is only as big of an issue as you make it. Hisao is at first confused on how to interact with everyone and acknowledge their disabilities. Twice he is told that it is only as big an elephant as you make it and rather these people are just people like him.
Following the vein that disability is only as big of a problem as you make it, I would like to argue that what sets Katawa Shoujo apart is not the fact that it deals with disabilities but rather it creates complex characters. Disability is part of the game, but it is not what makes the game unique. Declaring this as the main delineation between Katawa Shoujo and other visual novel games discounts what makes this game truly popular: the characters. Each girl has a unique storyline that reveals her personality, hopes, dreams, and struggles. While these storylines do acknowledge how life may be different with their respective disabilities and how these disabilities do shape these girls in some part, not all their struggles and character development is tied to their disability. For instance, Emi struggles with letting people close to her as she is afraid of losing friends and people, Lilly has a strained relationship with her parents, and Rin struggles with expressing her emotions aloud and depression. Hisao’s own character development is centered more on his understanding of how to cope with disability and personal issues in general rather than centered around his particular heart disability. It takes hours to complete any one route (given you don’t choose a bad path like not choosing any girl). These hours are filled to the brim with conversations and activities with the girls that give them depth. Further, the girls have complex relationships with each other. They have best friends and enemies. They are aware and care about what happens to one another. Courting one girl will usually involve interacting with one or two other girls as well, if not more. Disability is just a part of each girl’s identity. The characters that you get invested in are more than their disability. To say that Katawa Shoujo is memorable and different due to its focus on disabilities is discounting the amount of time and complexity given to the characters beyond their disabilities.
Despite its complex character development, Katawa Shoujo still stands as a good general representative of the romance game genre does. Like many romance video games, and even some games that just feature romance as a side story (ie. Mass Effect), you are offered a bevy of choices to choose from. The actions and words you say to the target of your affections initiate new events and opportunities with them. You “win” when you have unlocked all the content related to your paramour. Disregarding choose-your-own-adventure books, no other media really offers multiple choices when it comes to romance. Movies like Love Actually show multiple storylines but it’s not as if Colin Firth goes around and dates everyone. He gets one person. That’s it. Other media have finite romances with finite bounds. What will happen is not based on what the reader or the audience chooses in particular. These romances have often been regarded as Chick Flicks or Chick Lit because they cater to a generally female audience and are thought of as pure desire fulfillment. Pure fluff, if you will. Audiences are accused of thirstily wishing themselves into the place of the attractive main characters and yearning for destiny-defying, all-encompassing, quirks/warts-accepting love. If movies and books offer a vessel for audiences to be the romantic hero, video games like Katawa Shoujo have even greater potential for wish fulfillment. In this media, you get to choose of all the characters ready to love you, who you want. If you just play your cards right, everything will be perfect.
So why haven’t video games romances taken over the market? In video games, we get closer to pure alignment and allegiance to our main characters than ever. We get the satisfaction of choosing and doing just the right thing to get them. We get the same desire fulfilled in “getting” the person. What’s different? The biggest change that video games do is make love a literal game. The phrase usually used figuratively is here turned literal. The goal of the game is to win your crush’s love and it may even manifest itself in an achievement. Losing equates to bad endings. Endings aren’t permanent either, you can go back and play through multiple times with different routes. This may make feel the love or affection felt for each character feel shallower in comparison. Additionally, it could detract from the romantic aspect as players rush towards the end they would like. It makes one think of what Bernard Suits labeled “the Paradox of the Compulsive Winner and the Paradox of the Procrastinating Player” where the player struggles to enjoy the accomplishment of completing the game and enjoying the game (in this case, falling in love). A good game, he says, should manage to balance these too aims together (pg.80). This may be incredibly hard to manage however. Another hurdle romantic video games must maneuver is getting the player engaged and relating with the main character, balancing agency with gameplay. Some visual novels do not give their main characters names, allowing players to choose, and sometimes do not even show their face in order to help players imagine themselves better as the main character. These main characters have often been accused of being rather shallow since they often sacrifice character depth as to avoid breaking player alignment. Aiming for such close player-character alignment may be taking the idea of desire fulfillment too literally. The success of attractive movie stars and pretty book characters with cute quirks may be that they allow us to escape into a better vessel instead of imagining our regular selves. Video games which so closely align with our own selves might not be as compelling since we can’t imagine a better version of ourselves. Video game romances may offer more choices and immersion than books and movies may offer, but it may be that we are not ready for our romances to be reduced to simple choices or place ourselves so directly in the driver’s seat.