Katawa Shoujo is defined by its official website as a “bishoujo-style visual novel set in the fictional Yamaku High School for disabled children, located somewhere in modern Japan.”There are a couple of translations of the title circulating around the web, but the one that’s on the official website is “Disability Girls.” While the game credits its development to a company named “Four Leaf Studios,” that’s actually a name for a coalition of 4chan forum users, who created this game over the course of five years based on an illustration posted there in 2007. Even the game’s opening credits use the usernames of the 4chan users as opposed to full names.
Before I continue, I want to acknowledge a few points. Firstly, this discussion will contain some major spoilers for Katawa Shoujo. Given how the game’s narrative is so tightly wound up with its mechanics, as I’ll discuss soon, it’s not really possible to meaningfully talk about Katawa Shoujo as a romance, comedy, tragedy, or even a game without spoiling things. Secondly, I am not an expert on portrayals of disability in media and fiction and can’t speak with any sort of proficiency to whether or not Katawa Shoujo’s portrayals of disabilities are realistic or not, or sensitive or not. (Or a mix of all of those, depending on which character and scene in the game.) Lastly, this game does contain adult content and sex scenes, although all subsequent content and screenshots below are safe for work.
Katawa Shoujo opens with Hisao Nakai, a high school student, meeting up with his crush Iwanako in the winter. He’s about to confess his feelings for her, when his heart starts to pound—and he suffers a heart attack and is hospitalized. During his lengthy stay, he is diagnosed with arrythmia, an irregular heartbeat, and finds out that even when he gets discharged, he’ll have to be under constant care and medication. His doctor and parents then decide to send him to Yamaku High School, a coed boarding school for students with disabilities that has around the clock medical staff and care. As Hisao adjusts to life at Yamaku—and to his newly discovered disability—he meets fellow students and staff members at the school, and he might just find love. Because this is, after all, a dating sim.
Or he might not. Based on how the player goes through the game’s ‘act 1’—and I’ll discuss the game’s mechanics momentarily—Hisao either begins dating one of five girls at the school or antagonizes everyone and ends up with no one. If he does start dating, then the game’s subsequent acts either end with a “happy”/“good” ending for Hisao and his girlfriend, where they stay together and work through their challenges together, or a “sad”/”bad” ending where they can’t overcome their disagreements and differences, and break up with each other. There is also an alternate path where, if Hisao alienates everyone, he ends up ditching a major school festival to drink on the roof with his dorm neighbor, Kenji (who believes that this school is a ‘feminist conspiracy’), and soon falls off the roof and dies. That’s the only ending where someone dies; the other “bad” endings are tragic due to the failure of Hisao and his partner to solve the issues in their relationships.
The gameplay mechanics of Katawa Shoujo are, seemingly, relatively slim—but they bring up some interesting questions of visual agency. The core of the gameplay is clicking (or pressing the space bar) to advance the visual novel’s text, which is either Hisao’s inner thoughts or dialogue between him and other characters. Most scenes are ‘viewed’ in the first person (except for some scenes), from Hisao’s point of view; the visuals include the characters in the scene layered over stylized photographs. (Yamaku High School is, reportedly, depicted by photographs of Brown University!) There is occasional motion, including when a deaf character signs, but the visuals are mostly static.
Where does player agency come in? Occasionally, Hisao—and thus, the player—are presented with choices. In an early choice, Hisao’s teacher Muto asks him if he wants to introduce himself to the class. You can ask “Why,” or say “Yeah, of course.” It’s seemingly not a very high-stakes choice. In another choice during the first act, Hisao encounters Hanako—another student and one of the possible romantic interests—and the player can either choose “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you” or “Hi! I’m new here… We’re in the same class.”
A later choice seems to hold more weight. Hisao is running with Emi, another possible love interest. Emi’s legs were amputated after an accident, but she has prosthetic legs and is a talented runner. She wants Hisao to push himself more, and the player can choose to “Take it easy” or “Go for it.” But remember—Hisao has arrythmia. While playing, I chose “Go for it,” and soon Hisao blacks out and needs medical care, and Emi blames herself. The incident makes them closer to each other, however, and put me on the gameplay path to having Hisao pair with Emi.
With that said, there aren’t that many choices within the game. We get a lot of Hisao’s internal monologue and dialogue between him and other characters, but the choices rarely come up. Does this remove the player’s agency? Or does it actually add in more agency, perhaps, since it means every choice matters more? Once I looked at a choice map for the game (which I will not share here to avoid spoiling everything!), I saw how some of the seemingly innocuous choices have a major impact on which path(s) and which love interest(s) you might be set on or blocked from going forward. Based on the choices you make, Hisao ends up with one of five women after the first act of the game: Emi, Hanako, Shizune, Lilly, or Rin; or none if you alienated everyone and end up on the “Kenji” doomed route. In the subsequent act, the player’s choices determine whether or not the player gets a “good” or “bad” ending with the pairing.
“Behind the scenes” mechanics
Besides for the core gameplay of clicking through text and choices, there are a handful of “behind the scenes” mechanics that allow the player to move back and forth through the story more easily. For instance, you can go into an “Extras” page from the title screen that shows you what story scenes you’ve unlocked, which ones you’ve missed because of choices, and what percentage of the game you’ve completed. There’s also a very forgiving pause menu—you can pause at any time—which allows you to save in however many slots you want, review the text you’ve seen already, and to skip through text to make the game move faster. You can also scroll back and forth through text with the mouse scroll wheel during regular gameplay, although you can’t redo a choice on the same file if you’ve already made one—adding more significance, once again, to the player’s few choices.
With that all said, it does initially seem like there is so little player agency in this game. Hisao is an independent character; while I played, I was making some of his choices, but I wasn’t really playing as him—it’s more like I was just seeing the game from his perspective. Does this take away from thinking of Katawa Shoujo as a game? Is it even a game?
Understanding the Bishoujo visual novel
Fortunately, the same week I was playing the game, I was assigned a reading for a class on anime that deals directly with this type of game—the “Bishoujo visual novel.” Emily Taylor of the University of North Carolina writes,
The interactive portions of the game arise through options presented to the gamer, which are typically binary, although options with three choices occasionally arise. These options occur sporadically and often involve seemingly trivial choices, such as whether to go to a movie or art museum. Interestingly, any life-changing decisions in the game, such as whether the main character will donate a kidney, are often not decided by the game player. The game player takes advantage of options to manipulate the main character’s actions to bring about his desired result.
These results come in the form of endings, of which dating-sim games have typically ten to twenty… The only way to “beat” the game is to play it numerous times, experiencing all the endings. After playing through the game, players can go to the main menu and check their “status,” which shows how much of the game is finished. To reach a status of 100 percent, signaling completion of the game, all endings must be reached. Essentially, the only way to “lose” when playing a dating-sim game is not to get a bad ending but to get the same ending twice, since doing so prevents players from making any progress toward game completion.Emily Taylor, “Dating-Simulation Games: Leisure and Gaming of Japanese Youth Culture”
This all lines up with both the relatively sporadic choices in Katawa Shoujo, its twenty-one possible endings, and the completion-meter ‘behind the scenes’ mechanic. What I think is important about Taylor’s perspective here is that I could have possibly critiqued Katawa Shoujo for not for not having a lot of player agency for seemingly putting the player on paths that don’t allow that many choices. But with this broader perspective, it’s clear that’s just emblematic of this entire type of games and their gameplay conventions.
Emi’s and Kenji’s paths
As I mentioned above, I played through Emi’s path (with different save files to get both endings) and later I used a choice map on the side to play through “Kenji’s path.” I’ll leave out most plot details so that I don’t spoil anything more than I have already, but suffice to say that Emi’s path contains much romantic comedy (including outright, exaggerated slapstick) as well as melodrama—the conflict that arises between Hisao and Emi centers around what happened when Emi was first injured and how it impacted how she relates to others.
If the player achieves the “good ending” for Emi’s path, then the game does seem to align with Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s genre-spanning definition of the romantic comedy: “a romantic comedy is a film [or in this case, game] which has as its central narrative motor a quest for love, which portrays this quest in a light-hearted way and almost always to a successful conclusion.” Yet if the player’s sporadic choices lead to the bad ending, then the game becomes a ‘romantic tragedy’, so to speak, where the couple is unable to bridge the gulfs between themselves and ends up splitting up.
Kenji’s path—where Hisao gets together with no one and dies—is arguably not even a romantic tragedy, since there’s no real romance in this route. That route makes Katawa Shoujo into just a tragedy, where Hisao’s aloofness and pride leads to his fall. (Interestingly, Kenji also talks about losing the chance to make choices–just like the player no longer has the chance to make any more choices as well…)
The Knowledge Hierarchy
Yet I’d argue that even though the narrative of Katawa Shoujo can take on romantic comedy, romantic tragedy, or tragedy forms based on the possible routes, the game uses another key element of romantic comedy in order to provide more player agency.
When discussing the
ode to Starbucks romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail (1998) and its mismatched romantic pairing of Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), Geoff King writes,
The viewer stands at the top of the knowledge hierarchy. Even when [Joe] Fox [in You’ve Got Mail] appears to know everything, and takes advantage of [Kathleen] Kelly on that basis, the viewer is still in a superior position. Familiarity with the genre, with Ryan and Hanks as romantic comedy protagonists… and with popular Hollywood-style conventions more generally, enables the viewer to map an expected trajectory of outcomes at a level beyond the compass of those situated within the fictional world.
We know, with some certainty, that Fox and Kelly are likely to end up in each other’s arms, and so can safely enjoy the accumulation of intervening obstacles and complications typical of romantic comedy. It is this near-certainty of outcome that helps to sustain the comic nature of the film even in the moments of sadness and despair, located particularly in the closure of Kelly’s shop.Geoff Kelly, Romantic Comedy
I believe that Katawa Shoujo place the player at the top of the knowledge hierarchy, just as the romantic comedy film does. The player knows more than Hisao the character does, or any of the other characters, because the player knows what choices will lead to after making them, and then can go back—using different game files—and redo those choices. The player also can pair up Hisao with different characters and unlock and revisit different paths and ending, even though Hisao the character (and the other love interests) don’t know that within the world of their narrative.
And so, even though technically Hisao is the protagonist, the player is at the top of the knowledge hierarchy and is able to craft a romantic comedy, romantic tragedy, or, or even just the tragedy and the ending where he fell falls off the roof and doesn’t end up with anyone. Katawa Shoujo thus uses this romantic comedy convention to add player agency even when the player isn’t making that many choices.
“Ask! – Page 246 – Katawa Shoujo Forums.” Accessed March 8, 2021. https://ks.renai.us/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=4896&p=202273&hilit=brown+university#p202273.
Katawa Shoujo. Four Leaf Studios, 2012.
Katawa Shoujo. “Katawa Shoujo ◊ About.” Accessed March 8, 2021. http://www.katawa-shoujo.com/about.php.
Katawa Shoujo. “Katawa Shoujo ◊ Download.” Accessed March 8, 2021. http://www.katawa-shoujo.com/download.php.
Katawa Shoujo. “Katawa Shoujo ◊ Staff.” Accessed March 8, 2021. http://www.katawa-shoujo.com/staff.php.
King, Geoff. Film Comedy. London: Wallflower Press, 2002. http://pi.lib.uchicago.edu/1001/cat/bib/8356632.
McDonald, Tamar Jeffers. Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. Vol. 34. Short Cuts. London: Wallflower, 2007. http://pi.lib.uchicago.edu/1001/cat/bib/6418002.
Taylor, Emily. “Dating-Simulation Games: Leisure and Gaming of Japanese Youth Culture.” Southeast Review of Asian Studies 29 (2007): 192–208.
 Katawa Shoujo (Four Leaf Studios, 2012).
 “Ask! – Page 246 – Katawa Shoujo Forums,” accessed March 8, 2021, https://ks.renai.us/viewtopic.php?f=13&t=4896&p=202273&hilit=brown+university#p202273.
 Katawa Shoujo.
 Katawa Shoujo.
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 Emily Taylor, “Dating-Simulation Games: Leisure and Gaming of Japanese Youth Culture,” Southeast Review of Asian Studies 29 (2007): 194–95.