Romance With Disabled Girls: How An Unusual Game Came To Be

About three years ago, one of the most notorious online message board communities decided to create an unusual video game. It would be a Japanese-style erotic dating simulator starring girls with disabilities, a topic not unfamiliar to the 4chan group.

The genesis of Katawa Shoujo, an erotic visual novel set on a private campus for disabled high schoolers, can actually be traced back to a phenomenon that began several years ago on the 4chan /b/ board, where posters  enjoy some of the internet's strangest images and subject matter under cover of anonymity.

What started then, a seemingly sexualised interest in disabled girls by a fervent online community, could have just been twisted or shocking, as could the game that seemed to emerge from that interest. But what really happened involved more sadness and sentimentality than one might expect.

In 2006, stories began appearing from a poster claiming to be a male nurse who had just received as a patient a half-Japanese seven-year-old girl missing an eye and all her limbs save one arm, injuries from a car crash that had also left her orphaned.

The poster seemed aware that this situation would entertain the board users, an anonymous collective notorious for their often-shocking culture of extreme imagery and offensive humour. As one might expect of this group, the board users quickly made an occasion for paedophilic jokes and snark about the child's injuries. Less expected was the genuine sentiment that emerged as more stories and updates on the tragic patient from the ostensible nurse began to appear.

The story may not even have been true. At first, the board users were as interested in attempting to verify whether the poster, whom they dubbed "Nurse-kun", and his patient, to whom they widely referred as "ampu-chan", were real based on scant details. Eventually, however, many stopped being concerned with verity as they became immersed in the updates on the child's difficulty coping as she recovered in the care centre.

Readers were captivated by glimmers of positivity – such as Nurse-kun's stories of the girl learning to play DS one-handed with her nurse's help. They became indignant on the child's behalf when she was the victim of a racist rant from an elderly World War II veteran receiving care in the same centre. They closely followed the Nurse's growing investment in her well-being – which, despite the initial joke, he maintained was non-sexual. If the posts are to be believed, Nurse-kun ultimately succeeded in adopting the orphan whose plight had touched him so deeply, and then stopped writing.

The board users never stopped making sexual jokes. They were accustomed to the puerile body forms common in anime and gaming and to expressing themselves within an anonymous internet culture that thrives on extremes. It's clear at least some of them found, or pretended to find, an element of the erotic in the vulnerability of the amputee child. But the nurse's story certainly had its sincere followers, those who claimed to be moved and who offered well-wishes. They pressed for contact information so that they could send donations and gifts (the nurse understandably declined). The reason was probably muddled and a bit backward, but still the "saga of Nurse-kun" had struck a chord.

"Disability Girls"

4chan's /b/ board and the anime-focused /a/ board consider themselves separate culturally, although there's plenty of obvious overlap. Both boards saw a major surge of interest in artwork of injured girls around the time of the "Nurse-kun" saga, although "wheelchair girls" have been something of a trope in spheres of anime and gaming for some time – and the image of a bandaged and eye-patched Neon Genesis Evangelion star Rei Ayanami is practically iconic to anime fans.

The boards began more regularly spawning fetish threads devoted to eroticising girls and women with prosthetics and eye-patches, complete with glib text about "damaged goods" or "ampu-chans". But it was a single image on the /a/ board that sparked the idea for a gaming project: a sketch by a doujin artist called RAITA proposing several characters for a fictional dating game based on disabled Japanese schoolgirls.

The board's anonymous users wanted the RAITA-inspired game concept to be real so badly that they decided to make it themselves. It's surprising on its own that there is such a polished result, but maybe it shouldn't be; despite being entirely anonymous and dispersed all over the Western world, 4chan users have mounted highly effective group efforts in the past, like making sure founder Christopher "moot" Poole was crowned Time Magazine's Most Influential Person Of The Year in 2008, or launching several widely-documented protests against Scientology.

Now, the society widely reputed as the internet's strangest, saddest shut-ins has managed another major feat: since late in 2007, they've assembled themselves as an international team of amateur game developers and producing a highly-polished demo. The project, still in progress, is called Katawa Shoujo, or "Disability Girls", and is a visual romance novel in the Japanese eroge mould – an interactive story with branching plot arcs depending on player choices.

What It's About

As with any title in the genre, the Katawa Shoujo player must choose whom to pursue from among several female characters within the story. Although the demo, the first version of which was released in April 2009, doesn't contain any sexual content, the creators confirm on their blog that it will become part of the game further down the line. Erotic gaming - Eroge - is not so left-of-centre in and of itself, but Katawa Shoujo is unique in that all the major characters are physically disfigured or disabled.

The player character is a young male high schooler named Hisao, who after spending most of his life without medical incident, is revealed to have a dangerous heart condition. It's a stark change in his formerly healthy life when he must start taking a daily litany of medications. He also has to transfer to a school for students with varying special needs and a full-time nursing staff on site. There, he meets five different potential romantic partners among his classmates: Shizune, who is deaf and mute; Hanako, whose face was burned in a childhood tragedy; Emi, whose legs are amputated below the knee; Lilly, who is blind; and Rin, who lost both her arms to a birth defect.

More interesting than the quality of the fan-made game - which in terms of its looks and the depth of its writing can rival commercial titles in Japan – is its sincerity. 4chan users may be a perverted collective, and the way in which they objectify a wide range of people from the safety of anonymity can be shocking to many. But unlike the threads on the message boards, Katawa Shoujo is, perhaps against all odds, deeply respectful of its subject matter.

The Sexualisation Of Empathy?

The focus seems to remain on the personalities of the girls in the story and the way they cope with their unique challenges, rather than lavishing unnecessarily on their disabilities. Judging by the demo, the theme is Hisao's struggle to accept his condition, and the ways relationships with his disabled classmates help him accept himself. That level of sincerity, or at least the aim at it, is not uncommon in visual novels, although attention to narrative doesn't usually satisfy critics of the erotic material.

Another better-known eroge that combines the sincere with the unsettling is the well-known Kana: Little Sister, which sexualises the relationship that develops between a young girl and her brother as she battles a kidney disease that appears certain to be fatal. Kana: Little Sister was widely received by fans as poignant and emotionally rich; from a critical standpoint, I agreed.

As Katawa Shoujo has some things tonally in common with Kana, one could theorise that some eroge games fixate on morbidity in order to emphasise the fragility of life. Acts of sexuality could be seen as an affirmation of life, and the presence of illness or damage in eroge becomes a device to bestow gravitas on sexual narratives. The fetishisation of medical conditions in teenage girls, as seen in Katawa Shoujo, may be a very extreme way to evoke emotion, to trigger empathy of the same breed the users felt for Nurse-kun's young patient.

But perhaps those who become accustomed to a wholly anonymous culture of alternately sexualising and mocking everything need extremes to be engaged. "I think it's rare to find a 4channer who is completely emotionless, a true ‘internet hate machine' as they say," says ‘W.T. Snacks,' a 4chan user and a former administrator of the site until 2005. "They just put on a façade with their anonymity," he adds.

"Sexuality is totally overblown in that culture, but it's all fake," says Snacks. By his estimation, the sexualisation of anything and everything – including empathy – is simply a mode of expression on the boards that bears little relation to actual human interaction. And in many cases, the most vocal and devoted users of 4chan are those who struggle socially in their offline lives, says Snacks. As a site admin and friend of moot, he received a high volume of attention from the community and cites personal experience.

Perhaps in these fictional girls facing painful challenges, the legion of Anonymous users sees people with genuine disability. They see real setbacks more serious than the simple social aversion that keeps them hiding behind crude image-board humour. Perhaps they experience emotional and sexual desire for these characters because of either the desire to play a protector to them as "Nurse-kun" does, or the desire to learn from their strength, as Hisao does in Katawa Shoujo.

The amateur collective developing Katawa Shoujo now calls itself 4LS, or Four-Leaf Studios. The developers aim to identify themselves as an entity not dependent on 4chan nor associated with it by necessity. Still, the studio name remains a nod to its 4chan heritage and the culture that inspired the game's creation.

But though the existence of Katawa Shoujo is comprehensible – even worthy of praise, if only for its bootstrapping origins and high quality – does that make a dating game about disabled girls "okay?"

A Gamer's View

Alex Bannister is a lifelong gamer who was born without a left hand. I explained to him Katawa Shoujo's premise and showed him several gameplay videos to see how he reacted to its portrayals. "It is always nice to see disabled people, whether they are deaf or have no legs, as the focus of a love interest," he says, although he admits he finds the idea of fetishising disability to be "creepy".

"I think it ultimately comes down to if the protagonist falls for these girls because of their disability or falls for them and they just happen to have whatever condition they have," he says. Bannister hopes that as Katawa Shoujo progresses, the developers will explore the relationship difficulties that can arise because of a disability. It would be a chance to show people that "no matter if a person has a disability they still need love, possibly more so than a non-disabled person due to the revulsion that a lot of people subconsciously have".

"Even if this game ends up being some twisted view of having a disability, there is always hope that it may somehow inspire others to make games with disabled characters playing a prominent role, like Joker in Mass Effect," he suggests.

As with any game, whether the material is appealing or repellent, and whether its aims are tender or horrific, depends to some extent on one's own personal opinion. But it's clear that this polished, surprisingly compassionate and complex love letter to disabled girls and the strange community that idealises them is far more nuanced and thought-provoking than one would ever expect.

[ Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, and freelances reviews and criticism to a variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]


Comments

    Don't let Atkinson hear about this >_>

      Ironically, this sort of game seems close to a perfect candidate for R18+, in many respects. It will likely contain content unsuitable for minors, but it also sounds like it carries a message outside of gratification and sex.

      It may be that this game navigates a fine line between the two in the same way that Lolita (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lolita) did. Lolita is a book (made movie) about sexualising a 12 year old girl, but at the same time it is also "considered by many to be one of the finest novels written in the 20th century" according to wikipedia. The movie was aired here in Australia in 1999.

      Personally, it's not content I am interested in, but if we wish to fight for an R18+ category, then it should be for all games that deserve it. I have no idea if this game actually does deserve it, but the review above suggests that it deals with some pretty heavy themes with respect. As someone with a medical condition of my own, these themes interest me, even if the context of the game does not.

    Nicely written Leigh. I'm fascinated by Japanese/otaku/4chan type culture because it is so 'extreme' as you say. Interesting... I'm still turning it over in my mind.

    Good article. Didn't know about nurse-kun. Good analysis, also.

    Makes for an interesting story, but it doesn't really alter my opinion that the entire 4Chan user base needs to be rounded up, dropped in big pit and covered with cement.

      That should be changed to Majority.

      Actually, it really only applies to "/b/". That board is the one full of Jerks and Shock Jokes.

      Most of the devs from 4chan are from boards like /a/, the Anime & Manga board.

    "ampu-chan"

    Ampu-TAN. We called her ampu-TAN.

    Also, there's a similar story, called Blindmute Loli (easily googlable) which in my opinion, was a lot better than Damaged Goods (the name given to Nurse-kun's writings).

    The game has a lot of potential to demonstrate the dignity of human beings, and show that they are worthy of love and respect despite whatever has happened to them.

    Nonetheless, this potential is almost destroyed by the game having explict sexual content.

      Except no it isn't. The sex scenes are soft core and passionate ones.

      Also, there is the option to turn off sexual content in the options menu.

    actually, hyper, if you play through it you'll realize that this isn't just some porno slideshow. yes, there are sex scenes, but they're infrequent, short and not very explicit. the thing is, this is one of the very few games i've seen which handles it in a mature manner. it feels like a natural thing within the relationships, which actually seem somewhat genuine.

    besides, what is the problem with portraying disabled people as being sexual creatures just like everyone else? being blind or an amputee doesn't mean you have no sexual desires.

    i was actually all ready to hate on this game due to it's 4chan connection, but it's really shockingly well done. the path with the scarred girl actually drew an emotional response from me, which is very rare in games.

    seriously, people should at least give this a try. not only can you disable the adult content if you feel so inclined, but you'll be about 3 hours in before you see what little there is in the first place.

    Nice to still be dismissed as some anarchic collective of chaotic, emotionless psychopaths.
    4chan is rough, and our creative expression tasteless, bizzare, and contradictory, but as KS illustrates,
    none of that is sincere. We're still human, people.

    Having played a few hours of KS last night I was fairly stunned by how tender and gentle it is. The disabilities are treated very tactfully and kindly. It felt like it would descend into "Blind girl, deaf girl" etc, but it hasn't really. The personalities are nicely fleshed out and sincere.

    I would definitely advise you to play a few hours before you judge it, I think it's definitely worthy of praise for it's warmth and sincerity.

    I've played through two stories of this and its a very moving game. You'd think that this is just a game made for people with a sex fetish about disabled people but its not... you have a proper relationship with the girl of your picking. In fact, I really don't think think this is aimed at people with disabled people sex fetish, in the slightest. Its just another story based anime game, but with a brilliant twist. There is a really heart touching story behind each girl, and decisions to make. I genuinely cried at certain parts of the game, and I've only ever cried at a movie/game/book before during the snape crying scene in the last HP movie... and I've only done two of the 5 routes. I'm sure there are many more tears to be shed.

    Its a really well drawn and put together game as well. Seems that every indie game is now a days...

    -------------
    @David Griffin

    I think you're confusing /b/ with the rest of 4chan.
    Most of 4chan is filled with nice people, its /b/ that gets 4chan its reputation.

    The idea of this game was sprung up from /a/nime, or so I've heard.

      I wouldn't even say that you get to pick, the choices are done in a very minimalist and natural way. For me it was less a matter of choosing and more a matter of doing what I'd do in that situation and ended up in a naturally progressing relationship with the girl who matched...

      Also, I agree with many of the other comments, this game is definitely worth a play through, the length is about 6 hours long (on the arc I followed, can't say much about the others) and it is surprisingly well-written, so much so that it can actually evoke some emotional response... for example I'm hesitant about playing through a second time doing another arc because as silly as it sounds, I would feel like I'm cheating the girl I did get with. (For those who've played the game, it was Emi).

        I actually feel exactly the same way, as silly as it sounds. Initially I planned to play through multiple story arcs... However, after finishing one storyline (Hanako), I couldn't bring myself to play through any of the others because as you said, I felt like it would be 'cheating'. Instead I ended up uninstalling the game. Quite a powerful game, really. I'm impressed.

        Same here, too. Everyone has been telling me to do all the storylines, or "routes" as they're called, but after finishing Lilly's route, I just can't bring myself to it. I genuinely don't want to play other routes. It would probably feel like cheating.

        This visual novel is really fascinating. While finishing the novel, I noticed something really odd happened: My story with Lilly became real to me.
        No, not the girl, she's not real. What was real were the emotions I had during her story. And it left such an impact, that it made me completely rethink my attitude towards life. It kind of rewired me. I'd say for the better. I became a lot more confident and happy about myself and life.
        Those are of course traits that people often learn when they get into real relationships with other people. But some are less fortunate, and just don't get the opportunity to learn these things that are part of what being human is about. It's also kind of 'an experience you already need to get the experience'.

        And learning to love others and yourself is definitely a lesson worthy of being learned, no matter how, when, or who you are. Everybody deserves love and happiness. And this game offers a slice of the experience and emotions that come with it.

        So definitely worth at least one (girl-)route playthrough.

    As a regular poster on the /a/ and /v/ boards of 4chan, I'm incredibly impressed with the intelligence and open-mindedness you approached this visual novel with, along with the culture of 4chan itself. I read your column in Edge and have always enjoyed them, but this has taken my respect for you to a whole new level. After reading the horrible ignorance-fuelled, pseudo-intellectual rant about Katawa Shoujo over on Rock Paper Shotgun a few minutes ago, this article is a smart, savvy and thoughtful stain-remover for the faecal molasses the RPS article covered my monitor's screen with, fortunately figuratively speaking.

    It's a sadly rare pleasure to see someone actually interested in understanding things rather than merely being interested in *sounding* like they understand things.

    Awesome, heart wrenching and emotionally moving game, with a unique twist and made by an extremely talented group of people. The way the entirety of the portrayal of human emotion, uniqueness, connectivity, and just life itself, really flow into a solid and moving package. If people can see past it's often though of unsavoury , I am sure this game will move nearly every single person who plays it to some degree. P.S, I have completed both the Emi and Lilly storylines, while a friend simultaneously completed the Haneko one, all in all over 20+ hours of game play, crazy I tell you. Watch out for Kenji's plotline though, that got me a couple of times.

      woops, just noticed typo's
      *If people can see past it’s often though*t* of unsavoury *origins* , I am ...*

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