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.
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.]