You might expect a project like Katawa Shoujo -- a free, internationally developed eroge (Japanese visual novel with erotic themes) roughly about dating girls with disabilities -- to be a crass, perverse, even exploitative piece of work. Perhaps that expectation would only be amplified after learning that the game originates primarily from notorious internet messageboard 4chan, a community not exactly known for its subtlety and sensitivity.
But you’d be wrong.
Set in a private school designed to assist students with various special needs and disabilities, Katawa Shoujo revolves around the life of a young man named Hisao, who has recently transferred in after discovering he has a heart condition. As a visual novel (broadly similar to Ace Attorney, 999, Ghost Trick and Hotel Dusk, though with even less gameplay), the game involves large amounts of reading with the occasional choice that branches the story into various paths, each revolving around romancing another classmate with a disability.
It sounds like the perfect setup for a brief exercise in politically-incorrect fetishistic pornography. But the responses from many of those brave (or eager) enough to actually dive in is telling; most speak of the game’s sincerity, its attention to detail, its relatively high production values and its powerful emotional content. As Leigh Alexander put it back in 2010 when she reported on the earlier released demo, Katawa Shoujo is, perhaps against all odds, deeply respectful of its subject matter.
Problems and Perceptions
The most problematic aspect of Katawa Shoujo, at least to a primarily western audience, is found in its nature as an eroge and its unflinching, occasionally playful attitude towards sex and sexual content. Combined with the unusual, somewhat uncomfortable subject matter and the unfortunately raw title (“Katawa”, while meaning ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’, can also be taken to mean something closer to ‘crippled’, and is considered outdated, discriminatory language in Japan), the game can easily be taken at first glance to be insanely offensive.
Given the general perception of society – that anything, especially videogames, containing sex is created solely for the purposes of titillation and pornography – it’s understandable why people’s initial reaction to the game’s focus on disability would be to consider it a fetish game. But the game’s developers, Four Leaf Studios, have gone out of their way to prove said reactions wrong.
“Everything from the ground-up was designed to make a genuine and honest story, rather than fuel for fetishes,” says Katawa Shoujo’s lead writer, Aura. “It was an important, yet natural thing for us to take the path we did.”
One important aspect of this was to have a realistic portrayal of the various disabilities, which Aura attributes to the extensive research undertaken by the development team. “We have a medical professional in-team to take care of fact-checking, and we studied about the disabilities and the conditions and the real-world solutions to them,” Aura explains. “There are creative liberties here and there, but we did feel it was important to give a sense of realism to the disabilities.”
This extends to the game’s sexual content as well. “On a general level, sex scenes in eroge are really stupid, because they are (often very crude) porn inside an otherwise normal story,” says Aura. “The sudden transformation is really disturbing, unless you are just looking for something to fill your sexual appetite. But if you are, why are you reading tens or even hundreds of thousands of words worth of story?
“We didn’t want to do straight-up porn, so we worked on a way to present the sex scenes in a way that we’d be happy with. Each writer and artist did it slightly differently, but overall the idea was to make sex a natural part of the game, just like it’s a natural part of people’s lives anyway.”
“We did keep up enough eroge-making spirit to include some objectively unnecessary elements, such as a sex scene for every main girl,” admits Aura, “but overall we wanted a natural approach to the entire issue.”
Would the game have been as effective without its sexual content? “Yes, I feel that way,” says Aura. “It’s been a long-debated issue whether the sexual content should be there at all, which I think is a testament to that.”
By all accounts, Four Leaf Studios have been wildly successful in creating a tale that is deeply invested with depth and meaning, one that treats those with disabilities with respect and dignity. Readers have been swapping stories of the game’s various emotional gut-punches across the internet, among them Alex*, who has a rarer perspective on the issue.
Alex is a musician and gamer who discovered in July of last year that he has two types of arrhythmia, a heart condition similar to that of the protagonist Hisao. “I can’t do anything to stress out my body in any way,” he says. “Psychologically, it’s made me a bit of a hypochondriac, and I’ve come to hate hospitals with a passion.
“But I’ve also realised that everyone around me has their burdens to carry and suchlike, so I’ve been more considerate of people and their problems since then. It’s quite the eye-opener, I suppose.”
Alex heard about Katawa Shoujo through various online forums and messageboards and played through the demo prior to learning about his heart condition. He notes, understandably, that his condition has changed the way he thought about the game.
“I loved it,” he says. “The whole sentiment about having the condition and spending time in the hospital, and having to take your heart into consideration no matter what you do, was very on-point.
“The main character mentions all these emotions of having to be stuck in a hospital, and how it can make you feel like you don’t have much in life to look forward to. There are also moments that he thinks about his condition as something like a restraint, that he will never recover or escape it, which I definitely felt [during] the first couple months of rehab.
“[Back] then it just seemed like something I read to pass the time, but now I feel like I have more of a connection to it, since I relate heavily to it.”
“True, the title (which translates to “Disability Girls”) might be a bit blunt,” Alex says, “[but] I don’t think the game’s been exploitative. We’re people too – doesn’t it make sense that we lead normal lives, whatever that may encompass?”
The tale of Katawa Shoujo’s creation is one more than 10 years in the making, although sustained development has only been happening for about half that time. In January 2007, an anonymous poster uploaded a translated and coloured page from a Japanese doujin (fan-manga) about Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, created by an artist named RAITA and released all the way back in the year 2000. On that page, RAITA idly scribbled down some concept art and a few comments about a hypothetical visual novel revolving around disabled girls that he dubbed Katawa Shoujo.
A large, or at least vocal, segment of 4chan’s anonymous community immediately embraced the concept with enthusiasm, inspiring an organised attempt to actually make this non-existent game. As development moved off the 4chan boards, internet drama and the need for a semblance of structure and organisation lead to the creation of a core development team, dubbed Four Leaf Studios. The streams of anonymous contributors to the wackier, more democratic and far more chaotic public forums eventually died down, but Four Leaf Studios – now both symbolically and practically separated from the greater anonymous collective, though still with a nod to its roots – soldiered on.
“The association with 4chan is a double-edged sword; it intrigues some people and repulses others,” notes Aura. “We’ve made it clear for years already that we aren’t 4chan, and this game is not made by 4chan, but generally I’m absolutely fine with being mentioned in the same sentence, so long as things remain factual.”
Though removed from its message board roots, Four Leaf Studios still retains various aspects of the internet culture of the chans – among them the relative anonymity of its members, few of whom are credited with their real names.
“It’s a tradition, I suppose, back from when the majority of the internet still was pseudoanonymous/anonymous, and the parts where we are coming from still are,” Aura explains. “It’s a natural choice for us.”
Four Leaf Studio’s status as an indie developer is therefore rare, if not completely unique; a team comprised of 21 internet strangers spread across the globe, working on a passion project that will never see any kind of monetary return. Why release something that had taken so much time and work for free?
“Some of it is exactly because of the incredible amount of work - the compensation we’d receive from selling the game would be ludicrously tiny compared to the amount of work we’ve done,” says Aura. “Some of it is just principle or idealism. When we started this project we expected nothing in return for our work and it would feel somewhat sleazy to make an about-face with that.
“And some of it is because we don’t want to worry too much, and money always complicates things. Offering the game to everyone for free is clean and simple, and we like that.”
Originating from what Aura terms a ‘petri dish of creativity’ was not necessarily conducive to an organised working environment. “The development process organically evolved towards production methods that worked for us, mostly through trial and error. We were of course quite inefficient and yes, even haphazard in some ways, but also very efficient and smart in others.
“Overall, a work process that felt comfortable to people produced the best long-term progress,” says Aura. “The basic, most often-used workflow was an iterative process of production, feedback and editing, which allowed individual devs to work independently of each other when necessary and kept us knit together to keep everybody in the loop of the production.
“To my knowledge, we are all amateurs in our fields, but some of us either study or work professionally in fields that are related to our roles in Four Leaf Studios. The obvious impact on the development process is that many things we’ve had to learn from scratch, or redo content with faulty production methods.”
“We’re certainly indie game developers; I don’t know where else we’d fall in the spectrum,” Aura continues. “Independence, creative or otherwise, has always been important to us and we’ve striven to keep our own minds about everything related to the game. In fact, often it felt like we were making the game just for the twenty of us, instead of for anyone else to read.”
“Maybe that is some kind of extreme indie developing,” he muses. “I don't know.”
The Stories We Tell
The development team characterises visual novels as a combination of video game and interactive fiction, though they don’t believe necessarily that there’s any definitive statement to be made about which side the genre leads more heavily towards. ”The answer… is a bit more complicated than just ‘yes’ or ‘no’,” says Aura. “Even within 4LS, different people disagree on the subject.
“Basically, visual novels don’t have enough game-like interaction to really qualify as games. They’re essentially Choose Your Own Adventure books with pictures and music, and it’s hard to call a CYOA book a ‘game’. But you can treat visual novels as a game by applying ‘win’ and ‘lose’ conditions to reaching various endings, but that’s by no means imperative (and, in my opinion, [a] fundamentally flawed approach). So while visual novels are not games, many people do treat them as games.”
“I think writing interactive fiction is a literary medium of its own, with its own challenges,” Aura elaborates. “It can be compared to writing a movie or a theatre script, with the environment and music cues and so, but visual novels also tend to rely heavily on the internal thoughts of the point-of-view character, which is extremely rare in either.”
“Writing in the branching, choices and structure also brings very unique challenges to the writing process, and is one of the hardest parts of writing a visual novel, and the thing that really sets it apart from other forms of literature.”
Asked about what Four Leaf Studios has learnt from the epic project that has occupied the last five years of their life, Aura doesn’t hesitate. “The visual novel format is incredibly deep, but often underutilised in the games made so far. There are so many possibilities for creative presentation and direction, but most games don’t dare to explore these. It’s a young medium, and I think creators should strive to expand its horizons.”
“Otherwise, I think the VN format would be great for mobile platforms like smartphones and tablets, and that is something that developers should explore more strongly. I would imagine making a breakthrough in the West would be quite difficult, but not outside the realm of possibility.”
According to the game’s release notes, the story of Four Leaf Studios is now completed, though Aura appears somewhat unclear on this point. “[We] were formed to accomplish this one undertaking, and now that it’s finished, so are we,” he says, though he prefers to characterise it not as a ‘disbanding’ but more of a ‘hibernation’. Though the blog says that “as a single entity, we will not be producing another game,” Aura appears to believe that this is in some respects a matter of chance, circumstance, or inspiration.
“We have no concrete plans for the future, so it remains to be seen whether we, or any part of us, will produce something again,” he repeats.
“It might be indicative of the future, though,” he adds, “that it took only two days after release for one of our artists to start talking about future projects to me, with a familiar-sounding enthusiasm.”
Ultimately, Aura summarises one of Katawa Shoujo’s inherent messages as “a disability does not define a person”, and many other internet commentators agree. “It’s a game where you date girls who happened to be disabled, not a game about dating disabled girls,” argues Deskimus Prime in a user review on the Escapist. “The thought that people would be defined by their disabilities is disgusting. And that’s essentially the core of the game itself; people can and should only be judged individually as the people they are, not as a pile of character traits held together by wilful ignorance and laziness.”
Alex has likewise come to a similar conclusion about the work. “I’m not one of those people who have been following it since the project began all those years ago,” he explains, “but I think that – if [Katawa Shoujo] has any meaning to it – it’s that no matter what a person goes through or looks like, they’re still human and should live their lives as such.
“Though I think that such a meaning would be lost to a lot of people.”
*Name changed for reasons of privacy.
Image: “Katawa Shoujo Release” by 1-Kilometer