Unexpected Sincerity: Disabilities, Girls and Katawa Shoujo

Unexpected Sincerity: Disabilities, Girls and Katawa Shoujo

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.

Unexpected Sincerity: Disabilities, Girls and Katawa Shoujo

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while meaning ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’, can also be taken to mean something closer to ‘crippled’, and is considered outdated, discriminatory language in Japan), the game can easily be taken at first glance to be insanely offensive.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.”

Unexpected Sincerity: Disabilities, Girls and Katawa Shoujo

Heartbeat, Heartache

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?”

Historical Anomaly

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.”

Unexpected Sincerity: Disabilities, Girls and Katawa Shoujo


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.”

Unexpected Sincerity: Disabilities, Girls and Katawa Shoujo


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.”

Unexpected Sincerity: Disabilities, Girls and Katawa Shoujo

*Name changed for reasons of privacy.

Image: “Katawa Shoujo Release” by 1-Kilometer


  • I had a hard time explaining to friends that if you turned off the adult content it was still interesting if you looked at it through the perspective of purely being a graphic novel instead of a pervert game.

    • I think that’s one of the key points about why it’s good. Having played through all story branches, if you were to disable the eroge scenes (I didn’t, but the option is there) then you’d still have a compelling, well written visual novel to enjoy.

      The content is there, and fits naturally (sole exception for me, and slight spoiler, Emi in the sports locker) but if it isn’t your cup of tea it’s still an enjoyable game.

  • I generally find myself asking “if a story works without sexual content, why include the sexual content” so it’s difficult for me to see past this as a legitimate storytelling experience despite their efforts to assure us it’s more than jsut a fetish-fuel erotic game with story interspersed.

    However, at the same time I think we’ve have to accept that sexuality is a key part of romance. If they’re truly trying to respectfully approach this from the angle of “dating girls who happen to be disabled” and immerse people in that world where you’re faced with these situations and given the opportunity to see past the disability to appreciate the person, then avoiding the sexuality aspect is only going to look like cowardice, comprising of their artistic integrity. Maybe artistic integrity is an odd phrase to use in relation to an erotic game, but it’s obvious they legitimately believe in what they’re doing.

    That said, it’d be tricky to explain this to my wife if she caught me playing it. 😛

  • If you enjoyed Katawa Shoujo then definitely read some of the other eroge visual novels out there.

    Fate/Stay Night, Tsukihime, Saya No Uta and Utawarerumono are some of the more famous ones.

    Narcissu and Red Shift are also really good non-eroge visual novels as well as Ace Attorney, 999 and Ghost Trick mentioned in the article.

    • Currently playing through F/SN’s Unlimited Blaade Works route. Once I finish Heaven’s Feel it’s on to Little Busters! Dying for a fan translation for Rewrite since I grabbed the limited edition even.

    • If you want a Visual Novel that doesn’t have sex scenes, then may I recommend Clannad? It’s made by Key, the company that also did Little Busters and Planetarian.

      • You’d have to “look” for them as imports are usually $100+ on sites like J-List, and they wouldn’t be in English. You should be able to find the fan translation patches (and hopefully walkthroughs) too. Katawa Shoujo is a rare example of a free to play VN since the industry over in Japan is pretty commercialised as much as normal games.

    • Oh blah I also forgot Clannad as well since I never got around to it.

      Narcissu and Red Shift are free visual novels. The rest are incredibly old and somewhat hard to even find to buy.

      • Urgh… no way I’m going to be able to cope with Saya no Uta. I could barely cope with parts of 999 and that was, like, kid glove territory in terms of horror VNs.

  • Honestly I dont really get why Ghost Trick is classified as a visual novel when the story is strictly linear. It was a puzzle game that just happened to have a great in depth story.

    • Technically it’s an ADV, under Japanese classifications. The bounds of what does and does not define a visual novel are still pretty loose right now.

  • I’m genuinely surprised that it DIDN’T turn out as sick and exploitative fetishistic pornography. The mere genre trappings and the subject matter seemed to guarantee this would be a trainwreck.

    And they actually handled the material with genuine taste.

    I’m impressed, although part of me wishes it WAS handled abysmally just for the twisted/offensive-humor value. But on the other hand, to see this material treated tastefully is genuinely heartwarming in its own way.

      • or a comic that had swords cut people in half… oh wait, illustrations of killing someone is considered fine but not sex.

        • +1

          I love this little nugget of irony whenever it crops up. People getting butchered, mutilated or tortured is fine in fictional media in context to horror or action..

          But heaven help you should you decide to explore romance any further than the sanitised puppy love or happily ever after scenario in any form of media.

          • And a +1 for you sir, I couldn’t agree more 🙂 It always annoys me when sex is treated with such disdain compared to the relatively easy treatment that violence receives in artistic medium. I’ve always found it strange…anyway, nice to know somebody out there shares a similar opinion!

  • I can see why this is getting a generally bad reputation among the general populace but at the same time i don’t understand what the fuss about it is. There are much worse erotic content out there and they make a fuss over this particular eroge because they depict girls with disabilities? i think it’s about time they have actually done so, plus in a way that is (dare i say) tasteful, although that is purely my subjective view.

    So far i have done 4/5 of the girls scenarios and they have been handled in a way that in wasn’t offensive in my opinion altough there was one sexual encounter that could be considered as such to certain people. At the very least there was none off that “i’m going to force you to” situations that are so heavily prevelant in most erotic content.

    I do believe though that 4 leaf studios made the right decision to just do physical disablilities rather than mental ones as that would be simply distasteful and downright offensive, mostly due to the most obvious of reasons, taking advantage of said mentally impaired person.

    And, as a cynical side note, i think all the non-disabled people who have a problem with Katawa Shoujo have some superiority complex, as if to say sex should exclusivly be for non-disabled people.

    • I apologise in advance for any unintended political incorectness and offensiveness, i’m not exactly articulate with words.

      • You’ve put it nicely. It’s about time visual novels get more recognition, sure there’s loads that are purely eroge (and can still be fun!) but then you have stuff like this which can be a meaningful story that you are left thinking about long after you finish it.

        • Definatly! Katawa Shoujo has a very meaningful and inspiring story that has opened my eyes and changed my views on many different subjects. Its becoming quite rare nowadays to find erotic content that isn’t a basic “i’m a guy/girl who wants to bang said girl/guy”. Visual novels in particular do suffer in this regard but from time to time a true gem does come out that offers a meaningful story and appropriate erotic content.

          As contradictory as this sounds, i’m sick and tired of the over sexualisation that is in media nowadays, be that games, movies, books and even music. it’s as if every man is a sexed up maniac (although in hindsight, not far from the truth, i wont deny that i’m infallible to sexual desire XP) and every woman is treated like a sex toy which is sickening and sad since i have met girls like that.

          Now, i don’t know if i have been to liberal with my comments because i’m not to sure of what i can and can’t say in the comments but i just wanted to get my view across and (once again) i apologise for any offensiveness and inappropriatness.

    • “I do believe though that 4 leaf studios made the right decision to just do physical disabilities rather than mental ones as that would be simply distasteful and downright offensive, mostly due to the most obvious of reasons, taking advantage of said mentally impaired person.”

      EXCUSE ME?!? As a person with a mental health impairment, I find your generalization of my minority group offensive and completely false. You assume that simply because someone has a mental health impairment, that they have no sexual emotions. If I were to engage in a sexual relationship with a “neurotypical”, would they be exploiting me simply because of the fact that my disability is not physical? Should I be protected from life, and all it contains?

      “i [sic] think all the non-disabled people who have a problem with Katawa Shoujo have some superiority complex, as if to say sex should exclusivly [sic] be for non-disabled people.”

      You disgust me. You’re just as ignorant and “superior” as the people you condemn so vocally. I can only hope that you never work with a person with a cognitive disability, so that they may be spared your ignorant, overprotective view. I hope with all of my being that whoever reads this may perhaps leave with an emotion other than pity for those who are neurologically diverse.

  • This is my first VN and I’m hooked. Despite the controversial nature of the game, I’m surprised they’ve handled it really well. They treat the disability with accuracy and respect, and never tries to patronise the girls who have the disability.

  • Would be nice if people tried it out before commenting on it.

    I’ve played 3 routes so far and the actual disability was barely there to me. The focus was on the individual personalities and quirks of the characters and working on their own issues.

    The only reason why this is even an issue is since people assume that since the love interests are disabled, the player character/the player must only want to pursue them since they are disabled.

    • Well said. The characters are so well developed that the fact that it takes place in a “school for disabled kids” is very minute.

  • Anyone with any concerns should dismiss them now, the story is in extremely good taste. There’s nothing to do with “abusing cripple girls” as one might have concerns about. Plus two of the developers are Australian! Support your local crew guys.

    • That’s awesome that 2 of them are Australian! Do they have Twitter accounts or anything that you know of?

    • Interestingly enough, Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear series, HAS made two games that are practically visual novels (though with enough adventure elements to blur the line). Look up ‘Snatcher’ or ‘Policenauts’ some time.

  • looks intresting and a good way to take a look at life through the eyes of others…. can’t wait to get my hands on it….

  • Katawa Shoujo has turned out to be a great experience for me. im only up to act 2 ( after finding out about it last night on anime news network and downloaded it this morning) but the underling themes of that people are in fact, people no matter the condition/s they face. i look forward to finishing this wonderfully executed visual novel. And i hope 4 Leaf Studios keep making many more, i just found my favorite game designer/publisher

  • Great visual novel. I loved it. Hanako was my favorite 🙂

    I’d also recommend Ever 17.. no sex content and another good emotional story. But if you play it, be sure to finish all girls’ routes and then you can do the “true” ending, well worth the time investment.

    I’m sad though now that I finished Katawa Shoujo.. I hate when I run out of content of something I enjoy hehe.

    • Yeah im sad too, im not happy at myself coz it took me till today (had it for 34 days 🙁 ) to finish all 5 girls acts of Katawa Shoujo (well still got a bit to go only 98% complete), blasted xbox…

      I wish I could read MORE!!!!

      And ill look at that Ever 17– thx for the heads up


  • I’ve just started playing this now. I had to admit i was a little hesitant first, mind you not because of the content or the adult themes, but honestly because visual novels are not my thing anyways.

    But the story, art and overall sincerity of it all has already got me indulged and i’m eager to continue it.

    I hate to think i would need to use words like “brave” to compliment a mature VN with a somewhat sensitive topic, considering that sex and relationships in a video game is sadly not as desensitized with audiences and critics as gory violence is (case in point Mass Effect)

    I also got to admit im curious to play through to see how the sex scenes are played out, but thats not the reason why i want to play it in the first place. And nor should it be. As someone with a disability myself (albeit a learning one) i know all too well that a disability doesn’t define a person.

    Thanks 4 Leaf Studios, not only have you made something truly wonderful, but you have also sparked an interest in exploring the visual novel genre, though ones with great stories like this one.

  • It honestly saddens me to no end how people will, without giving it even a chance, condemn this visual novel as creepy fetishist pornography. What makes me sadder, though, is that I was one of those people. When I first heard of this, I was disgusted, partially from my prior preconceptions of what visual novels and eroges will entail and partially because I simply thought cynically about it instead of having an open mind. Then I downloaded it, out of boredom and morbid curiosity, and because it was free. After that, I stayed up all night and well into the morning to read it, and cried at the end for the first time in years.

    It really is one of the most tasteful and well thought out stories I’ve ever read, and seems that (with the exception of Hanako) the sex scenes were added almost as an afterthought out of respect for the genre, or the audience of the genre, rather than any artistic or storytelling reasons. the disabilities were not the story, it was the girls who you fall for. After a while, I started to forget they even were disabled, even in fairly obvious cases, because it isn’t what the stories are about. They’re about people who happen to have disabilities, not disabled people. I honestly think it made me a better person in several regards.

    And there I was just a few days before, watching people being shot and killed and maimed in very distasteful ways under the pretense of action movies or FPS games. Yet, when a genuine story about love and understanding shows up, as rare as they are in this day and age, I shut it down, condemned it, was afraid of it even. This either says something about society, myself, or maybe both, that is shameful. I think people need to give this a chance, like I should have. 10/10 fantastic visual novel. Highly recommended.

  • When this first came out, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I would enjoy a VN with a core component that included disabled girls. I thought to myself it was fine and dandy that people may want to play a game with such a topic but wouldn’t interest me. But a few months later and a couple of articles I decided to give it a shot.

    To be honest, I was blown away by how well it read and how much I was affected by the stories of each of the heroines. I think there wasn’t one route I did that didn’t evoke a bittersweet sadness while I was playing. Although each girl has trouble with their disabilities, they aren’t issues that break the flow of their daily lives. They have worries and hopes just like the rest of us, a full spectrum of emotions that seem genuine and that people can relate to, and like any human being, disabled or not, seem to have the potential to lead fulfilling lives.

    I cried when reading each of the issues that they had, fictional characters, and each had such an impact on me that I must have played 15 hours straight trying to finish each of and couldn’t sleep until I had a happy ending for each. I am afraid to finish each girl’s “bad” ends, because I do not believe I could take the negative emotions because there were enough of those in the good routes. One thing of note, this game is not smooth sailing from start to finish. I almost couldn’t handle the ups and downs however, so one may need to steel themselves for a rocky ride.

    I would recommend the game as well, a good story and read.

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