I hadn’t followed the development of what’s commonly known as ‘that 4chan eroge about disabled girls’ but since the finished product isn’t really anything like that, maybe I was better off in blissful ignorance after all. The initial reactions at its full release, claiming it was tasteful and respectful towards its subject matter, were what caught my interest; reading the developers’ blog archives, I realised that it evolved independently from the infamous /a/ board and I eventually came to the conclusion that it’s not an eroge about disabled girls either.
It’s no more an eroge than Tsukihime and F/S N are if I’m honest. I would’ve thought the story-to-smut ratio would have to be lower for it to qualify since, like those Type Moon forays into the genre, Katawa Shoujo involves a lot of reading to get to the H-scenes so it’s plot-driven before anything else; outside of fiction written for a young audience, characters end up in bed together every now and then in many romantic drama stories anyway.
Thinking about how it approaches the themes it addresses, it’s less of ‘a story about disabled people’ and more ‘a story about people who happen to have disabilities’. The distinction is a subtle yet important one. It goes hand-in-hand with the idea of the storytelling being respectful and tasteful; I don’t think KS is intended to be an exercise in challenging people’s perceptions of the disabled in society per se. The problems and challenges that the characters face are not their respective disabilities: they’re connected, but are nevertheless separate.
Each affected character has overcome the obvious problem, but where KS gets interesting is in its portrayal of the knock-on effects. The core messages of this VN for me then were “look beyond the obvious” and of course “this is a story about people, not their disabilities.” Once I understood those facts of the writing, I was able to really appreciate what it sets out to do.
On my first read-through I ended up reading Emi’s route. It was in retrospect a good one to start on because it was relatively uplifting and comedic, and as a character Emi is likeable into the bargain. There were dark undercurrents later on but it set a nice direction for me in showing a character who has overcome her challenges, and in being by her side Hisao is able to move forward in life.
My favourite route overall though was Hanako’s, although it was somewhat darker and more tense in tone. It was for me the most well-written, mainly because the characterisation and the way Hisao brings her out of her shell were so cathartic and satisfying. It also subverted the common trope of ‘rescuing’ the girl from the situation she was in (by pure chance, a recent comment on my rather old post about the Heaven’s Feel route of F/S N reinforced my thoughts on this).
You’d expect Hanako’s route to get to know her and consistently help her…except, if you go too far into ‘knight in shining armour’ territory you hit the Bad End. Paying attention to the hints from Lilly and old Mutou-sensei though, you realise that the school is a means for preparing the students for the outside world so the pity of others is not helpful to them at all. Simply put, the only way to save Hanako is to give her the means to save herself.
I found this to be not only a clever bit of writing in terms of gameplay mechanics, but a realistic and true-to-life portrayal of the problems encountered by people affected by such things. Haruki Murakami references and character design aside (again, in another case of the “look beyond the obvious” mantra, she’s actually very pretty), I loved Hanako’s story: it goes on to use the H-scene as a plot device in an unusual way and delivers a Good End that is…just read it. It’s great.
Rin’s route was a bit of an odd one because unusually it’s not really about getting to know and understand the heroine…as a matter of fact, Rin doesn’t understand herself either. To make matters even more complicated, the decision points were very challenging so despite the emotional payoff I didn’t enjoy it as much in the conventional sense: I was unable to mentally work backwards through her background to get a grasp of why she’s the way she is, so the full force of the storytelling was a bit lost on me.
No story is perfect, especially when the narrative is branching and each component branch has a different writer; Shizune’s route for me highlighted how some are bound to be weaker than others. As a character she’s pleasant enough; I know there are fans of her character type out there even though I’m not one of them, but the issues I had were more to do with the character *development*, inconsistent pacing and relative lack of decision points.
In contrast, Lilly’s route was…pleasant is the best way to describe it. Again, I was fortunate in my choice of reading order because it had a warm, serene vibe and the final act actually felt more ‘final’ than any of the others. There was the additional benefit of the other heroines featuring prominently too: an issue I often have with multi-path stories is a difficulty adjusting to the shifted focus in each. I couldn’t start a route on the same day as finishing the previous one, for example, due to my sentimental attachment to the characters but when Lilly’s route features Hanako and even includes a lunchtime scene with her, Emi and Rin as well as Lilly I didn’t feel as though I was ignoring them.
Although it’s a closing thought, mentioning the hero at this point is actually rather appropriate; the protagonist of first-person perspective VNs is usually a tabula rasa figure in order for the reader to project his or her own thoughts and points of view onto him, but in this case Hisao has a backstory of his own and often the story is as much about him overcoming his issues as it is the heroines overcoming theirs. It adds to the interactive nature of the story in that we see Hisao help the heroine of each route, but at the same time the relationship benefits him as well. It’s a time for Hisao to mend his broken heart, in more ways than one.
VNs translated into English aren’t exactly commonplace, and in terms of subject matter I daresay KS is unique. I’m tempted to call it an experiment in open-source teamwork, and a successful one at that, but I’d be selling it as short as I would be if I were to call it “that 4chan dating sim about the disabled girls.” It’s not perfect – perhaps because of the voluntary and amateur nature of its creators or simply because no work of fiction ever is – but as a piece of storytelling it’s still impressive.
Maybe 4LS were mistaken in keeping a title that needlessly throws up extra preconceptions, or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference; I don’t know. The VN format isn’t for everyone of course, and KS embraces certain tropes and aesthetics of the Japanese medium that inspired it so it’s not really intended for the mass market anyway. For the record, I found the experience of reading it very rewarding indeed, and my gratitude goes out to the people who helped to bring it to completion.
I wrote some short-ish commentary on each route as I went along, in the order that I read them in. They go into a bit more detail than I did here and I’d only be repeating myself if I were to do a long copypasta, so here are the links in case you’re interested.