Review by GamerJM

"Are video games art? I don't know, but Katawa Shoujo is"

Are video games art? I've always been somewhat undecided on the topic, to be honest. I've seen the pros and cons of both sides and read countless arguments on the internet about whether they are. But I've never really delved into the topic or thought too hard about it. I guess that's because I've never really cared much about what the possible connotations of something being "art" are.

Enter Katawa Shoujo.

Katawa Shoujo is...intriguing. It's not exactly a video game, at least not in the traditional sense. Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel. The game is primarily story-driven, with your choices affects the outcome of the story. That's essentially the extent of the "gameplay" in Katawa Shoujo. The rest of the game is pure story, visuals, and music. And it's wonderful.

Katawa Shoujo is a game that started development after there was a popular topic posted on a certain anime image board depicting disabled girls. The game was developed just in the free time of a small group of inexperienced indie developers over the span of five years. "Katawa Shoujo" roughly translates to English as "Crippled Girls". While this may seem offensive, don't worry; the game is anything but. You play as Hisao, a boy who has recently been diagnosed with arrhythmia, a crippling heart condition. Hisao get transferred to the fictional High School Yamaku, a Japanese High School for disabled students. The story revolves around Hisao's life and his perusal of one of five lovers: Rin, Emi, Hanako, Shizune, or Lilly.

Originally, I expected a sexual visual novel. I have read about a lot of visual novels which are basically just about sex. These games are called "hentai games," and are not much different from choose your own adventure versions of animated pornography. Myself, having the perverted, twisted mind I do, decided to check it out, hoping for something stupidly kinky. Well, I was mainly wrong. Katawa Shoujo is hentai in the same way an art film with a sex scene is porn. It's not. The sex scenes in this game aren't made so that people can get aroused; they were drawn to show two loving, consenting human beings in life's most intimate act. They're done very realistically (or at least I assume so, I've never had any personal experience), and, for the most part, aren't inherently erotic.

The story of Katawa Shoujo is absolutely exceptional. It manages to defy all stereotypes and previous misconceptions most would have of a game about dating disabled girls. Because it's not a game about dating disabled girls. It's not a game about having sex with disabled girls. It's a game about life. Katawa Shoujo is a game about love, anxiety, overcoming difficulties, friendships, hate, and the future. The themes are just as deep. The game is a true work of art.

Katawa Shoujo uses a traditional anime art style for the characters, objects, and CGs. Everything is fairly well drawn. Something about the style of the drawn art feels unique, but I can't quite put my finger on what it is. The backgrounds in the game are all images of real life places, heavily edited and altered with Photoshop filters. While some may say call that taking the easy way out, I call it efficient use of technology. The game ultimately benefits from this; the backgrounds look gorgeous and manage not to look like real life, but they look too realistic to seem like anything else.

The music of Katawa Shoujo is pretty good. Initially, I was disappointed at the sound quality of the game. If there's one aspect of KS that shows that it wasn't done by a professional team, the music is it. It doesn't have the polish that an officially released game normally would. That being said, the soundtrack really grew on me. A lot of the songs are the kinds of songs that get better after listening to them a lot, and some of the songs set the tone for certain scenes in the game flawlessly. While the soundtrack may be rough around the edges, it fits the game to a tee and rarely gets old.

Originally, I felt an incredible connection to Katawa Shoujo. I truly sympathized with the girls in the game. I felt and still feel an incredible connection with each and every girl in the game. I still feel as if I see a part of myself in each girl. In Rin, I see the abstract part of myself; the part that has trouble putting things into words. In Emi, I see the persistent side of myself; the side that continues to move fourth regardless of challenges. In Lilly, I see the traditional side of myself; the conservative side that likes to take his time whenever he pleases that shows sympathy for others. In Shizune, I see the occasionally competitive and immature side of myself. But most of all, I see myself in Hanako; the anxious side of myself. The side that panics during tests, the side that was very reserved in elementary school, and the side that sometimes just wants to stay in his room and cry. I felt as if they were me, in a way.

But after thinking about this, I realize this is only partially true. Yes, I do identify with the characters well. But the developers of the game created the characters to personify what it means to be a human being; they personified overcoming setbacks and human emotions into five brilliantly designed characters. That's why so many people on the internet sympathize with the characters Katawa Shoujo. Because they're life; they're about human emotions. Lots of people on the internet have said that they want to turn their life around after play this game, and honestly, I can't blame them. I kind of do too. The story in this game is just that inspirational.

Of course, Katawa Shoujo is far from perfect. As a game, it's actually not very good at all. The gameplay consists solely of making decisions to determine the outcome of the story. Some of the choices seem to be arbitrary and unclear. In some stories, they don't have choices often enough. In other stories, they're not spaced out properly. Far too often, the game lets you make a minor decision in the story which leads to a major decision made by Hisao without player input. This would be okay in my book if the game made it more clear which minor decision would lead to which major decision, but it doesn't usually do that. Luckily, KS is a visual novel and the gameplay doesn't matter that much. And while it's far from perfect, it's still functional and there aren't any major faults with it.

Pretty much all of the stories have pacing problems in some way or another. One particular story feels like it has a rushed ending, which probably could have been avoided if there was more development earlier in said story. Another story feels like it drags on quite a bit too long near the end. One story feels like it was too short compared to all of the others. You get the idea. This was easily the biggest issue I took with the story in Katawa Shoujo; there was magnificent writing and development, but so-so pacing.

However, for a free game developed by a small group of people with little to no prior experience developing, KS is pretty much as good as it can get. In this respect, it's a true 10 out of 10 game. Of course it's flawed, but what isn't? For what it's worth, Katawa Shoujo exceeds all expectations you should have of it. It is just pure brilliance and wit from beginning to end. Each character arc mirrors the way a real relationship with a girl is like; it's an emotional rollercoaster. There are ups, downs, twists, and turns. There are moments of depression, moments of sadness, moments of raw love, and moments of pure emotion. Every single character in this darn game is likable without a single exception. I usually don't cry when playing games, but I cried several times throughout my playthrough of Katawa Shoujo. It's a game that just reeks of raw emotion in each character arc.

So are video games art? Well, if we can consider works like Katawa Shoujo games, I don't see why not. After all, it's basically just an interactive book, and a very good one at that. And when you think about it, RPGs are basically just interactive books with customization and battle systems. But above all, even if I decide one day that video games aren't art, I'll know that Katawa Shoujo is art. It's the heart and soul of a small team of about 20 people who developed a visual novel about love, life, defying stereotypes, and emotions. And that, my friends, is what we call art.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 01/26/12

Game Release: Katawa Shoujo (US, 01/04/12)


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