Who knew; who guessed, who could tell; I play visual novels.
What of it? I've mentioned so many times that I adore good writing in games. Visual Novels are kinda the top peak of these, while retaining some form of 'gameplay' to them. They live and die on the quality of their writing, because other than the art and music, there ain't much else to keep you going.
The problem with Visual Novels in general, though? Well, give me a second. This next bit is gonna take some careful phrasing to avoid sounding xenophobic.
Well... The problem with the majority of Visual Novels is that most of them are made in Japan.
WAIT. Careful wording. Right. Lemme try again.
When something is translated, something is always lost. Every language has its own little nuances that may not translate well from one language to another. Over time, those subtle meanings that are found in the words change. Archaic English differs vastly from the English we speak today. (Shakespeare is the go-to example of this, though the King James version of The Bible could work as an example as well)
It's bad enough when looking at one's own language. Sometimes a writer isn't able to properly convey the right kind of emotion through their words as they intended. Add in the difficulty of a language barrier, and a plethora of new problems come up. Unless someone was somehow raised in two cultures at once growing up, there's going to be many, many, many things lost in translation. After you've sorted through grammar inconsistencies and vocabulary differences, there's then all kinds of cultural meanings that just don't transfer well. Even with an amazing translation, something that's important and symbolic in one language just loses it's value when brought overseas. (Consider the Christian cross. To most countries, it's possibly the most well-known and powerful piece of symbolism to our perspective. In some countries, it just doesn't mean much of anything.) This simple gap is something that may drastically alter what the original writer was trying to get across.
Which is my misgiving with so many Visual Novels. That a vast majority of them are concieved, written and made in Japan automatically means that much of the meaning and impact to be had with the story, characters and setting is simply not going to come across perfectly. Which, when you consider that the writing is the part keeping everyone here, is kind of an issue.
That's not to say that it's impossible to get a good, or even great translation. The go-to example for this is Final Fantasy VI. Given a very strict time frame to work with, Ted Woolsey translated the game successfully and often had his own touches instead of trying to directly copy the lines and meaning of the original Japanese script. The result were some of the better lines in JRPG history. A later project of his, Chrono Trigger, had some of this too. (his work on these two games garnered him internet immortality with the trope 'Woolseyism', meaning a translation that is arguably better than the original)
The practice of Woolseyism, though, is a hotly debated one. While some enjoy having an excellently localized script, that manages to convey a sense of meaning and purpose on a level that the local audience can appreciate better, other people don't agree. Some decry them as stuffy purists, but I think there's validity in both arguments. One one hand, if the audience doesn't grasp why something can be important in a piece of work, then all impact and meaning is lost. If it's localized excellently, then they'll understand why, but it likely won't be the same reason why it's important in the way the original author intended.
It's a messy road to tread either way that you go.
So imagine my reaction when I found out about Katawa Shoujo. Namely, the fact that it was written first and foremost in English. Second, that while it's by all technicalities an erotic dating sim, it treats the subject matter of love, romance, sex, and relationships much more seriously than, well, most any other piece of media I've seen yet.
Now, let's get one thing out of the way.
Yes, this game is an eroge dating sim that features physically handicapped girls. This game has garnered quite a reputation for being a "Cripple Girl Sex Game". The common stereotype is that the game exists solely to seduce and have sex with handicapped girls. Still, I'd heard a couple glimmers that there was more to this game that met the eye, and so I tried it out.
I've highly enjoyed the game since. This is a fantastic piece of work, especially when considering that it was made basically out of volunteer work. The whole thing was inspired by a piece of art released by a famous Japanese artist featuring the primary girls, albeit in a 'concept sketch' sort of style. The whole thing blossomed from there into the product we have before us now.
Had I known this history before going through the game, I may have stayed away. Projects headed by amatuers in their free time need a whole lot of passion, skill and dedication to fly. It's either hit out of the park or it crashes and burns. I've seen too many well-meaning projects without proper funding just plummet. And given the touchy subject matter of the game, that just adds extra weight to the potential wreckage.
But thankfully, it took wings and flew, baggage and all.
Katawa Shoujo is easily my favourite visual novel. What propels this game so high is, of course, the writing. The whole package comes together excellently, but without the writing it'd just be a vapid, pretty gathering of mere elements.
What I love most about the writing is how seriously it treats each moment. Not that everything is "Super serious no humour grrr". Actually, serious is a poor word choice. A better word would be...... Um.... Realistic? That works. Comedy moments are funny, but not annoying, and each event that happens is given the proper amount of gravity. When bad things happen, they're treated as an appropriate kind of tragedy, and it's never over done or falling too short. Tender moments feel genuinely so, the writing presenting an excellent tone while the art and music match perfectly.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that every moment is given the proper amount of brevity for what the moment needs to work. Well... Some scenes with the comic relief character don't really work and often fall short. But then, that may be a taste thing, as they're still well-written and still useful. During these moments some things come up that give insight towards the protagonist and gives characterization to the comic relief guy, whom of which ends up a kind of interesting character, if even a bit of an exaggerated one. Still, the moments are worthwhile.
Another aspect of the writing that's amazing: The girls themselves. In particular, how their disabilities affect them and how they adapt. I swear, the writers that wrote each girl's path have had first-hand experience in themselves or others close to them dealing with similar setbacks. They're portrayed very realistically, and very believably. For each hinderance each girl has, they have a way that they've gotten around it, either with another person's help or by a clever workaround. There isn't a single person here that gives even a hint of "Oh woe is me I need pity boohoo". There's only one that even comes anywhere close to that sort of thing, and, well, she's a special case. Play through her storyline to learn more. (;_;)
Has Katawa Shoujo changed my life? Heck no. Is it enjoyable? If you're into that sort of thing. I can see why some people may not enjoy it. It's not for everything.
But does it have that unquantifiable 'soul' to it that makes a piece of work exceptional? Absolutely. Personally, it's worth trying if even just for that aspect.
And since Katawa Shoujo was made by enthusiastic fans in their free time, the makers of this game have no problems in releasing the game for free. You can easily download the entire game for zero cost at The Katawa Shoujo website.