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The Un-Sexy Dating Game

TR Juro | 6 Apr 2012 08:00
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As reviewers, we're sometimes torn between a sense of private admiration for a text and the demands of a good critique. It's why "guilty pleasures" are so common - we might enjoy cult games like God Hand, Earth Defense Force or the seminal Cho Aniki, but then feel obligated to tear them a new one from a critical perspective.

To attempt to review a visual novel like it's Super Mario World is missing the point of the medium.

It's important to bring this up before talking about Katawa Shoujo, a free Western homage to Japanese bishoujo visual novels that was released earlier this year to minor fanfare. To attempt to review a visual novel like it's Super Mario World is missing the point of the medium. A sense of gradual immersion is more important than flashing sensory stimuli in these games, and Katawa Shoujo is no exception to the rule, its 20+ hours of text-based game-time comprised of relaxed, essentially mundane life experiences. Typical scenes might consist of painting school murals, drinking tea with blind Scottish girls, and bromantic picnics with a misogynistic young man dressed like a certain boy-wizard.

The back-story behind it is just as oddly compelling. The game is the first and last project of 4 Leaf Studios, an amateur team originating from 4chan's /a/ board; its provocative title (literally "Cripple Girls") taken from a sketch by Honjou Raita (character designer for Valkyria Chronicles) that served as inspiration for the project. Now after five long years, a zero-figure budget and a word-count that almost rivals War and Peace, it's finally out. You can check out the team's blog here, complete with download links to the game itself, and I'd encourage anyone with an interest in amateur game development to have a look.

The game begins with Hisao, a young lad with undiagnosed arrhythmia, having a cardiac arrest in front of his high school crush. Now, because the Plot Wills It, our brave hero must join an academy for disabled students (a school for gifted youngsters if you will) where he meets five girls, all physically handicapped, with whom he interacts over the course of a school year. Depending on the choices the player makes, Hisao will take one of these relationships a step further, for better or worse. Over time he falls in love and discovers things about himself, hopefully coming to terms with his affliction. What has got people hot under the collar is the inclusion of certain sex scenes scattered throughout the story.

"So far, so eroge, so what?" you might say, all the while chuckling to yourself over your witty bon mot as you sip from a fine Merlot. "This sort of game often has a bit of rumpy-pumpy, in-and-out action. Why, should I, a sophisticated Gameur, care about a sordid little dating simulator?" The devilish twist in the tale, dear reader, is that all of the participants in these coitus-filled episodes are (you guessed it) the disabled students themselves, thus causing certain morally indignant members of the gaming community to declare that the entire game is nothing more than crass, exploitative, fetishistic hentai fap-fodder.

Fortunately the people going into Katawa Shoujo looking to be outraged by handicapable hand-jobs are going to be sorely disappointed, as will the deviants actively looking forward to them. Instead, moral crusaders and chronic onanists alike will find a poignant collection of stories dealing with love, sadness, disability and growing up. The few sex scenes themselves are Objectively Un-Sexy - it's clear from their presentation that they serve more to advance the plot than titillate the audience. Small but important parts of the characters' stories, they're about as erotic to read through as doing your tax returns, and for those that find that analogy arousing, all I can offer is my congratulations and the contact details of a good shrink.

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