The protagonist is usually a bland, reserved type; serious and diligent, he rarely breaks the mold. Often, he's bullied by women rather than chased by them, an essential building block in a misogynist's psyche. As alarming as it can be, sudden bursts of sexual aggression make sense in context; they're the extreme fulfillment of a wish for masculine self-empowerment.
That's not to say that all H-games rely strictly on aggression for empowerment, though. Just as often, they approach the romantic. In many cases, the sex act liberates a "trapped" girl - say, the non-verbal loner having problems at home, the painfully shy librarian or the overachiever exhausted of keeping up appearances. In those cases, the player gets to embody an odd sort of savior. He's a hero, because he made a troubled girl smile for the first time.
The archetypal females become avatars of the turbulent teen years, a young man's oversimplification of a perplexing creature. In an H-game, the player can approach the sirens of his high school days in ways social rules once prohibited. He has a second chance to understand the student council president who once rebuffed him painfully, and by cultivating a sexual relationship through the game, he comes to understand her as human.
When viewed in this light, it's appropriate that these stories often read like mysteries. With brief lulls that hang on slapstick conventions of anime, they're often openly self-deprecating, too. They like to remind the player through tongue-in-cheek humor and inside jokes geared toward shut-ins and computer geeks that they are indeed playing a porn game. This breach of fourth wall occurs with varying degrees of subtlety, but in terms of connecting the player to the experience, it almost forces the player's mind into a state of inward-reflection, ideal for exploring often disturbing associations with one's past.
High melodrama and grievous tragedy are common themes; Kana: Little Sister's not unique in this. Death as an omnipresent companion to the majority of H-game stories is often used as a catalyst for high-intensity emotional scenes, a cheap conveyance to instant cathartic sex.
But Kana is undoubtedly exceptional. The tragic elements are deeply affecting, highlighting the transient nature of youth; the melancholy, nostalgic environments subtly triggering neglected sadness, the memory of what might have been left behind. And then, there's also simple empathy for well-drawn individuals and their unfortunately inexorable fates. Kana: Little Sister has six possible endings, and only one finds Kana surviving to adulthood. Ordinary choices, whether to take her to an arcade or a tea shop, for example, are invested with new levels of meaning when you realize this might be Kana's last chance.
When she becomes frightened, or tired, when she casts her eyes down, and she asks Takamichi questions he can't answer about her future - about their future together - I get choked up.
In this way, Kana: Little Sister is much less a sex game than it is a self-generated essay on deep-rooted human essentials: the value of life, the nature of family, the manifold definitions of love. Nonetheless, the eventual revelation that Kana is not actually a blood relation feels incongruous, heavy-handed, as if the writers were suddenly backing away from their grave creation.
Sex does occur in the game, but unlike common H-games, which relegate the brother-sister dynamic to an afterthought (as if your sister could ever be just any hot girl), Kana's sibling status is handled delicately, with a notable absence of vulgarity. The more overt, envelope-pushing sex scenes are actually the territory of Yumi, a much more typical "girlfriend" character. It's this dignified treatment of all its characters that truly sets Kana: Little Sister apart. In doing so, it retains the gut-punching gravity of sex's oppositional marriage to death, ensuring it can never be anything other than a personal story.
Leigh Alexander is a freelance tech, entertainment and culture writer, who met her boyfriend of eight years in a Final Fantasy VII chat room.She currently writes for an NYC gossip site, reviews games for Paste magazine and maintains her gaming blog. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.