It's rare in the age of 3-D special effects, HD graphics and the remake / reboot syndrome that has taken over the entertainment industry to connect with the stories in our modern fiction. You can easily care about what's happening in a story, but to actually be moved by the characters and plot, discovering something about yourself and other people all while coming out the other side as a changed person is rarer still. I found a visual novel that did exactly this: it was an engaging and rewarding experience that I would recommend to just about everyone, and I'm not even half way through it yet! Even still, look below the orange squiggle to get my take on it.
Some of you may find what I'm about to say a little ridiculous, and when I first heard of this "game", I too thought it was just about the silliest and most insensitive thing I could imagine. However, I was ABSOLUTELY 100% WRONG. I'm talking about Katawa Shoujo, a visual novel developed by an international team of volunteers as a tribute to the "dating simulatiors" that are popular in Japan. The name means "disabled girls" in Japanese, but don't get the idea that it's a gratuitous, fetish-filled romp through some sick fantasy. It's actually a really well-executed work of interactive fiction with some of the most real and fleshed-out characters I've ever seen.
It can be downloaded for free here:
The main character is Hisao Nakai, an average Japanese high school kid that has his life turned upside-down when he is struck by an arrhythmia-induced heart attack. After recuperating at a hospital for several months, he is sent to a special needs school away from home so he can complete his education with the proper medical care and supervision his condition requires. Here, he meets new friends and can potentially strike up a serious relationship with one of the 5 titular "disabled girls" as time progresses.
The player can guide Hisao through several different paths by making key decisions at certain points, making this a "choose your own adventure" of some sorts. Hisao mostly operates on autopilot between the decisions you make, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You see, the writing in this game is vivid and totally engaging. It helps that it was originally written in English, so there's no problems with bad translation or Japanese pop culture references that would be hard to get. In addition, the disabilities that the characters have to deal with are handled very well and every character refuses to be defined by them in their own way. There is some adult content in the storylines, but it is handled in as much as a respectful manner as the characters' disabilities and can be turned off if necessary.
The game isn't perfect and there are a few shortcomings here and there, but for the most part, it tells a solid narrative with a strong yet touching execution. The music is beautiful and enhances the experience of the scene you are viewing a great deal. Finally, the anime style and the slow beginning might turn some people off, but you will NOT be disappointed if you just give it a chance as you get deeper into the story.
Like I said, I'm not even half way through all the storylines yet, but I almost don't even want to finish it all to keep the anticipation and theorizing about the different stories going for as long as possible. For me personally, this game was like a big dose of therapy and it opened my eyes to issues with myself and with other people I hadn't even considered. I've identified with some of the characters in Katawa Shoujo in many unexpected ways that have little to do with their "disabilities".
I also think the way this game was made is fascinating. A group of dedicated volunteers started working on it way back in 2007 and finally managed to finish it early this year. They had a $0 budget to work with and they are asking for the same amount in return for enjoying their work. This sends the powerful message to the videogame industry, and to the entire entertainment industry as well, that big budgets and flashy pictures are no substitute for a good story. I also take great comfort in the fact that people working for free can make such a polished and engaging product. Not having any interference from a studio or investors probably helped out a lot in this regard.
Katawa Shoujo has been out for a couple of months now, but I just found it a few days ago and thought that more people should give it a try. I'm not affiliated with the team that made it in any way, but they can now count me as a fan of their work. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a whole other half of this game to get through...