I have just gone through an overwhelmingly positive change in my life and I have the visual novel Katawa Shoujo (KS) to thank for it. While it isn't exactly a book, I was nonetheless moved by the characters and the hardships they endured, discovering something about myself and other people all while coming out the other side as a changed person. A synopsis of KS and how my experience with it has changed my life is detailed below the fold.
It sounds a little ridiculous, and when I first saw KS discussed on a few video game-related websites, I too thought it was just about the silliest and most insensitive thing I could imagine. However, I was ABSOLUTELY 100% WRONG. KS is visual novel developed by an international team of volunteers as a tribute to the "dating sims" 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.
The main character is Hisao Nakai, an average Japanese high school kid whose life is forever altered 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 reader guides Hisao through several different paths by picking courses of action at certain points, making this a "choose your own adventure" of some sorts. Hisao operates on autopilot between the decisions you make, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. You see, the writing for some of the paths 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.
KS isn't perfect and there are a few shortcomings here and there. For example, sometimes the pacing of the story is a little off, or Hisao does or says something that's a little jarring, or you can plainly tell that some of the stories have a little padding to make them longer. Regardless, the writers created rich characters and engaging situations they can overcome. Additionally, the anime style and the slow beginning might turn some people off, but you will NOT be disappointed if you give yourself a chance to get deeper into the story. The semi-interactive nature of KS is fascinating, and many of the choices are not clear-cut, leading to greater emotional involvement than the average page-turner.
The way in which this game was made is amazing. 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 and they are asking for the same amount in return for enjoying their work. This sends a powerful message to the Videogame Industry, and to the entire Entertainment Industry as well: 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.
So that's KS in a nutshell. I don't know how its impact on my life will run its course, but so far, it has given me a much more positive outlook. The writers for KS put pieces of themselves and people they know into the characters and it shows. Each available path has the characters growing and changing in profound ways, while the "successful" endings are the most satisfying of all (certain choices can get Hisao dumped or worse!).
I won't spoil any events from KS here, but I will say that I strongly identified with one of the characters, bringing about the profound changes I've experienced recently. Please bear with me as I'm going to reveal some aspects of my life that I've just recently discovered as I discuss how I've changed.
You see, for as long as I can remember, I’ve thought I was a worthless or nearly worthless person. It might not have been at the forefront all the time, but my feelings of worthlessness shadowed every experience, memory or thought to run through my brain.
My perceived worthlessness made me very thin-skinned and I took criticism very personally. After all, when you’re constantly on the verge of falling, it isn’t hard to be knocked back over the edge. I was always extremely critical of myself, agonizing over every little mishap or error committed while interacting with other people, blowing it WAY out of proportion. I was constantly fighting off feelings of regret stemming from these past errors and they could bubble up at any time.
Whenever I supposedly “messed up” around other people, I would run away from them thinking that they had just confirmed my worthlessness in their mind. Every little mistake committed around other people, real or imaginary, would trigger this flight response, so I never made lots of friends. I could never let anybody really close because I was ashamed of what they might find. Only the people who I saw as very understanding or had managed to see enough of me before I “screwed up” around them were let in the front door. Even then, I still kept these people mostly at arm's length fearing that I might just still screw up whatever connection I had with them. When I met new people, I either tried too hard to impress them or I shut them out within 5 seconds of meeting them, thinking I had already screwed things up somehow. These feelings were beginning to show on my face, giving me what I call a “desperate stare” as my neutral look, which I’m sure helped me connect with people even better…
The perceived worthlessness made it almost impossible to learn from my mistakes. Since each one pushed me down further into a dark hole, I didn’t have any light to see them in context. Almost all criticism cut me to the bone and I mostly dismissed it. It was just a coping mechanism though. This caused me to fall behind in several areas of my life, with perceived worthlessness diminishing my ACTUAL value in a negative feedback loop.
I never thought I had any real problems. I always thought I was just tired all the time or that other people were mostly assholes. (If I was worthless, what was stopping them from being worthless too?) I thought all this psycho mumbo-jumbo was for other people with REAL problems or that half of it was made up just to pad psychologists’ paychecks. When I thought about what type of person I was, I always just considered I was whoever I wanted to be. I could solve all my problems by just wiping the slate clean every time. It didn’t matter who I was because that person was worthless anyway. Sounds crazy, but that’s why I had all these problems.
But something changed when I made my way through KS. I had always been trying to solve some of my problems at the margins, but since I couldn't really learn from my mistakes, even this was slow going. I saw characters in KS going through the same things I was going through and I discovered that these feelings of worthlessness were underlying many (though not all) of my problems. Once I connected the dots, a lot of things started to make sense. I could see why I did the things I did and why I felt certain things too. I could see why the other kids made fun of me in elementary school since I was the one that would respond most forcefully to their “cut downs” and trash talk. And I could see why I was always pushing people away.
KS made me realize that others have the same problems I was experiencing and that it's possible to change for the better to overcome them. It's more than a "choose your own adventure" set at a special needs high school for me, becoming instead a window into some of the defining moments of people's lives where they decided to change for the better.
The thing is, you have to want to change and you have to be willing to dig deep to find out what your REAL problems are. You’ll be stuck running around in circles forever until you realize this. Once I did, a huge burden was lifted from my mind. I don’t have to be paranoid about being a burden to others all the time and I’ve realized that my “worth” is more dependent on being a good person than anything else. Life has become a whole lot more enjoyable recently and I feel much more capable than I did even just a few weeks ago. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world, and when I forgive myself, I can learn a lot from them.
I might have taken the first step, but I’ll have to stay vigilant lest I backslide to where I once was. I could still probably stand to see a therapist too, so I might not even have the whole picture yet. However, I feel like I can finally start letting people a little closer if they want.
KS is not a substitute for therapy and I'm not making any guarantees as to whether the changes I experienced can be recreated with other people. I am saying that it is an engaging and truly unique work of interactive literature that the world is better for. I'm not affiliated with the team that made it in any way, but I am thankful that they went the extra mile and allowed me to see some of my problems for what they actually were.
Katawa Shoujo can be downloaded for free here: