How has it come to this?
I can’t escape this damn game, whether it’s IM conversations, a podcast rant, or even arguing on comment boards. So let me be very clear on this point, with no offense to Laura, Asher, or any of the other writers who praised this game on this very site: I loathe Katawa Shoujo.
I have many reasons for hating this game, not the least of which being that I think it is not just a bad game, but a bad example for the visual novel genre. By the way, it’s not a dating sim, or an RPG, or anything else; it is a visual novel, and a poor one at that. It’s bad because when compared to other, better visual novels (Ever 17, Steins;Gate, Muv Luv Alternative), it comes off as shallow, derivative, and poorly-written.
For those of you who don’t know, Katawa Shoujo follows Hisao Nakai, a typical protagonist for the VN genre in that he has almost no personality and a heart condition, meaning he is the perfect body for the player to simply assume the role of; you round out his shallow personality with your own, much in the way you do with Gordon Freeman in the Half-Life series. Due to his condition, he is transferred to a school for disabled teenagers where he is quick to become apathetic about his surroundings.
This apathy is cured by talking to and getting to know several other, female students of the school: Emi, the legless girl who gets more short jokes thrown at her than Edward Elric, Hanako, the shy burn-victim, Lilly, the blind, well-mannered girl, Rin, the armless, tomboyish girl, and Shizune, the deaf/mute girl who is basically Nagato from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya but with an attitude.
So you have five different girls with five different problems, each represented by a single question. For example, Rin’s question is “can you seize the day?” (get it?) The questions, and disabilities of the girls and Hisao, are supposed to represent deeper, emotional problems that we all face. The biggest problem with this symbolism is how obvious it is; the game makes such broad, inclusive statements that it’s hard to find personal satisfaction in it. Hisao has cardiac dysrhythmia, a metaphor for his broken heart, Emi has no legs and thus surrounds herself with people that will “stand up” for her, and so on. This isn’t clever writing, it’s just telling us what characters mean in the most obvious, unsatisfying way possible.
However, the biggest problem with this is that the characters’ disabilities are their personalities: they try to round out the character’s personalities with other vague traits, but every character in the game is defined by their handicaps. Not only this, but every character has a well-worn, generic personality as it is; every girl in the game has an almost comedic resemblance to a number of other characters or typical archetypes that Japanese teen fiction use over and over again.
You can say this is because it was made as an homage to the archetypes and situations you find in Japanese teen fiction and visual novels, but that brings up the question: what does it say about these genres? Typically when you pay homage or deconstruct a genre, it is to make comment upon it or with it, and in this way, Katawa Shoujo is a failure because it doesn’t have anything to say. It just reads like a “meh” visual novel because it is a “meh” visual novel.
One of the great rules in literature is to “show, don’t tell”. This sentence, and basically every other one in Katawa Shoujo, breaks the hell out of this rule. It’s a rudimentary description of a character who you are literally looking at. The sentence is nothing but a bold-face description of a character, using nothing but elementary school-level adjectives (“short”, “neatly”, “dainty”, etc.). Beyond the bland, undescriptive (or too descriptive?) diction, it has odd syntax, using two adverbs in a row (“carefully, neatly”) to create an obvious redundancy, as well as placing the “every few seconds” in the middle of the sentence when it would typically be placed at the end to ensure that the sentence flows better.
There are countless examples of equally poor sentences with terrible structure and lazy diction in the game, which makes it sound like it was written by a high school student doing a fan fiction. Oh, and by the way, since the characters are largely based upon an omake from a one-shot hentai doujinshi (which you can see here), it actually kind of is.
Beyond that, the writers really need to learn about the economy of a sentence. I’m treading on thin, pretentious ice here, but see how an author like Hemingway says so much with so little, or Cormac McCarthy says just as much with a fantastic, almost biblical rhetoric. I realize I just compared a rip-off of Japanese visual novels to classic American literature, but the point stands: when you compare KS to actual, good writing, the flaws are all the more glaring.
The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t like Katawa Shoujo. It’s a bland, unoriginal, poorly-written, obvious story that means almost nothing due to a stunning lack of anything to say about anything beyond vague statements about relationships, love, and even visual novels themselves.
I can understand getting into the game if it is your first experience with visual novels; it’s easy to ignore the cribbed characters and generic plotlines because, well, you wouldn’t know that it’s as unoriginal as it is if you’ve never experienced other, similar works before. But for people like me, who are pretty well-versed in not just VNs, but also anime, light novels, and other Japanese fiction aimed at young adults, it’s like seeing the strings that make these puppets dance. It ruins the effect.
If you’re a fan of the game, feel free to talk to me in the comments; I’m not trying to sound like an asshole, I’d just really like to know your prior experiences with the genre and why you do or do not like the game.