I recently read a original English visual novel called Katawa Shoujo and was told I should write a review about it. I was slightly reluctant, partially because I’m not sure my feelings warrant a writeup, partially because the last time I said something about visual novels I got like kViN wanting to fight me about my terrible opinions. Still, here we are.
I went into KS with a some reservations. These OELVN blockbusters don’t really do much for me and the chance of KS being something different wasn’t all that high. After all, it’s a critically and popularily acclaimed, commercially successful AAA visual novel, just like every other big name OELVN that has been a lame experience for me before. I didn’t really mind that, though. I suppose what I wanted to get out of KS was to pick it apart and analyse the pieces. Even if I wouldn’t outright like it, I could learn something.
KS turned out to be exactly as I expected. It had nothing that I look for when I want to read something. What it has is a ton of humor, most of which was not funny to me and lazy cliches I’ve seen many times before, arranged in a slightly different and incoherent way. The story structure is incredibly simplistic, to the point of feeling like a deliberate reduction of the stereotypical bishoujo VN story. It consists of spending ten to fifteen hours of happy fun times with a harem of plastic moe archetypes who then are revealed to be horribly mentally broken when their tearjerkingly tragic past is unveiled. The 8th grader’s power fantasy protagonist then fixes the KEY AIDS of his chosen waifu, either with dickings or stupid lecturing asspulls. Amazingly, Katawa manages to avoid having any kind of common theme of narrative cohesion, with each of the routes going to wildly varying directions that have nothing to do with each other, and the bland backstory of the protagonist was pathetic at the very least. The writers seem to have realized this too so they basically said “Yeah, we hate visual novels too. Fuck it.”
Since finishing Katawa Shoujo, I’ve tried to think hard what I got out of it. I have a strange deja vu-like feeling that I’ve seen everything KS had before. That all it did was take a bunch of basic tropes, archetypes and stock events and shuffle them around. What can I learn from such an experience?
I suppose there’s something I want to touch on a bit, although it’s not exactly news. I still have trouble swallowing the seemingly mandatory introductory part, the “common route”, which usually consists of nothing but pointless penny-a-word slice of life comedy scenes. I don’t get it. Efficient storytelling is when you first present a thesis (the protagonist’s world in equilibrium and peace), almost immediately introduce the antithesis (something that shakes the balance, or starts turning the wheels of the story) and then work towards the conclusion, the synthesis. Imagine, say, Lolita (what a fashionable work to use as a reference! Though to be fair I only read the Wikipedia summary because I don’t read books). What if, before Humbert Humbert stole Lolita away, there had been two hundred pages of description of Humbert’s everyday life? Ferociously studying, his marriage to Lolita’s mom, examining her name, descriptions of Lolita’s every move, all in the pretentious writing of Humbert Humbert? Would that improve the story by helping the reader to get attached to the character of Humbert and Lolita? To me that sounds horrendous, but it’s exactly what most original English language visual novels of Katawa Shoujo kind do, and even more crazily (to me), to many readers it’s the most attractive part of the story. It’s no surprise that my favourite individual part of Katawa Shoujo was when Kenji started saying random bullshit because it’s funny.
Earlier this year I read another of these AAA original english visual novels, Analogue: A Hate Story. While I didn’t really like it either, at least Analogue had something going for it, no matter how dumb. It tried to tell a bigger story than just the personal tragedies of a couple teenaged girls. It tried to say something, it had something to be figured out, even if it was hackneyed and clumsy. Katawa is nothing but a lukewarm soup of moe and sexual fetishes, the two mainstay ingredients of an otaku media experience. It didn’t leave me thinking, it didn’t leave an impression on me. I didn’t get a feeling Katawa Shoujo was trying to do anything except get the reader attached to the cute girls in the cast.
Despite this text being kinda negative, I don’t want to complain about Katawa’s existence or yet again moan about OELVNs in general. In fact, I think it’s fine. While Katawa has nothing to offer to me, many people specifically look for stuff like it. The narrative structure reminiscent of an emotional kidnapping of the reader can be enjoyable if you buy into it. If you actually project yourself into the story, actually get attached to the characters, Katawa probably works ok. Then it does what it’s supposed to be doing, I think.