Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Katawa Shoujo, Sex Stuff in Games, and Choosing What You Are Allowed To See

What I expected: Weirdo smut. What I got: A little box full of therapy.

This is one of those blog posts it's really hard to hit the Publish button. Basically, what I’m going to do is publicly throw my support behind a sexually explicit dating sim that takes place in a school for the disabled. (Yes. You read that right.) It's kind of hard to do without coming off as a perv or a weirdo.

But I'm old and cranky enough to think that good, sincere work should get its due. If nothing else, the amazingly off the wall circumstances of its creation make it worth a look. So here we go.

I've been spending the last few weeks playing through my backlog of dozens and dozens of indie games, enough to help me realize I have played enough 2-D platformers for my next ten lifetimes. And, while I was poking around online, a very odd title came on my radar.

Pictured: The Feels.
Katawa Shoujo

I love looking at new trends and apps and memes online. I've been on the Interwebs since 1988. (Yes, they existed then, and yes, I am comically old.) The weird electronic culture that sprung to life in front of me provides ceaseless fascination.

And that's why I started to hear about an odd little indie game called Katawa Shoujo. (Literal translation: "Cripple Girls." Katawa is generally considered a slur in Japanese.) It came out in early 2012. While it got some press, it didn't get as much as its quality and the fascinating story of its creation deserved. You can download it for free for Windows or Mac here.

Yes, I know I'm late to this party, and that Katawa Shoujo is a huge underground hit, but mainstream coverage of the game has been really lacking (with some exceptions), for reasons I want to dig into. So bear with me.

This game is the indiest thing that ever indied. It was made by a group of a few dozen volunteers recruited from the hugely popular anonymous image board 4chan (a source of so much reprehensible behavior and remarkable creativity). It took over five years to write. It is a dating sim set in a high school for the disabled. There is already no way this thing should exist, let alone have any chance of being good.

Katawa Shoujo is a Visual Novel, basically a romantic choose your own adventure, a genre of game I know almost nothing about. And, apparently, young people were playing it in droves and losing their minds with, as they say, The Feels.

(Some people actually argue whether Visual Novels are games or not. I could not care less about this argument. If calling Katawa Shoujo a game makes you angry, shout your rage at your love pillow.)

The amount of fan art for this game is mind-boggling. Not quite at My Little Pony levels, but ...

In An Infinite Universe, Anything Is Possible

This game is kind of marvelous.

The gameplay is pretty simple. You play a boy with life-threatening arrhythmia, who enrolls at a school for the disabled and meets five female students there. As the story unfolds (via text over graphics), you are occasionally given choices. If you choose correctly, you might end up dating one of them. Then, depending on later decisions, this relationship can end very well or very badly.

It takes about eight hours to play, with around 10-20 choices based on the path you follow. And it sounds, from any casual description, like a playground for pervs and fetishests.

It's not. It's a quiet, deliberately paced story about young love, growing up, and discovering sexuality, one of the best I've seen since Judy Blume. And yeah, there's sex, of the endlessly awkward young person variety. If it was a movie, it'd be an easy NC-17. (By the way, it is made explicit everyone having sex is over 18. The developers wisely decided to avoid that minefield.)

Yet it's not porn. It's basically a story about figuring out the things about yourself and those you love that can't be changed, accepting them, and how really difficult that is. It's heady stuff, and yes, I sound like a crazy person. But I've learned to accept that.

(By the way, no matter what you do, it takes several hours of play before anyone will even kiss you. If you are looking for smut, you may wish to keep shopping.)

I played through two of the five paths and am slowly going through a third. I'm approaching it like ... I feel like a magician who is picking over someone else's trick to figure out how they did it.

While the art and writing can be uneven, this game is beautifully made and keenly observed. (And it has a storyline around a character named Rin which, if it came in the form of a book or movie instead of an obscure indie game, would receive massive acclaim.)

Happiness not guaranteed.
"But Will I Like It?"

Beats me. Maybe? It's certainly not for everyone, but that's how art works. If you picked a book at random in a bookstore or wandered into a random theater in the local multiplex, you probably wouldn't like what you got.

It has a fanatical following among the young and socially awkward (God, I would have loved it when I was 16), but I have no idea how much Regular People (tm) would like it. I'm sure some would. I asked my wife to play it, just to make sure I'm not insane, and she really liked it, so that gives me hope.

It's hard to tell how big this game's audience is, because a casual inspection of the forums on the game's official site reveals that most people who like it keep it a secret. In a Reddit AMA, one of the game's writers said that nobody who worked on it can use it on a resume.

For people like me who want gaming options for grownups that don't involve shooting fifty people in the face, this is really, REALLY depressing. We've created a system where games that deal with relationships in a daring way like books and movies just can't exist.

An actual YouTube video, that actually exists.
Murder Is Good and Sex Is Bad.

Look. Sexuality is one of the fundamental facts of human existence, and thus is has a place in art. If video games are ever to be taken seriously in art, sex has a place in them. And yet.

It's the old conundrum in our society. Make a game like Grand Theft Auto V where you murder policemen by the hundreds and engage in excruciatingly detailed torture? Walmart welcomes you with open arms and you make billions. Make a game which depicts adults being intimate in a consensual, loving way? Welcome to business oblivion!

Sure, there's plenty of sex in video games. Grand Theft Auto V had a minigame where you grope strippers, and, if you do this efficiently enough, they will prostitute themselves to you. The Witcher invites you to sleep with as many women as possible to earn "romance cards." So basically, you can have sex in video games, as long as it is adolescent, fake, and gross.

Meanwhile, Bioware, which has at least tried to put real, emotional relationships in its games, earns a public freakout whenever they try to depict actual sex. At this point, even the extravagantly mild scenes of Dragon Age and Mass Effect are gone, replaced by Mass Effect 3's clothed hugging.

I don't want porn. I just want it possible for love to be depicted with as much care and attention as murder. The Grand Theft Auto thing can exist, fine, I just don't want it to be the only thing. Is this not reasonable?

Katawa Shoujo is an underground sensation, but I've spent the last few weeks polling my nerd-savvy friends, many of them fans of Manga and visual novels, trying to find a single one who had heard of it. No luck, because we've built a system where mainstream awareness of a title like this is impossible.

Happy endings not guaranteed. (But where is that wind coming from?)
If It's Not For Children, It Can't Be For You

I am not exaggerating. If you tried to make a game like Katawa Shoujo for money, the odds are so against you. Placement on XBox or Playstation? Forget it. This game would be perfect for the iPhone, but Apple categorically refuses to accept any program with non-murder-related adult content. (A movie? Of course. A video game? Absolutely not.)

Do I like this? No, I do not. But we decided, as a culture, that these three corporations can have near-total veto power over this whole chunk of our culture. Now we get to enjoy the consequences of this decision.

This depresses me. After weeks of slogging through insanely gruesome AAA games, it was such a relief to play a title that was, basically, about decent people trying to be nice to each other.

A Final Bit Of Crass Consumerism

One last little thing, since I know a lot of young, aspiring indie developers read this. I think one of the biggest, most unexploited markets now is for short, sincere storytelling games. Think Gone Home. Stanley Parable. This is a great, growing genre for good writers.

In the money arena, you still kind of have to avoid sex, which is stupid, but you can't fight City Hall. There's still so much room to explore. Consider this.

Katawa Shoujo was made by volunteers, covers some really edgy ground, got near-zero publicity, and still has a large and passionate following.

If you're looking for a way to make money writing indie games, your nose might be itching now. The thing you're smelling? Money, waiting to be earned.

--

Edit: The "Romance Cards" were from The Witcher, not The Witcher 2.

And, as always, we're still on Facebook and Twitter.

75 comments:

  1. Some notes to a post that is already ridiculously long ...

    I did make sure to mention the word "Katawa" is a slur in Japanese. I think the title is a valid artistic choice, but it's also worth pointing out that many disagree.

    Katawa Shoujo is not flawless. The writing and art can be uneven. I'm not 100% endorsing every bit of every scene.

    It's still totally worth trying. My recommendation: Go into it blind. Choose what you want to. The game has a weird way of funneling you into the best path for you. After that, if you want to read a particular one of the five paths, plenty of walkthroughs are available. I thought the writing in the Rin path was fantastic, but many don't agree.

    And if you like it, tell people about it! Video games are new, and every one of us is a critic. If we want games to be more adult and daring, the best way to bring that about is to make it acceptable for them to be so.

    - Jeff Vogel

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    1. You may want to try these games :
      - Sangoku Rance (strategy game) http://www.teamliquid.net/blogs/viewblog.php?topic_id=425448
      - Core Of Innocence (plateform game)
      http://puddinghatgames.com/projects/core-of-innocence/media/
      Both are great games with a "sexual part".

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  2. A game were you play as a man choosing between five women, as if they are just pieces of meat. Oh the misogyny is unbearable how could you recommend this game!!! :D troll ah lo lo lo

    On a more serious note I found this post interesting and agree gamers that like sincere storytelling have been living off scrapes for a long while.

    Also have you ever heard of a web series call "Extra Credits"? They have a number of videos tackling the topic of sex in video games.

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    1. I, too, have seen the Extra Credits series and I think it has many good insights into the world of game-making.

      Jeff have you seen them? If so, what do you think? Anything you want to add or have issue with?

      Keep writing blogs! It helps me slog through writing my first game.

      -Tristan

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    2. I have seen a bunch of these, but I haven't watched any for a while. I should definitely catch up.

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    3. I get that you weren't being serious but, as this is the internet and people are bad at noticing that, I would like to point out that even if this were the case there are plenty of equivalent games in which a female protagonist chooses between male-identifying pieces of meat :P

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  3. I played this last year and literally fell in love with it. Being quite the emotional type, this game made me feel an absurdly wide spectrum of emotions, I was and am in awe since no game managed to do this to me before.
    And I just had to recommend it to as many people as I could, some didn't care, some were skeptical about the cripple theme, but hey as you say it's not for everyone, although I can't help but think that it's unfair to avoid something because it involves themes that make people feel uneasy while they should not, but violent themes that should be considered disturbing are seen as cool.

    So yes people, play this thing and cry a bit, love a bit and be anxious.

    Oh, the disturbing feeling that the whole rin story gave me...

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  4. >nobody who worked on it can use it on a resume.

    One of the artist ended up getting the opportunity to work on commercial, story-focused visual novel with different writer, which ended up on Steam. So it's not like the story is over with Katawa Shoujo.

    /ends shameless self-promotion

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    1. No! More shameless self-promotion! I would like to see this.

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    2. I've been interested in visual novels ever since I discovered English translation of Narcissu in 2006, which tells a story about depression and suicide. It was certainly a very unique experience you don't get in video games, and I become intensely occupied with finding out the potential of visual novel medium, which combine the best of text, visual, audio and sometime interactivity and game elements.

      Here's my short about page with links: https://plus.google.com/+FiohnelFiver/about

      I neglected my formal study in order to help various VN amateur Japan-to-English translations as proofreaders. I also happen to draw anime characters on the side, so when there was opening for artist for Katawa Shoujo project in 2008 I joined right away.

      Translated stuffs I worked on include titles like Sekien no Inganock, a Blade Runner-inspired story about a city isolated from the outside by a mist, and the residents mutated into fantastic beings like animals or plants. Then Muv-Luv trilogy, which started as cliched romantic comedy highschool story at first, and become Starship Troopers-esque military scifi mecha vs aliens story complete with alternate dimensions.

      There are amazing things which won't enter mainstream discourse because of below-average quality and gray legal status of fan translation, stigmatization of anime-stylized visual design, and depiction of sex. Which is sad, but understandable.

      If you like I can throw you some recommendations. Short, less than 3-hours titles may be the best options.

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    3. And that makes you the first person I've ever seen who knew what Inganock was. Bake yourself a cookie. I love visual novels, but talking to anyone about them just makes you sound crazy. "It's a book.... with pictures... and music." "A musical picture book?" ".....yes?"

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  5. Have you played any of Christine Love's visual novel games like Analogue: A Hate Story?

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    1. No, but it is definitely a genre I'd like to learn more about.

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    2. Digital: A Love Story is genuinely interesting and worth playing.

      Analogue is pretty much just pandering.

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  6. That awkward moment when you want to tell people about this but you're worried they'll think you're crazy.

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    1. Oh yeah. been there. More than once.

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  7. I've played a half dozen times through each character and each time my emotions range from tears of joy to shame at the way we treat those who are different to weeks long depression. Its amazing and each time I play I wish it was longer.

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  8. I think a large part of it is that games are still categorized at large as a "toy" rather then actual type of media. There's a sense that you can't have meaningful and emotional games because then it wouldn't still be a "toy." Even games that DO pour on the emotion tend to have a fair amount of murder and combat in them to "balance it out," man I'm using too many scare quotes here. But yeah, because they're toys, you get the media outrage - after all, video games are ALWAYS examined under the lens of "kids;" while it changes slowly, video games themselves are still taken by the media to be something for small children, despite the US military being one of the biggest purchasing groups for it.

    Hell, as I understand, not exactly being a connoisseur, even amongst the whole visual novel spectrum, Katawa Shoujo is sort of an odd one out; nine out of ten times you're going to get straight porn, and .9 of those other times you'll get an actual storyline with characters...and then meaningless porny sex scenes added in.

    Now, don't get me wrong - games ARE toys. I mean, it's in the name, they're GAMES. But they doesn't preclude them from being something else alongside it. Movies to some degree are still toys themselves, yet that didn't stop select movies from becoming cultural icons and cornerstones. There's equal space for Schindler's List and the Fast and the Furious series in movies - I don't think it's out of the question to suggest that there's room for Saints Row and Katawa Shoujo in the world of the vidya.

    So here we have the two problems. The first is this issue. It's ok to have "mature" games, just not mature games. I think we ARE seeing a slow shift away from that...but it is a very slow shift. At the same time, this doesn't touch the problem you brought up - even outside of video games, love and sex are treated vaguely as opposed forces (until the male lead "wins" his goal and gets sex as his reward, that is). Having sleaze is ok - having any sort of realistic romance, in all its potential awkwardness, is completely out of the question.

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    1. Oh god I wrote a billion words on this

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    2. That's the awesome thing about writing about an art form this young (and the thing that keeps me writing) ... It's all new! The boundaries of the field are changing every single day. That's why it's so important to me to call out this title that I really believe approached the thing from a fresh, intelligent direction.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    3. actually only 378 words Cirno. ;D

      Cheers!

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  10. I actually heard about Katawa Shoujo through TIGSOURCE (who have also raved about your games.) They have a nice review too - http://www.tigsource.com/2012/02/08/review-katawa-shoujo/#more-24560

    If there was one "visual novel" style game I'd recommend to you Jeff, it's Snatcher for the Sega CD. And it was a Hideo Kojima game (who's most well known for Metal Gear). it was also one of the few visual novel games brought over to the states in the 90's and originally came out in 1988 in Japan on a PC88. Here's a youtube playthrough of the game.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ij_Oo4zIVI

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  11. I love posts like these, and I love your posts in general, Jeff. You really opened my eyes with this one, well done.

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  12. So this is "A game were (sic) you play as a man choosing between five women". I'm a woman. Why on earth would I choose to play this game, no matter how 'avant garde'? No, women gamers are still left out of the sand box, and until the day dawns when a game comes along that speaks to my needs I will always remain a second class citizen in the gamer world. But, then what's new?

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    1. There are thousands of female-orientated visual novels. Just because this is not one of them does not mean they are not out there. I am unsure as to the nature of your complaint.

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    2. Did you search for female-centric VNs? I'm curious, really.
      You could play the very good royalty simulator "Long Live the Queen" where you play as a young and abruptly-crowned queen and must survive the treacherous intrigues plotted against you, you do so by learning in various fields and making choices.

      You could also play katawa shoujo and see that sentimental failure in the game is quite easily achievable, especially if you act in disregard of the other person's feelings. But hey, no female character, outrageous.

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    3. lol the predictability of the internet.

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    4. This is an entirely fair question. This is why I asked my wife to play the game before I wrote about it, since if it had only male appeal I preferred to write about something else. I wanted to make sure I wasn't insane.

      When I passed the question along to her, what she said was, and I quote, "The women are brilliantly written, and they have agency." To paraphrase what she said after, they aren't mindless sex dolls, but people with depth and needs and opinions. And the ability to leave quickly if they don't like what is happening.

      Katawa Shoujo is five stories about a young couple struggling to form a relationship, told from the man's point of view. The choices in the initial section determine which story you get.

      After that, well, it all depends if you like the story or not. But, while this game will see more male fans, I see no categorical reason why women wouldn't find plenty of interesting stuff here too.

      But hey, it's free. If you tried it out and played it for a few minutes, I'd love to hear what you think.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    5. I really respect you opening up this area to discussion, Jeff, but that is why I play your games. I respect your attitude toward the role of women in gaming. That being said, I have to point out you have hit the nail on the head yourself: The game is about five stories "TOLD FROM A MAN'S POINT OF VIEW". So I'm being closed minded, but what if the women are 'mindless sex dolls' or are 'brilliantly written'? This is a game about SEX. I'd like to see a decent game written from the women's point of view about SEX. You guys just don't get it. Yes, I have played "Long Live The Queen" and it bored me stiff. Now two games that give the option to play as a woman are 'Spellforce 2 - Shadow Wars' and 'Heretic Kingdoms - The Inquisition'. Granted the costuming is a tad outre and the sex practically non existent and they are nothing to do with manga or female-centric VN's, but Gosh!, they sure are fun and this woman thoroughly enjoyed every minute playing them and never felt put-down once. I think in my simple way I'm trying to make a couple of points. Firstly, about Katawa Shoujo, sure would have been nice to have the option to play it from a woman's point of view. Two, the dearth of women's oriented games vis-a-vis those of the masculine persuasion is criminal, considering the number of women in the gaming population. I know very few games I truly enjoy, and none of them fall into the shootem up category. Maybe some woman's bag, not mine! I will say I've played all Spiderweb's games with great enjoyment. Oh, and by the way "But hey, no female character, outrageous." - it sure is.....

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    6. I'm not really sure why are you so outraged, there are *tonnes* of games of that type made with women in mind, I'd say that there are more of them available in English than 'games for guys'. Just have a look here:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otome

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    8. Jeff, just wanted to comment on Katawa Shoujo yet again, (this is getting tedious!). Well.... you are perfectly correct; the game is beautifully, nay, almost poetically, written. It sure is longwinded though. Especially in the beginning, I kept thinking "ok boys, when do we get to the main course?", as the game seemed to go on forever before finally, something happened already! 'Bout time! Then, of course, it's little boy's thoughts and feelings and although as you said the little girls were perfectly sweet and engaging they were written, I'll just bet, from and by a man's point of view. Yeah, depth, character, with needs, opinions, etc, etc, etc, all of the above and then some. And you know what? The game bored me stiff. Left me cold, Just not my cuppa char! Because I'm a woman? Because I'm not too crazy about those crazy Japanese comic books called, what? manga? or does Katawa Shoujo not qualify for the genre? I tend to think it is because I just plain do not like VN games. Give me a good old RPG/RTS anyday. So, yet again I really respect your attempt to start a dialogue about the role of sex in games. What upsets me is the fact that I seem to be the only woman commenting to your thoughtful blog. Come on Ladies, you've got to be out there. Thoughts, opinions, comments? You've got to have them! Oh! and btw, it really offends my politically correct sensibilities when the words 'jap' and 'cripple' are thrown around with abandon. Come on gentlemen, we are in the 21st century already. Get a grip!

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    9. xtine, I'm really glad you tried it and said what you thought. I think your view of it is far, far from uncommon. One person's "deliberately paced" is another person's "glacial".

      And yes, I would love to know more about what games of this sort appeal more to women. (If you haven't already, I would give Gone Home a good look.) It's the sort of conversation I'm eager to kickstart, which is one of the reasons I wrote the post.

      Thanks for getting back to us!

      - Jeff Vogel

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    10. Me again. I took a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otome. "Otome games are usually targeted towards the teenage market, and thus have little sexuality in them." The game Angelique, one of the first of the Otome genre of games "was originally targeted to pre-teen and younger teenage girls, but became unexpectedly popular with older teenagers and women in their 20s.". I've got news for y'all. Firstly, I'm older than my 20s; waaay older, and secondly, if I was looking for a VN type game I surely would not be looking for one targeted to teens with little sexuality. Ya know, the day a Grand Theft Auto is written with a female protagonist I will know that women have finally arrived in the gaming world!

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    11. From my actual knowledge of women interested in those games, I'd say that the information stated on Wiki is... outdated, to say the least. Those that I know are more in the 22-27 age range.

      Jeff: I urge you to at least try Hatoful Boyfriend, since it's so, so insane.

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    12. "Ya know, the day a Grand Theft Auto is written with a female protagonist I will know that women have finally arrived in the gaming world!"

      You should see my Saints Row IV character.

      Everyone I know in real life who is really into anime/manga/visual novels is female. There is a lot of material there specifically pitched to women. However, it's all Japanese, and it's really unpredictable what gets translated, and a lot of it needs to be dug up on bittorrent. So I can't be a lot of help here.

      But I'm definitely interested. My daughters' appetite for nerd content is limitless.

      - Jeff Vogel

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    13. I guess my thoughts about women and gaming have become a little more all encompassing than just the genre of VN and manga and anime and women vis-a-vis sex to include ALL games and women in the games arena, which I suppose is strictly outside the scope of this blog. Nevertheless, I feel I have to pursue my train of thought regardless, because I just don't seem to be getting my point across. I AM NOT INTERESTED IN PLAYING GAMES IMPORTED FROM JAPAN!!!!! What about some home grown stuff. The only place I know that turns out decent VN games (in which I'm not particularly interested in the first place), is the company Winter Wolves, and I think they adapt Japanese imports anyway. I've played a couple of their offerings, and the most enjoyable to my taste was 'Loren Amazon Princess', followed by 'Heileen', but then again I'm still luke warm about their offerings. I've played the games put out by Amaranth Games which I've found highly amusing and great time killers, but certainly not to a man's taste, and also have played Aldorlea games, again strictly women's type games. But what I'd love to see is a rip roarin', no holds barred, RPG-type, adventure game with a woman protagonist with a bit of good healthy sex (non-gratuitous hopefully), with a handsome, hunky hero (Sean Bean?), and if you want a model story line look no farther than Baldurs Gate or Spellforce2 or (dare I say) the Avernum Saga, or even Zork as a basis. Hey, come to think of it, Skyrim for women, yes, there is Delphine but I want the whole megillah. Not in my life time I'll be bound, but then I'm an old bat, age wise that is! But definitely NOT a nerd. I like games to be fun, adventurous, thought provoking, surprising, not too difficult to suss out, that do not hold up the game flow and become boring, I like mystery, fantasy, magic, fighting if it furthers the game, but not just for the sake of fighting. I don't mind blood and gore, relish a few beheadings and other acts of mutilation IF for game furtherance, but gratuitous violence ain't for me. Then there is sex. Well, as we all know what there is. is of the slam, bam, eff off bitch variety. Wouldn't it be historic to have the 'Oh my God, the earth shook', variety? New experience, guys? I really hope the game milieu is changing. I see signs that it is, I'm truly hopeful. But it is going to take a lot more time, a lot more women with the moxie to speak out. It's your dollars, too, Ladies! Incidentally, Jeff, if you would be interested in a list of games that have really spoken to me and why, I'd be happy to email to spiderweb.com

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    14. So you'd like a classic rpg with a classic story but from a female perspective? I ask because at this point I don't get what you mean by having a female perspective, since what you described looks like any rpg where you get the initial choice of having a male or female character, thus something that exists already.

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  13. Interestingly enough, if you Google Valhalla Knights 3, you'll find a mainstream JRPG that got mangled in the game media (well, I wrote a fair dissection of the game, I'd say) that rips if for being a LOT of things it's not when it comes to how women are portrayed.

    The crazy thing is some of the hatred is based on implied imagery not actual events in the game, so some of the reviews read as if the writers are trying hard to score points with whatever people will agree with them as opposed to genuinely and constructively criticizing the game for its actual issues.

    That and the sexytime stuff CAN be ignored entirely by choice or lessened if you give the proper gifts, but hey - try telling THAT to a reviewer who wants to toss around words like "misogyny" when the game isn't even anywhere near it...

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  14. This is a really great area for discussion. I think the video game industry is only STARTING to feel the growing pains associated with moving into the arena of "true art". And like you said, true art deals with humanity and the human condition. Relationships are the biggest piece of it. And sex and sexuality are, I believe, the biggest piece of relationships.
    Professor Cirno hit the nail on the head with why this is going to be such a thorny and nasty time for the industry as it breaks into the area of exploring sexuality... games are still considered to be toys, mainly meant for children. Once games are accepted by mainline culture as being true art, free to deal with the entire spectrum of the human condition, some of that problem will go away. But not all.
    I think the problems come down to two big areas: education and responsibility.
    (1) Consumers must become educated about what is being "put on display" in a given game. The ESRB came up with a bandaid system for rating games but it doesn't come close to addressing the issue in a lasting, sustainable way. It's like you said Jeff... a game with serious attention to hard subjects (like sexuality) and a delicate touch will get slapped with an M and the attendant demonization right along with truly misogynistic, sleazy games like the GTA series. It's an outrageous state of affairs but I think it displays the problem with these kinds of things being left in the hands of a central controlling agency like the ESRB. They don't distinguish between different shades of game because they don't have the ABILITY to. It's a delicate process requiring an appreciation for nuance and a great deal of common sense.
    (2) People must accept responsibility for ensuring that they and those in their care are consuming games properly, just as they would any other art. Right now we don't do this as a society (with many things, but certainly not with games). Let a child go to Gamestop and buy a used copy of God of War. If they look older then 8 chances are they'll be able to do so. This is a big problem.
    I'd like to make a followup wall of text with what I see as the general solutions to these problems. Are you cool with that Jeff?

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  15. I don't get how people like this. To me it's kinda in the "so bad it's good" territory, the stupidity of the concept and storytelling entertains me.

    I haven't gone through all the stories though, this LP of the blind girls path was enough
    http://www.rpgcodex.net/forums/index.php?threads/katawa-shoujo-i-love-you-just-the-way-you-are.68431/

    The stories are not realistic, nor really funny, nor fantastic, it comes together as a mess that doesn't really know what it wants to be.
    And you're forced to play a jap who is more socially awkward than even I was at high school, and disgustingly whiny on top of that. Yet somehow he has all these various cripples coming onto him and liking him, with seemingly no work on his end. Just nonsensical.

    I just don't get how anyone is so deeply touched by this. I try to understand but it simply eludes me.

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    1. Um. Because you refer to Lilly as 'the blind girl' and Hisao as 'a jap', I'm going to go ahead and make some assumptions as to why you don't like this game.

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    2. I'd prefer if you'd say something substantial instead of going all pseudopsychological on simple and descriptive word choices.

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    3. Ya What? Pseudopsychological? Because assumptions are being made? Or what? I dunno! Do you? I thought it was perfectly substantial.

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    4. Yes, if I call a jap a jap and a blind girl a blind girl, that hardly says much about my VN preference as far as I see. For the record I don't have anything against japs or blind girls, if that's the point being made here.

      If you want to answer my post do it with something else than baseless assumptions.


      Why is this game better than any other trashy, badly written love story (be it in book or VN or movie or whatever form)? Do you get "the feels" from soap operas too, people... What is the profound thing to be found in KS.

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    5. Maybe calling a jap a jap does not say much about your VN preferences, but it sure says a whole lot about your degree of 'couthness' when it comes to referring to people by what has become understood by most of the civilized world as a most unacceptable word by which to refer to the Japanese people, akin to referring to Afro-Americans by the n-word, or maybe you were too busy playing games when that event came to pass. How about if I call you boy. Don't think you'd be too happy about that, would you? Well, the Japanese don't exactly get the warm fuzzies being referred to as japs! and as to where to I get my 'feels', none of your damn business, but you can be assured it ain't from the Soaps! .

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    6. Thanks for calling him out xtine. It's clear he has no idea what a loaded derogatory term jap is, or he just doesn't care in which case- troll.

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    7. There is your problem.

      The thing that makes this game great is the way it changes the way you think. By the end, you realize that the characters are more defined by their personality than their disability, which I believe is the message the game is ultimately trying to teach.

      Rin is an interesting character for a lot more reasons than "she lacks arms".

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  16. I suddenly started thinking about a dating sim set in Avernum. Or possibly on the surface. You screw up wooing Garzahd: into the pit.

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    1. Only if this adorable spider can make a return.
      http://i.imgur.com/SfO5Z7p.png

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    2. "Erika is best girl!"
      "No, Rentar-Ihrno is my waifu!"

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    3. Best idea I've heard today.

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  17. I see there is talk about how could KS possibly interest women. I played this game, loved it and am a lady.

    The start of the game is all about Hisao. I found it whiney and too long but it was so well written I kept going. By the end Act 1, all I could think was why would any of these girls want to date this pile of issues. But once you pick a path, the game shifts and becomes very much about the women in the game. And the POV Hisao grows and demonstrates why (or why not) they date. The writing of the female perspective just gets better and better as the game goes on. The sex is pretty spot on as well with its awkwardness. And don't get me started about Kenji, he's the best take down of ridiculous misogyny. Good stuff and it's short so I can get back to doing ladies things like using my blackhole gun in saint's row 4.

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    1. Yeah, I should have mentioned: Act 1 can be a slog. It's only at the end of it that the game really takes off. As for Kenji, yes, what you said.

      - Jeff Vogel

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  18. But you make the very point!. If Saint's Row 4 floats ya boat, Dekri. more power! I don't have Xbox or PS3, so have never had the experience, but from what I've been able to surmise it seems to be a game that is indeed not the usual shootemup bloodbath. I honestly could not stick with KS long enough to enjoy the game shifts you speak about. I was too bored stiff to continue! Could not get past the exceedingly tedious and drawn out beginning. Low frustration tolerance on my part! I guess ladylike is in the eye of the beholder. I'm most certainly not old lace and antimicassers, but I do have problems with gratuitous violence, purile bathroom humour, slam-bam gratuitous sex and other such items that seem so prevalent in today's male oriented games. All I am saying in my not so successful (obviously) way is give the women a chance 1/3 vs 2/3 seems to me a fair quota (that is 1/3 to the girls). Never happen I realise, but then I can dream, can't I? And let's stop depending on Japanese imports for VN type games. Why not some home grown examples. I find there is a certain 'taste' (for want of a better word) that is, well, Japanese. I'd like to see something with an American slant. Do such games exist? I don't know about them, but I'd sure like to see one. So, American, sexy, feminist, adventurous: the only game I know that comes anywhere close is Loren, Amazon Princess, and to be quite honest I'm not even sure if this is home grown. I hope so.

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    1. Scheherazade? (I've only played the demo portion.)

      Analogue: A Hate Story.

      Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble? (Not much like a VN at all.)

      Hanako Games is a western VN studio, although still anime-inspired. I don't know their games, other than some of the titles sounding vaguely familiar.

      If you're interested in story games and are willing to go text only, then IF (Interactive Fiction) is where it's at. Try starting at Emily Short's "IF Comp 2013 Roundup" for some recent overviews. The following have female protagonists:

      Their Angelic Understanding
      Robin and Orchid
      Autumn's Daughter
      Imposter Syndrome

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  19. Thanks Mark, for the come back. Guess I know what I'll be doing during my Christmas break. lol. xtine

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  20. Thank you all for the recommendations. I may play some and blog about them. If you have any more games that are intelligent and cool, please let me know.

    - Jeff Vogel

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    1. One really good game featuring sex is Sengoku Rance. It's a strategy game with a strong story focus, and a main character who, let's say, has a strong sex drive.

      It's only published in Japan officially but there's a fanmade translation patch that covers the full game.

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  21. Nice write up. Great expose on the industries double standard.

    I've always loathed gore. It's unnecessary to tell most stories ...or at least in the levels we've been seeing it for the last 15 years or so. Yeah, I'm that old, but I don't quite fart dust yet. While I'm not ashamed of sex and intimacy, I firmly believe that is for privacy between two folks.
    And that's why I'm a bit embarrassed to admit that I really enjoy this "interactive experience" (latest side step word for the whole it is/isn't a game thing ... good grief, can you believe the rage over THAT??!)
    The first time through really kinda weirded me out because I had NO idea what I was getting into never having seen anything like this before. I came across it over at Megatokyo.com where the author (who actually has arrhythmia ) was reading it while he was recovering from his heart procedure. i though "huh, it's free. I'll give it a look see".

    Wow. The music and visuals really sucked me in. The story(s) are wonderful. ..Rin's actually gave me a headache the first time through. ugh. I got Emi the first time through not knowing what I was doing but was making honest choices. I dated a gal in highschool a lot like her. Once I figured out what the thing was about, it took on new meaning and I really understood what was being said. Precisely what that top image outlines. And also as someone who was relentlessly teased as a kid, the story reconfirms everything I learned growing up through all of that.

    I do appreciate the option to disable the adult content. A wonderful show of good faith by the devs. ...but I still don't get the fired shrimp thing. lol.

    For a great example of how you can tell a story like this without using adult content. watch Kanon on youtube .. here.. I'll find a link. Episode one: http://youtu.be/92fxSHfXO-M
    This is 24/25 episodes and is wonderful and heart wrenching at times. It was made after the PC game of the same name a number of years ago and was pretty much a straight up dating sim .. from what I've. The guy at Megatokyo fashioned a lot of what he did based around this game... or rather the genre.
    Oh, and this game inspired me to learn ASL (American Sign Language)

    Cheers Jeff. Great writeup!

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  23. ...I feel like I should say something meaningful, but I'll be damned if I can think of anything.
    Thanks for the writeup, Jeff. I'm comically old too!

    -Silentcook

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  24. I remember following the Katawa Shoujo project from the beginning and see it be nicely received by the (so far) limited audience. All those people now need to do is realise that this isn't the only game the medium has to offer, and then tell their friends!

    My own little indie venture focuses on exactly that, storytelling games, and I'm happy to see someone like you try it out and tell people that maybe these things aren't what they think they are.

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  25. I really like the librarian, and there's been a hint in her dialog that I have a chance...
    Fun game that I would never have heard of otherwise, knowing nothing of manga. Thanks, Jeff.

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  26. Here just to say thanks, as I probably wouldn't have found this game without your help.

    Oh, and Hanako is the cutest one, atleast in my heart! <3 God I am such a nerd...

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  27. Dear Mr. Vogel:

    This is the first time I'm writing in your blog. Though I've been a follower of your games and your blog for some years, I've contented myself with "lurking" in the shadows. Now I'm writing a comment for the first time, and the reason is I'd like to thank you for discovering me this game.

    Usually, I have a pretty complicated view about the old "are videogames art?" controversy. Generally, I hold the view that games are not art, though under particular circumnstances can be, the same way that most films and most books can. That response is related to a personal perception about what is art, which only complicates further the situation and makes my arguments more heated. However, there are a few games (a group now expanding thanks to the Indie Gaming boom) that makes me reconsider the issue. Games like Shadow of the Colossus, Braid... and now, this one.

    It is not the first time I've played a visual novel. I'm not an expert by far, but I can say I've played some games in the genre (some of them classics in its own niche). What I can say is that, next to Christine Love's works, Katawa Shoujo is the best I've played, by far. Coming from the grimy and sinister bowels of 4chan (aka, the Internet's sinkhole) the last thing I expected was a respectful, sensitive, well-written (GOD so well-written. If I die having wirtten something half as good I'll die happy), mature commentary on relations and human contact. But that's what I found. I suppose in that respect /b/ pretty much functions as an Infinite Improbability Device. I started pretty much as you said, giving a first "intuitive" playthrough, and I found that your comment was spot-on. The game has this kind of strange wisdom, managing to give you the story that it is going to resonate the most with you and your personal circumstances. I want to think this is a deliberate consequence of the design. In a sense, it is very much as if the story, specially Hisao's personality, was a double creation between the writer's and the player's input, and his change from cypher to actual, rounded personality needed from the player's feedback to be completed. In that way, the game also works as a wonderful work of self-help, because at that point you become Hisao and viceversa, and the histories have a common structure in which first, your love interest helps you in overcoming your problems and then (if you do it right) you help them in overcoming theirs. (It is notable to remark the importance of the message that nobody is or should be alone in the world in the narrative. The game punishes the player when he/she takes decisions trying to do all by himself, or excessively proud, or decides to deliberately isolate himself. Also, all conflicts in the game seem to arise from the refusal to admit that you need help and that you are not an island. In that respect, it places a great emphasis in human interconectedness and empathy, which I think is a great message to convey). My first playthrough was done with Emi, and I was baffled at how many of the issues raised in the plot reminded me of myself. It felt like it was addressed directly to me. Always the sign of a powerful narration.

    (cont.)

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    1. Then I played the Rin route. First of all, I have to agree with you: if that prose were published in novel format, it would be a New York Times bestseller with glowing reviews. Though I didn't had the feeling that it related to me as personally as the Emi story, it didn't mattered. It felt like a new thing, as if I was truly knowing a fascinating and unique human being. Also, I was pleasantly shocked when I saw something that I hadn't seen since I last read that (IMO) neglected masterpiece in psychological characterization that is Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside": the treatment of the "other" characters, the ones in which the plot is not focused on. Everytime Emi appeared in the spotlight during Rin's story, she was treated as your stock cheery, bubbly girl; but since I already knew her story, I also knew that was just a front, and there was surprising depth behind her. However, "that" Hisao" didn't knew, and possibly never would. Giving a little thought, the obvious question would be, What about the other girls? And, more to the point, what about the people around me in real life, all that seem distant, all that I think are assholes or have no real opinion of them? Have they the same depth behind them? Surely they must, a fictional character can't be more defined than a real human being. What a wonderful way to encase and promote such a fundamental human quality as empathy! I went to bed last night at 4 AM, reading it until I finished. I've played videogames for all my conscious life, and I faced a lot of poignant, dramatic, sad or emotionally powerful scenes. Yesterday it was the first time I cried with one. It was absolutely heartbreaking. I really felt that anxiety, that despair in trying to understand Rin and being completely unable to do so. I also was astonished as the resolution. It is a happy ending, but it is also incredibly thoughtful and mature, not only more than a little bit bittersweet. After all, Hisao and Rin are together, but for that they have had to accept that they don't understand each other, can't be what the other needs or wants, and probably never will. The acceptance of that truly sad fact would highlight any "normal" romantic story; the interactive factor her makes it barely bearable.

      I'm sorry for the TL;DR tract. I had to vent in some way. In short, the thing is that, as you said, videogames are still a young medium, and the possibilities are astounding. We are used to average results, and when anybody tries to push the envelope, the results are doubly surprising. And they shut us naysayers proving not only that, yes, videogames can be art but also that they SHOULD.

      Again, thank you.

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  28. Have you played any of Christine Love's games? Analogue: A Hate Story and it's sequel Hate +. Really excellent visual novel games with adult themes.

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  30. As a young guy I was a grim cynic. Around age 22 I set my face against this outlook, as I became aware I think, that it was serving me badly. I then pursued good things as a focus, instead of criticising things I found bad, and I've had a good life. Sort of Hisao-Emi. The grim cynic still exists, and is probably my true (still unwelcome) self. However, my Hisao-Emi life relies on forgetting, on denying this, and so the depth of reflection I'm indulging in here, comes from under a heavy rock, a place that hasn't seen daylight for nearly twenty years.

    Speaking of indulgent, excuse my self-absorbed meandering. But concerning games as art, I think Katawa Shoujo has problems, and is a long way from "perfect". But the Hisao-Rin story made me look under a rock I'd forgotten exists, at a young guy I'd forgotten all about. The effect of this game on me has been "great".

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  31. Hi Jeff and all,

    I'm posting much after the battle, but I just couldn't let your post and the tread go without adding at the very least a "me too". I really loved KS, Rin is wonderful, Emi, Hanako, everybody... I concur about the silliness of the "Violence: good; Sex: bad" worldview, and most of the points made here. I'd just maybe mention to Xtine that considering the volunteer team, adding a female POV would have basically meant twice as much work (the female character + some male love interests) and it's not really reasonable to expect this from a team of passionate but unpaid volunteers... That being said, the tools used (Ren'Py mostly) are free and open-source, and you'd be quite welcome to make your own female POV VN if you'd like... I'd love to play it. And yeah for some reason, almost *all* my RPG characters are female (usually with a bow and pointy ears ;) ).

    As for VNs in general, Jeff may I suggest you to try Kana Imouto ? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kana:_Little_Sister). The theme is a little similar, as it lets you play as the brother of a sick and hospital-bound girl. Pretty wonderful writing too.

    Anyway, really great to see Jeff appreciating KS. Oh by the way, I'm not sure if you pushed the curiosity to read the actual nurse-kun saga that originated the whole thing, but it's definitely worth a read.
    As for how all this could originate from /b/, of all places? I like this quote:

    /b/ weeps at stories of little girls whose lives have been ruined. /b/ laughs at genocide, racism, sexism, CP, and every godawful thing known to man. I don't know why, but /b/ seems so brutally honest. /b/ is humanity minus the self-deception

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  32. I know I'm a little late here, but there are two things I'd like to say:

    First, just to clarify, the name "Katawa Shoujo" wasn't a decision by the game makers. It comes from a drawing of the japanese artist RAITA that gave the initial idea to the game.

    Second, I've seen some VN recommendations here (mostly Sengoku Rance and Analogue: A Hate Story), but I'd like to recommend a japanese all-ages VN called Planetarian. It's short (~4 hours), it has a beautiful story and it's guaranteed to make any grown man cry like a little girl.

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