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Katawa Shoujo Character Thoughts PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 09 January 2012 13:16
This isn't a review - it's a scratchpad / dumping ground for thoughts about the Katawa Shoujo characters and their routes, because the game is rather good at making you think about them. It'll be updated as I "play" through the game.

This article contains spoilers, and I'd really recommend that you don't read on unless you've already played through the routes for the characters involved. Prior knowledge of some of this stuff will really screw up your experience.

Emi Ibarazaki
Rin Tezuka
Shizune Hakamichi
Lilly Satou
Hanako Ikezawa

General Observations
Katawa Shoujo is the second visual novel I've played. The first, Phantom of Inferno, didn't go down too well - and in hindsight, that's because I made the mistake of thinking of it too much as a "game". That "visual novel" tag is there for a reason - a game where all you do is press the spacebar is no fun at all, you don't play this so much as read it, and you need to bear that in mind or you'll be in for a disappointment. Knowing that now, I really must give Phantom another go sometime.

Bearing in mind that it's a novel, then, you need to manage expectations on what the choices you're presented with mean. I tend to compare VNs to the old Fighting Fantasy game books, where choices led to clear branching paths. Here, it's a bit more subtle than that - I don't know about the specifics of the internal logic of VNs, but it appears that rather than mark simple yes / no branches, decisions set flags that feed algorithms, with several related decisions often needed to trigger significant path changes. Here's an example: early in Act 1, you get to play a game of Risk with Misha and Shizune. At one point, you're asked about how you want to play: aggressively, or defensively? The game isn't offering you a chance to affect the outcome of the game - whichever option you choose, you're still going to lose - but it's one of several questions that collectively judge your personality (more precisely, the personality you've chosen to play Hisao with), and it's the weighted response to those questions in total that ultimately decides which girl's path you end up on (or if you're headed for the Manly Picnic).

Even once you're into the individual paths, decision points are often affecting how much background information you get about an event that will happen, rather than giving you a clear choice of storyline. You will have a row with Emi that leads to her throwing you out of her house - but make the right choices in the 2-3 decisions prior to it, and you'll get background information that changes how she does it and makes the situation less of a disaster. Similarly, certain decision points may even be skipped, or be presented with fewer options, if your prior choices mean they wouldn't fit right. It's all quite subtle and clever.

But at the end of the day: it's a mostly linear story that you read like a book - it's just that instead of turning a page, you're pressing a spacebar. Treat is as a book, and not as a game.

Awards! - just for the hell of it.
Most enjoyable: Emi. She's simply a fun personality, and her story seems the most realistic to me.
Most engaging: Rin. Rips your heart out at several points, and was the path that really sold me on the game.
Most pointless: Shizune. They never feel like an item, and the ending is a complete "none of all this mattered" non-event.
Most forced: Hanako. Better-written than Shizune's route, as it at least goes somewhere, but would have been a lot less DRAAAMAA!-filled if Hisao had been allowed to have some common sense.
Most rehashed: Lilly. "Your new love is moving overseas! WHAT DO YOU DO!?" Think I've seen that story too many times over the years already. I like the character, but she's a little shortchanged by her path.

Emi Ibarazaki "You think you can be a knight on a white charger, come to save the broken girl!? Well, you can't!!"
Route completed
Emi IbarazakiEmi's was the first route I played. First time through the game, I went through Act 1 simply clicking on whatever answers felt most natural, and this is where I ended up - and it's probably a good place to start. For the most part, she's a bright, cheerful personality, with a character design that's easy on the eye; she also turns out be rather horny and adventurous, when you get to the later acts, so until her issues kick in (a chronic inability to trust or rely on others, as she knows how tenuous life is - why trust in someone when they could be gone tomorrow?), she's simply fun to play - a good way of hooking you into the game.

The main problem with the route is that Hisao is unbelievably dense at figuring out what's bothering her - there are so many hints dropped along the way about her father that it's not hard to work out - and I was wishing I could ding him around the head for his lack of common sense. Her trust issues are believable to me, though (I've know people with similar issues) and she simply charmed me completely from start to finish.

The ending: Get to the good end, and you get what is probably the happiest ending in the game. By persuading Emi to trust in him, she and Hisao have come to know and understand each other well; and while Emi has no illusions about his health (she's already nearly killed him at least once, remember), she's also not going to let him sit back and wallow in self-pity. Not that the Hisao of this route would do that anyway. It's one of only two true "together forever" ending, and the only one that feels like it's built on mutual trust and love and a healthy relationship. Happily ever after? A good chance of it, I'd bet.

Rin Tezuka "'I love you' [...] It tastes weird."
Route completed
Rin TezukaAfter seeing plenty of talk of Rin's route, I got the Act 1 walkthrough out to make sure I got on her route for the 2nd time through. I'm glad I didn't get her first, as it may have been a killer for me playing the game further - this is a very dark and emotionally draining route, where even the 'good' end leaves lots of questions.

Rin's an enigma - she rarely shows emotion, she talks in riddles, her mind is in its own little world and she has limited social skills. /a/ seems to make a habit of calling half its posters 'autistic' - Rin, I would bet, is certainly on-spectrum, although maybe not so far as being classically autistic. She's also broken - very broken, although the extent of that doesn't really become clear until the later stages of Act 3, where a Bad End is possible, one with the prospect of Rin's complete mental breakdown or worse left hanging in the air - it's not comfortable at all.

While in Emi's route Hisao is going along with the ride and having fun, in Rin's route he begins as a depressive, unable to come to terms with his "condition", as he always calls it, and finding himself drawn into Rin's world like a moth to flame. There are more choices to be made in Rin's route than there are in Emi's, and as the storyline gets darker and darker you're left wondering just what impact each of these choices are making on how the route plays out, second-guessing every one of them - it genuinely becomes difficult to decide.

At the end of Act 2, I was thinking that the problem would turn out to revolve around their art teacher Nomiya, and a feeling that his efforts to encourage Rin's art were railroading her into being / doing something she didn't want to be / do. That turned out to be half-right - this is what Rin wants to do (albeit only because it's the only thing she feels that she can do and the only way in which she can express herself), but her muse (or more accurately, finding it) is massively destructive, and rather than realise this and get her to back off (as he should, it's explicitly made clear that he's lost an artist friend to suicide for just this reason), Nomiya just keeps the pressure on, more interested in the art than the artist, while his friend Sae provides a place where Rin can drive herself to destruction uninterrupted. Which in my eyes, makes them both bastards.

The ending: Rin and Hisao want to be close to each other - he's as close as anyone has come to being able to understand her, even though it's just barely, and he wants to be there for her - but even at the 'good' end its more a relationship of comfort and co-dependence than of genuine emotion, and it's an unhealthy connection. They get their moment of happiness, but a moment is all it will ever be. Rin is the doomed heroine, who'll never really find what she's looking for as it's simply not out there.

Shizune Hakamichi
Route completed
Shiina 'Misha' MikadoShizune Hakamichi Misha's pic included as these two are a double-act, with Misha being deaf-mute Shizune's sign-language interpreter. They're also the student council. All of it. After Rin's route, I wanted something a little less demanding, and since Shizune's route is supposed to be more typically "slice of life" than the others, that's where I went.

It's initially hard to tell with these two where one ends and the other begins. Early impressions of Shizune were that she's something of a bully - she really likes to get her way, as seen in her efforts to dragoon Hisao onto the student council, and god help anyone who she ends up disliking. She's also incredibly competitive - but again, competition has to be on her own terms, and she doesn't like to lose. It's no wonder that the Student Council has dwindled to just two people, then, as spending a large amount of time with Shizune (at least how she's portrayed early on) would very quickly become as annoying as hell.

That seems largely to be the fault of her dysfunctional family - her father is an arsehole of the highest order who's never been able to communicate with his daughter (learning sign language has never crossed his mind - instead, he's spent thousands on therapy to try and "make her normal"), and her little brother is decidedly strange. "Competition" with them seems to be the only level she's been able to really get on with them, and she's gotten a taste for it. Misha on her own would probably be far more easy-going - outwardly she's as cheerful as Emi, albeit noticeably louder (enough with the wahahaha~ already!) - but Shizune is clearly the one in charge. Misha goes along, and even when you can see that she thinks Shizune's crossing a line with her determined manipulation of others, she won't pull her up for it.

You eventually find out the reason for that. Misha, unfortunately for her, has the same feelings for Shizune that Hisao has. Shizune knows this - Misha has spoken of her feelings to her, and been rebuffed, but a combination of Shizune's need to draw people to her and Misha own feelings being too strong to allow her to step back mean that Shizune's caught in a little trap of her own making. While the Student Council was just the two of them, that worked okay - Misha got to spend a huge amount of time with the person she loved, which if you're badly enough smitten is often enough - but Hisao's arrival on the scene upsets that little arrangement, and as a result Misha's thoughts begin to turn in a darker direction. At the beginning of Act 2, when Shizune's personality begins to soften a little and, thanks to Hisao learning sign language, there was a lot less of Misha~! and her infernal wahahaha~!, I was quite glad to see less of her - but Act 3 brings Misha back into the mix in a more subdued fashion, and in that version she's a far more interesting character. There's a certain level of "Yup, been there and done that..." about the triangle that forms here that couldn't help but catch my attention, either.

But it's also the arc whose potential is most wasted. Shizune's strange family isn't explored in any more than the most basic way. We're introduced to Lilly's sister Akira, who again only gets the briefest of coverage (and Lilly and Shizune are cousins!? The possibilities!). Shizune and Hisao never feel like they're dating, and the h-scenes between them feel positively out-of-place (although the arc's other h-scene is the first in the story that's actually plot-relevant and not just in-context nookie). There's only one decision point in the arc, a blatantly clear good end / bad end choice that requires no real thought. And while Shizune's personality failings are discussed, they're never addressed. It's the first route in the game where I felt I'd wasted time - but fortunately, also the shortest.

(TVTropes suggests that there's a logic behind the way that Shizune and Hisao never feel like an "item": Shizune doesn't let herself have many romantic moments with Hisao because she dislikes just going through the motions of a romantic relationship... and because she knows how painful it would be for Misha to see the two of them flirt. Shizune focuses on student council work because it's the only thing she can do without excluding either Hisao or Misha. Shizune focuses on patching up her relationship with Misha because she feels incredibly guilty at having rejected and then driven away her only friend. I don't buy it myself, although it is plausible.)

The ending: They've laughed, argued, been naughty (very) together, and Hisao has helped Shizune and Misha work out issues that threatened their friendship - and yet the good end has them graduating to go their separate ways, with Shizune giving the 'best friends forever!' speech and promising they'll keep in touch. Will they hell. She'll move on to whoever next falls into her orbit, and the people at a distance, like Hisao and Misha, will soon be forgotten about. This is the one case where the 'bad' end would probably have worked out better for all concerned: it's only "bad" in that you formally break up with Shizune, but that breakup is because she's come to realise the issues that her competitive nature and need to draw people to her cause and has decided to do something about it. Breaking away from her also allows Hisao and Misha to move on after graduation with no false hopes or illusions - and hey, if Misha and Hisao could work past their clumsy and regret-filled first encounter, they might even make a good couple themselves. (And yes, I did notice Misha's comment that their encounter was her first time with a man.) This route shows a side to Misha that made her a far more likeable character, while in other routes she shows a surprising common sense about relationships not involving her that would serve her well. She and Hisao would've been good together. But it was not to be.

Lilly Satou
Route completed
Lilly SatouLilly is the very model of yamato nadeshiko. She's also half-Scottish, and Scotland - and the prospect of Lilly moving to live there - plays a large role in her arc. The most curious thing about Lilly's arc, though, is that it's almost as much about Hanako as it is about her: before Hisao arrived on the scene, Lilly had been a mother-figure for Hanako, but once she finds him, Hanako - perhaps seeing that she can't have Lilly to herself forever - decides to get her act together and strike out on her own, finding new interests and friends along the way. It's a better ending to Hanako's story than her own route - and it also tells you a lot about Lilly.

All she really wants is someone to mother.

And that's driven by a desire to show that she's as capable of looking after others as a seeing person would be, I think. Hisao makes a better target than Hanako for that, because she can also use him to exercise her (as she puts it) "healthy sex drive", and he can be a source of more emotional comfort than Hanako could be to her. Shame she almost kills him in the process. Hisao in this route's quite happy to be mothered, too - his heart gives him far more trouble here than in any other route, landing him back in hospital eventually, and he reaches the decision that despite his best efforts and wishes, he can't manage alone - and he's quite happy to fall back on Lilly for the support that he needs. Hmmmm.

This route at least digs a little more into the enmity between Shizune and Lilly, and their familial relationships (touched on in Shizune's route but not really followed up) which at least was interesting - although still didn't go as far as it perhaps could have - and gives us a brief look at Misha with normal (non-pink, non-drill) hair. Nice touch.

The ending: This is another one portrayed as 'happy ever after', and the only ending to get an epilogue that shows Hisao and his girl planning their future lives together. But Hisao here is far more dependent than the Hisao that ended up with Emi, far less able to live his life on his own - what will happen to him if / when Lilly loses interest in him? Will the novelty of having him to mother wear off? I don't know that there's a 'happy ever after' there...

Hanako Ikezawa
Route completed
Hanako IkezawaAs mentioned above, Hanako arguably gets a better ending from Lilly's route than she does from her own, where her endings vary from a complete mental breakdown that destroys her relationships with the only friends she has (good going there, Hisao), through to something akin to Rin's ending, where Hisao and Hanako come to trust each other without having reached the point where they ever really understand each other. Although unlike Rin, there's more of a feel of a "happy ending" there.

The issues you have to overcome with Hanako are two-fold: her scarring has gotten in the way of her ability to form relationships with people - most are repelled by it and simply don't want to deal with her, while at other schools it's resulted in bullying, including by people she'd counted as friends before the fire that caused it. The mental trauma caused by what happened the night of the fire has also had a severe impact on her sense of self-worth. More than any other route, there are a huge number of landmines that could be stepped on here (and in one path through the route, Hisao doesn't so much as step on one as set off a whole bloody minefield of them) - which makes it interesting, but perhaps more than any other route it feels like forced drama. A lot of the 'bad' could be avoided by application of a basic level of common sense, but the writer seems to have decided that Hisao doesn't have that, and one or two bad choices will lead to you being railroaded down a route that sees you wincing with almost every line that he says to her, knowing rightly that he shouldn't be saying that. It's a bit like watching a trainwreck - even in the run-up to the "good" end, where Hisao plows through a series of events that he admits quite correctly "don't feel right", but just keeps going with the flow anyway. They may get to a happy ending, but it's not for lack of inadvertent effort on Hisao's part to fuck it all up.

The ending: After all the forced drama in the run-up, the final clear-the-air conversation between Hisao and Hanako is worth the wait - even more than Lilly, Hisao is now the one person that Hanako trusts enough to open up to, and you're left with the feeling that, while they've still got some way to go (in this route, Hisao still has to exorcise the ghost of Iwanako, while Hanako's sense of low self-worth isn't going to change overnight), you do get the feeling that they're now on the right path. Shame about all the mis-steps along the way, but there wouldn't have been much of a story otherwise, I suppose. But given the choice between Hanako in Lilly's route, who goes out into the world with new friends, new interests, and a positive outlook on life; and here, where she's swapped Lilly for Hisao but with everyone else seems as withdrawn as ever - I know which one seems the better ending...

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 18 January 2012 13:39 )