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Katawa Shoujo back to reviews
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Good storygame experienced badly.
I haven't read a visual novel before and I'm not going to take into account established genres. This review is how I see Katawa Shoujo (It's free btw) as it is, some of the criticism may really be of visual novels in general. As it stands I've played through 1.5 storylines

So it's an eroge(with an option to remove the mature stuff) about disabled girls. Those flags that should have gone off in your head are wrong though. The subject matter is treated with huge weight and is essential to the story about finding who you are and how to do deal with disability and applies it to general life experience we all understand. This isn't about gratification and the game slaps you hard if you think like that. Its utterly respectful.

Mechanically you click through dialogue with pictures and make a choice, maybe every 20 minutes that will send the story down radically different paths. It's terrible. Clicking through dialogue is physically a little uncomfortable and stops me from finding my own flow and destroys reading rhythm. By itself, a comic, or a book, or a lump of text would have been a better way to experience the story. It's a lot more work, but it could have done with using The Walking Dead tactic of giving choices for all dialogue that paraphrased the same thing but didn't affect the story. It would have been involving. Choices happen so rarely there's no feeling of control or creativity. The choices aren't even clear. The option to run harder in a race or not risk a heart attack will actually permanently decide your relationship with the sporty girl. The appearance of choice made me attach to someone quickly and then being tracked down the wrong path was just frustration. I have no shame in immediately redoing the game with a guide because the choices were damaging my experience of the story. They needed to come about after a series of several decisions rather than one that decides everything.

The +ve of the choices is there's a sense of exploration after first completion, but it's almost unrelated to the story

But the story was so good, the characters have rote stand out traits (shy, brash etc) but I fell for them and the story was gripping. And incredibly heavy hitting, some of the Hanako storyline made me question myself as a person and think about my life decisions. The reality of it makes it less pure joy but has an incredible weight.
I may have written this too soon. In the Hanako storyline the player-character does something very negative towards the end and its giving me all sorts of unsettling thoughts in the aftereffect. When you choose to make fiction interaction, you're bringing the audience into the world in a very complicated way that I don't believe we fully understand yet and making the PC do something bad is a delicate thing with large impact. I don't really think they were considering the player response to it, or indeed to any part of the game. Even non-interactive as a protagonist it's tricky if its a close protagonist. It's left me feeling uncomfortable past the point where I'd finished the game

I'm also not sure if I love this game or hate it enough to play/not play the other storylines but if I do, that also may require an update.
comment #17383 TomWithNoNumbers 23rd Dec 12
Would you have felt differently about the clicking if you'd used spacebar instead?
comment #17384 Muphrid 23rd Dec 12
You can use the spacebar? It would have helped =D Thanks for the hint, if I do replay I'll check it out. Though I would still have the flow problem and also I sit with my laptop in an awkward position. Really I just mean, that to me it's not the best way to consume text in general and it would need to be made up for by putting the interactivity to use rather than being a cool way of doing it by itself.
comment #17385 TomWithNoNumbers 23rd Dec 12
Yeah, I'd never played a VN to a serious extent before either, so I think the style of storytelling can be a bit jarring. Something I notice a lot playing with the mouse wheel (you can use it to navigate back to earlier parts of a scene, including restarting the BGM that was at that time) is that there is actually quite a bit of gesture and expression changing. I think in some ways, the only way to get all that to be visible is to break the text into such short chunks—otherwise, the only thing you could do is blanket the screen in text, obscuring everything.

Still, even that makes the level of constant interaction necessary somewhat unappealing. I've never tried it, but I think there's an auto-play mode, where the text automatically advances on a timer. When replaying scenes, I make liberal use of skipping by holding down control (or even just tapping it, since it's faster than spacebar).

I do think that V Ns have some uniqueness to them, particularly with the music, backgrounds, and sprite poses and expressions. At the same time, I do wonder what it would be like as a straight novel instead. The lack of music/sound effects would be worst, but I sometimes think the backgrounds and sprites keep me from using my imagination as much, or that I should be imagining more happening than what the sprites' expressions and poses are capable of showing.

Maybe the best way to look at it is that the aural and visual cues give you more of a base for your imagination to work from. I don't know. I can't say I'm convinced of it myself, but it makes me think about the various advantages and disadvantages of different media for storytelling.

Overall, though, that leaves the interactivity as another issue. Overall, I do feel the VN has a small number of choices with large impacts, rather than many choices with small impacts. Emi's route is perhaps the least punishing in this respect, though, as there are choices that give flavor but don't impact anything, as well as an escape hatch if you end up going down the bad ending path. I thought that was good, but most of the VN just isn't that way. Each writer seemed to have a different idea about what to do with choices—cf. Rin's route with 3 choices unlocking a total of 6 different options later on, but each of them is, from a story standpoint, equivalent.

To a gamer, that sounds frustrating, but I wonder how much that has to do with games being so very goal oriented. There's a clear target, and one expects that reaching that target is achievable within the framework of the game and (unless you're playing, say, an MMO with a large expectation of outside research) achievable without outside help. KS doesn't really work that way, though. Actions don't necessarily lead to predictable outcomes (Shizune's route is a good example).
comment #17386 Muphrid 23rd Dec 12
But what purpose do the choices serve? This is essentially my biggest complaint, because all that I can see that they really do is obscure 6 storylines that would work best separately. All the standard reasons for having choices in a game don't work because they're so far apart or restrictive. The one thing they do is very broad, in that letting you choose between so many people it's more likely that you'll end up with someone you care about. But this backfires unless you use a guide because it's pretty easy to end up with a person you didn't choose (which is just awkward). The game even punishes you, the protagonist kept complaining that his health had nearly broken now he stopped running, but I wanted him to run. I just didn't realise that it was impossible to run and not have sex with the wrong person.

I think you are right about the music and the visual cues though. It's long enough that the visual cues lose their impact because of recycling, but I'm not going to hold a grudge against a game like this for not having the resources, especially when it looks so good. My ideal situation would be being allowed to choose dialogue (not necessarily having to have an impact though) because giving something almost 'meaningful' to do on a regular basis would stop the motony and create engagement. I might muck around with auto mode, I'd tried setting delivery to fastest which was an improvement but maybe auto mode would be even better than that.
comment #17390 TomWithNoNumbers 24th Dec 12
I'd just like to repeat that I thought some aspects of the game were incredible. My feelings are conflicted because some parts are very good and some parts are very bad but that alone makes it better than the vast majority of media which manages to be neither.
comment #17391 TomWithNoNumbers 24th Dec 12
Just wanna say, about the "negative thing" in Hanako's route, if you're talking about what I think... did you get the good ending? She explains herself.
comment #17728 PunxsatownyPhil 17th Jan 13
^^ Figured I might as well chip in. It sounds like the problem you have is that you weren't thinking with the same kind of logic the developers and their target audience envisioned with this, especially on your first playthrough. It's perfectly understandable given that you were unfamiliar with this sort of thing, but when you get into a Dating Sim Eroge VN, it's pretty much a given that most choices are to be approached with the mindset of "which character does the choice apply to, and how does it affect my relationship with him/her?" rather than being concerned with the protagonist's personal circumstances. Of course if you're like me, you'll go into it knowing this and attempt to roleplay as far as the game will let you anyway (which in my case would mean ignoring all the love interests and probably a fair bit of trolling if possible), but that's not really conducive to experiencing the story in the way the authors intended. These kinds of games can't all be Mass Effect.

With that in mind, most, but admittedly not all the choices in KS make some sort of logical sense. Given your reference to Emi, for example, does it not follow that if you felt like getting more involved with the sports girl that you should practice sports yourself? KS actually does it a lot better than some other visual novels, such as Fate/Stay Night for example, where there are many more choices, but most of the "correct" ones are completely unintuitve, and the "incorrect" choices or a combination thereof lead you to a bad end several scenes later for no apparent reason at all. Others pretty much abruptly kill you off if you make the wrong decision (usually in a way you couldn't possibly have guessed from the choice), making the choice itself near meaningless. KS at least has the decency to show how certain "wrong" choices affect the characters after Act One (well, in half the routes, anyway), Act One being there mostly to set you on a route. Once you understand that structure, playing the game makes more sense. I never really felt the need to use a guide playing any of the routes. The only thing that wasn't immediately apparent to me was that I needed to be nice to both Lilly and Hanako to end up on either of their routes, not one or the other.
comment #17730 DeviousRecital 17th Jan 13
That's not really true, Devious Recital. Fate/stay night's "correct" choices are merely the ones that the protagonist would take. And due to his Honor Before Reason / Chronic Hero Complex personality, the often stupid choice is the correct one, just because it would be in-character for him.
comment #17732 kay4today 17th Jan 13
@Punxsatowny Phil I did get the good ending and I understand why what happened happened. I just think it was a powerful thing to do and maybe shouldn't have been included. It's like rape or shooting children, they are things that happen and there are valid reasons to include them in a story but you should have a really really good reason to do so before you do. They had a reason, I'm not sure if it quite justified the nuclear bomb.

@Devious Recital This is why I want the idea of visual novels as a genre to die. The things within them are great but genre restraints are holding them back from being what they should be. They shouldn't rely on people knowing what happens in a genre, they should understand what they're doing and do it. And so if the choices are actually about choosing which girls to pursue, then thats the choice that should be given to the player. I feel like I played the game right by looking up an FAQ and finding out which choices would lead to which person. The Hanako storyline has a fantastic impact unreplicatable in presented mediums that relies on the idea that the player was choosing her and so actively replicating the actions that Hisao was, but the game minus FAQ doesn't do that unless you have brought in genre knowledge and used it to interpret it.

They just need to relabel them to be honest. If instead of "try to win the race" it said "I like Emi" or "Emi seems cute" the game would make more sense to everyone involved. It even solves the roleplaying problem, because roleplaying is no longer an expectation. He likes Emi so he runs more and you see his character unfold along those lines
comment #17733 TomWithNoNumbers 17th Jan 13
^^Possibly, but it turns up in cases where that doesn't even apply. For instance, remember in UBW where the protagonist is questioning his friend on Caster's whereabouts, and how if you press him, he kills you? That comes completely out of fucking nowhere and has nothing to do with the protagonist's Messiah complex. It's just the author being a troll.

^Make no mistake, there are many visual novels that are a lot more upfront about it, but I don't really find those ones to be as clever as ones that aren't. Take the choices leading up to the Shizune route in this, for example. Other than a willingness to spend time with her and Misha and an interest in her deafness, Hisao has to demonstate that he's got an agressive, competitive spirit that doesn't make excuses. That tells you a lot more about Shizune and why she and Hisao are attracted to each other than a choice that merely says "I think I'll choose Shizune" would. Real people don't really make that kind of choice anyway because life doesn't work like that. Most people don't go out one day and decide which of their five friends they want to date, so it makes a lot more sense in the context of roleplaying as well.

comment #17734 DeviousRecital 17th Jan 13
^It seems the problem comes down to whether the game should be realistic or if it is obvious what each choice contributes to. Even one of the TV Tropes articles on this game notes that each choice can be non-intuitive give how Hisao overreacts to nearly everything. I can understand Tom's position, though. It's certainly true that people don't go out of their way to date their friends at school, but people who play romantic games have a certain goal in mind. Thus, they want their goal to be clear, without ruining the fun by requiring one to read a walkthrough.

^^I would not go so far as to say that visual novels need to die. Creators just need to keep in mind these restrictions and work around them.
comment #17735 doctrainAUM 17th Jan 13
Well certainly, how intuitive each choice is going to depend on a lot of things, namely the player's goal, what the choice contributes and such, but I think most of them in this game are fairly rational from at least one or two points of view. I'm just saying that I think the choices work in this game because they add to the experience. Almost every one of them has some sort of narrative purpose, have a rationale behind them that makes sense from the perspective of what the story is about, and makes you think about the story you've been through and what you might go through. It's rare to find a visual novel that can achieve that balance of neither too simplistic nor too convoluted when it comes to choices, and in my opinion, this one manages it for the most part. I don't think you have to be too acquainted with these types of games to figure it out or need a guide. This was practically my visual novel Gateway Series, and I still picked up on what the act one choices meant, only knowing the premise. Maybe I was just able to adapt to the mindset quicker, but I still think the choices aren't really the issue with KS. Anyway, keep in mind that this doesn't just apply to romance games. If one were to browse the lemmasoft forums, no matter the genre, one could easily find and download many a visual novel with completely nonsensical and counter-intuitive choices thanks to most of them being produced by a maximum of five people. The Dreaming is one such example, as is Adrift.
comment #17736 DeviousRecital 17th Jan 13
@Devious Recital

It doesn't really come completely out of nowhere, since you and your ally muse that Caster is most likely controlling her Master before that. I didn't see it coming at all, but there are people I discussed the game with that thought it would be safe to not ask him, since that could get him into trouble (because he'd maybe ask the woman and get killed in the process) or ruin their potential surprise attack.

I know that's not the best reasoning, but at least it doesn't completely not make sense.
comment #17738 kay4today 18th Jan 13
@ doctrainAUM why I want the genre to die, is I imagine it as unconstrained, where we don't really have anything that seperates KS, To The Moon, The Walking Dead. With each 'VN' picking and choosing its level of interactivity (there's so many levels even if we stick with pure choice based play). I have a dream that interactive novel and less-interactive game will hold hands and walk side by side =D

@Devious Recital That is something that can be good but it would need to be implemented completely differently, because the failure state on KS choices is absolutely fatal. If you pick wrong then you'll end up not just failing at the romance you were aiming at, but locked into to another storyline. If the game reduced expectations than I could imagine someone picking choices and then seeing who they end up with, but then whats the point of the choices and what rational were they using? It destroys the narrative strength of choices because it's no longer aligning player motivation with protagonist motivation, we're back to a book scenario where the player is passively absorbing a story from the outside. It's well written and enjoyable but it would be better as a book or a TV episode because theres no use of interactivity and a TV episode would be a more comfortable way to consume the plot.

And if the player actively does have motivation in the choices, then picking a choice and getting it wrong means that you're following a romance line with someone you chose not to pursue, negatively affecting it. After sufficient time has passed the player either has to readjust his aims (destroying the interactivity bonus again) or just plain rewind back to that moment, which isn't helpful for flow.

I guess if you had lots of time then the way to do it would be to make it so you have to fail multiple times. Okay you weren't aggressive but you'll get enough chances that any reasoning being should figure it out. Thats valid but does require a lot more work.

I'm not even sure how I feel about the bad endings. It's a useful lesson to the player but does it justify making them sit through potentially an hour of story and receive an unsatisfying conclusion? If it was five minutes and then gave you a game over it'd be more reasonable but you can be locked in for a fairly long time
comment #17739 TomWithNoNumbers 18th Jan 13
I wish there was a way to tl;dr all this, but I can't think of one...

Well, I guess you could just say that there's different ways to view it, but I really don't mind even if I make wrong choices because I know making each and every choice is (usually) the only way to view the whole story. That's something a book really can't do: showing what would have happened to the protagonist had he done or thought something else at a particular moment in time. That's really what the concept of having choices in visual novels boils down to, in my opinion. It has less to do with being interactive and more to do with approaching the same story from multiple angles.

You are correct in that it kind of kills the pace some to make those wrong decisions, which I think is just extra motivation to think everything through, finish the main storyline first, and then view the what-if stuff later. And besides, that skip button exists for a reason. As far as this game goes, I... don't think Act One has that great of a pace to begin with, which I suppose is to be expected as its sole purpose is to introduce all the girls and lock you on one of their paths, which is rather unusual for most visual novels, might I add. This kind of game usually keeps the same narrative throughout, but has different/extra scenes depending on your chosen route. Anyways, on the first time through, I'll admit that KS probably doesn't give you enough time to figure out which story you want to see and then figure out the steps necessary to get there (I myself initially was wanting to see Lilly's route first, and ended up on Rin's instead my first time, which I didn't mind because I was wanting to see her's next anyway), but considering that the first Act is 2-3 hours long without skipping text and that it becomes a rather mechanical affair on repeat playthroughs since you already have a grasp of the characters, how the choices will affect them, I doubt they were trying to get you to figure things out in the first place and instead just made choices that complemented the characters more. Act One's task is a little impossible, after all. If it were much longer and gave you a lot more room for mistakes, a lot of us would probably be complaining that KS moves at a snail's pace and doesn't get to the point near quickly enough.

Think about it from a developer standpoint: if you made this kind of "game" and went to the trouble of writing different scenes or changing established scenes depending on different choices that you have available to the player, would you really want the player to just go through one route, make one set of choices and be done with it, never seeing all the other things you put time and effort into? Probably not, which is why I think the KS devs decided to be confident in the strength of their writers no matter whose route you ended up on instead of being overly concerned with making sure the player gets what they want.

As far as bad endings go, you probably ought to define "unsatisfying" more. Some of KS's bad endings give you a lot of scenes you wouldn't have seen otherwise (Shizune and Rin's in particular), and hell, Rin's bad ending was so well written, I'd say it's one of KS's highlights. By contrast, Emi's bad ending is completely abrupt (just like you said, make the choice and get a game over 5 min later), and so unfulfilling and pointless I wonder why it even exists other than to show that you didn't understand the themes of her route. It's like it's there because it's obligatory to have a bad ending in a route. It all depends on how much effort they put into it, I guess.

And actually, to address your problem about the text boxes requiring too much clicking and such, there are some visual novels that are in what's called "NVL" format, which overlays the text box over the images, making it cover most of the screen. I've read a few (such as the aforementioned Fate/Stay Night) and it's less distracting than you might think. There's usually an option to fill the entire text box with a single click, which usually amounts to at least a paragraph if not two, so maybe those would be a lot easier on you.
comment #17767 DeviousRecital 18th Jan 13
Cheers, that was interesting, I can see that if it were one story with different scenes unlocked depending on the choices, then this would be an entirely appropriate way to do it and the choices would have a different meaning in the game. In this case I feel like a wrong choice isn't another way to view the story but a way to view a different story so I'm still convinced in this particular case that you don#t want the reader to make the wrong choice (as far as locking down a path goes) but if the choices were all within the same path I'd see that (and btw if you've got recommendations for other visual novels I definitely want to read some more)

But I don't think in this case, making the choices clear to the player would stop people looking at other routes, because once they finished one story they'll want to explore some others (I admit the labelling is a bit of a one time problem too because its fairly okay figuring out what means what after the first playthrough), but in the case where they don#t want to spend a lot of extra effort (which is fair enough) I think they should have just gone for fairly explicit labelling, you'd lose figuring out that Shizune wants you to be aggressive, but they'd have just shown that in a non-interactive way which I don't think loses as much as going down the wrong path does
comment #17770 TomWithNoNumbers 19th Jan 13
...But KS does have different scenes unlocked depending on the choices made, even in Act One. It's mostly as you say; making a choice you didn't intend because you weren't aware of the consequences usually drives you to a different story in Act One, but past that (where you'll be spending the majority of your time in KS) and even a little bit within it (as there are more than one ways to end up on a few of the routes) the choices mostly are a different part of the same story.

I didn't really say that being explicit with the choices would stop people from looking at other routes; I merely meant that the KS devs weren't concerened with trying to draw people in by having accessible choices and were depending on the strength of their writers instead. And that's why I think the choices are the way they are; they reinforce the writing as I've said before, adding to the game's main appeal. In this case, it's probably a good thing that the choices weren't as explicit as they could have been anyway; while it's certainly possible to completely lock yourself out of Rin's route (and making getting on Emi's route a bit more problematic than it needs to be) before they're even introduced on your first time, it's a little less likely this way.

As far as recommendations for other V Ns goes, I have no idea of your tastes other than what I've talked about here, so the best I can do is point you to vndb.org, where you'll probably find something you like sifting through the tags and whatnot. If this is your kind of story, I'll recommend Kira Kira, which is written in NVL format, is pretty up front with it's (very few) choices, and is all around fairly entertaining if you don't mind a somewhat slow pace or lots of rock music.
comment #17771 DeviousRecital 19th Jan 13
I can definitely see how choices where you can't guess the consequences of your actions can be frustrating, but on the other hand, I think that choices that are too transparent are just irritating and immersion breaking. Of the games I've played, Ever17 was on the far "unintuitive" end, bombarding me with choices where I not only had no idea of their consequences, but couldn't meaningfully roleplay the character because I was only being asked to respond to things I had no meaningful input on, which left me thinking "why are you asking me? Just flip a coin or something." On the far end of "too transparent," Deardrops is a half step from asking you "Which girl's Relationship Values do you want to raise?" Visual novels are overwhelmingly written in the first person, and strive to put you in the shoes of the viewpoint character, even if they try to develop the lead as a character in their own right, but presenting the choices this way made me feel less like I was stepping into the role of the main character, and more like I was the invisible hand of God hovering around and nudging the story in the direction I wanted.

I'm not going to say that Katawa Shoujo achieved the perfect happy medium, but there are pitfalls on either side, and I think it managed to avoid dropping headlong into them.
comment #17773 Desertopa 19th Jan 13
I would like a Visual Novel where I felt like the hand of God. In these games, the main character has a personality, backstory, and traits that already make it impossible for me to put myself in the shoes of the main character. Choices that make it blatantly obvious what would happen would be very appealing.
comment #17774 doctrainAUM 19th Jan 13
I feel like in that case you'd be missing out on one of the most powerful parts of the experience of playing a visual novel.

Some people have an easier time establishing that connection than others. A lot of games have main characters who're basically complete cyphers, so that players can more easily put themselves in their shoes, and as someone who can put myself in the place of varied and developed characters, I find that really weakens the story, but I can see why they'd do it. There's a huge difference in the impact of the game depending on whether or not you experience it as "I."
comment #17776 Desertopa 19th Jan 13
I feel "I" is the single biggest justification for interactive works as a form of narrative. To have a story which you're ascribing some part of at least to yourself is an incredibly involving experience (reading back I feel like my review is too negative given just how much that experience made up for everything else). But I think even hand of God can end up doing that to people. Listening to the mess of "I"s "they"s and "him"s when hearing someone talk about The Sims is always interesting
comment #17785 TomWithNoNumbers 20th Jan 13
Well finished all the things now. Opinion is still the same, quick overview of the storylines
  • Emi - Probably the most relatable and healthy of the relationships. It's not overly dramatic but it's good at building up the minutiae of a young believable relationship and the last choice has an important twist.
  • Hanako - If you want to pursue Hanako, then this will probably be amazing because there's something about the reasoning (that one of the negative reviews correctly pointed out) that the game has something to say about. If you're not attracted to her then it probably won't make a lot of sense, or feel really forced.
  • Rin - Really disturbing tale about obsession and the drive to accomplish. It's not satisfying and very dark, but deliberately so and it feels like it all means something.
  • Lilly - Much more of a tradition romantic thing, but fairly well done and managed to get me emotional eventually. Don't do Lilly and Hanako one after the other, because they've basically got different people in the Hanako role and it can get a bit bothersome if you completed them in close proximity
  • Shizune - I don't really get Shizune, I'm very willing to believe there's a type of person who would get a lot out of this storyline, but I'm not the person who can decipher it.
comment #19801 TomWithNoNumbers 10th Jun 13
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