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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 ™ 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.

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