I first had the idea for this when I made the following joke in the ill-fated Achievement Thread:
At the time, this was meant as a cheap, throwaway joke. However, I got to thinking about what the game WOULD be like if we chose to play it in that way. To open with the ultimate destruction of a relationship, then to watch it rewind, to watch the holes slowly mend themselves, the love blossom, and then the distance increase as they separate. To watch Hisao sleepwalk backwards through the story, until in the end he knows nobody – culminating in four months in hospital, and, at the end, his own heart attack. Instead of hope, there would be despair – because at the end of the road Iwanako set him on, there is only tragedy.Irreversible
Watch every scene of a girl's route going backwards from their bad ending (from the end to the beginning via the scene selector).
And that got me to thinking what a review of such a game might be. What KS might have looked like if it had been designed to run backwards (and have only bad endings). How someone might react to it.
So I wrote this.
This is going to – I admit – be fairly experimental (OK, really experimental), and indebted in no small part to Jorge Luis Borges. It will consist in diary notes made by someone playing a version of KS in which you experience all of the scenes in reverse chronological order. He will begin with Hanako’s bad ending (Misstep) and run backwards to the beginning, providing his thoughts and commentary as he goes.
In a sense, therefore, this is an AU fanfic of the real world – or, we might say, an AU of the game rather than the game’s plot. This story is fairly inaccessible. It is strange, an attempt at deconstruction, and in short, just plain weird. But in the end, I think I can live with that.
NOTE: The commentary here isn’t intended as a critique of the game, nor do the narrator’s opinions and interpretations necessarily reflect my own. In point of fact, the narrator is specifically written to be extremely pretentious. :p
>>>TOTAL WORD COUNT: 3184 <<<
>>>(TL;DR): This meta story takes the form of diary entries from an unidentified narrator who plays a version of Katawa Shoujo in which all of the scenes play in reverse chronological order. He plays Hanako’s route backwards from her bad end and records his impressions.<<<
I dedicate this story to Munchenhausen.
A friend of mine recently recommended a game to me. A visual novel called Katawa Shoujo. He says that the plot has an interesting conceit – it runs in reverse, like that Gaspar Noe film. Seemed outrageous enough to be worth a download.
The main menu’s interesting. The menu is backed by a collage of photos, I assume of the main characters. When I begin, I’m asked to pick one of five names. I’ll go with “Hanako”.
The game opens with its credits, which play without sound. All of the developers chose to go by internet handles as opposed to real names; I assume to dissociate themselves from the story? Must read up later. At any rate, I’m afterwards dumped in medias res into the beginning of a scene. “Misstep”, the title card at the pause menu tells me.
The first scene depicts the protagonist, Hisao, visiting the room of a woman named Hanako, who appears to have severe burns disfiguring the right side of her face and body. Interestingly, Hisao does not comment on the burns. Hanako seems reticent, but Hisao continually tries to get her to leave the room with her, evidently because she’s locked herself in for some days. When he mentions a mutual friend named Lilly is also worried about her, Hananko becomes visually annoyed and tries to get Hisao to leave. When he doesn’t get the hint, she suddenly snaps and flies into a violent rage. She accuses Hisao and Lilly of smothering her (or something to that effect), claims she hates them both, then throws him out of her room (or, more accurately, terrifies him into leaving). Hisao reflects that their friendship is over as he departs.
Interesting opening scene; it really draws you in.
The scenes continue backward from there. If my friend hadn’t warned me the game was structured in this way, I would have been very confused. We see Hisao call the aforementioned Lilly and ask her for advice, which – we know from the previous scene – he will promptly ignore in favour of going to Hanako’s room. We are made aware that Lilly is far away in Scotland for an unspecified reason, and that the characters appear to reside in a boarding school of some kind.
I like the conceit of going through the acts backwards: after the third scene (in which we are introduced to the Student Council), I receive a title card for the act I just finished. So I’ve moved from Act 4 to act 3, and the game will either end with Act 1 or with a Prologue. Nice touch. After seeing the scene in which Lilly – a blind girl – is introduced (the scene in which she leaves for Scotland), I decided to call it quits for the day.
When I saved to quit, I also noticed that one of the pictures in the main menu was missing. The picture from that title card. I assume that this is meant to symbolize how I’m undoing their histories? More to follow tomorrow. I am tired.
Picked up the game again after returning home from work. Getting back from where I left off.
I’m struck by the irrelevance of the choices with which we are presented with. It’s a cruel mockery of the decision points in conventional VNs: the choice I make doesn’t matter, because the future is a foregone conclusion as I move into the past. Take, for instance, the scene I left off with last evening. If I choose to go into town with Hanako, the decision doesn’t exist, or perhaps leads to disaster anyway, because I’ve just come from the end of the line. So why give us the choice at all? Was the game originally intended to be played in the “correct” order? This is an odd artistic decision on the developers’ part. Unsure how I feel about it.
As I continue, we move backwards in time to Hanako’s (early) birthday party some days prior. In the scene, Hisao refuses to kiss or even hug her when she’s drunkenly flirting with him. Were we viewing the scenes in the proper order, I assume that this would simply indicate that he’s responsible, yet in the light of Hanako’s fury in that first scene, I see now that his avoidance of physical contact is meant to indicate the over-protectiveness which will doom him. I think he views her as akin to the doll he purchased for her: fragile and easily broken. His tragedy, as I now realize, is that treating her in this way will inevitably lead to the destruction of his relationship with her, to Hanako realizing that her friends treat her like a breakable object rather than a person, and lashing out in rage.
Ironically, the first scene showed Hanako standing up for herself; as the story moves forwards (which is to say, backwards), I see her close and withdraw into a shell. It seems like there are two ways to view this story: the tragedy of Hisao, who blunders into destroying a relationship, or the triumph of Hanako, who stands up for herself at the beginning/end and earns her status as an individual. A thought for later.
I’m again struck by the uniqueness of presenting the story in this format. It would be all too easy to miss the foreshadowing if we were to view the scenes in the “right” order. Having seen Hanako’s coming meltdown, we recognize that Hisao’s rejection of her at this point is not the result of responsibility, but patronization. It makes a scene which would normally be charming, a mere expression of playful reluctance or sexual tension, extremely maudlin.
I almost want to scream at Hisao. He’s a fool, and he’s blind to his own arrogance. But I suppose he’s gotten and is going to get what’s coming to him.
Up to Act 2 now. Another photo gone.
I’m coming to have more sympathy for the Hisao character. As the plot progresses, we learn enough to infer that he has a heart condition which has landed him at a school for the disabled, a place called Yamaku Academy. We also see that his friendship – such as it is – with Hanako and Lilly has made him come out of his shell, which makes the eventual doom of that friendship all the more tragic.
Still, we are never able to forget his flaws. In one especially poignant scene, conversing with a character named Miki at the racing track, Hisao mentions that he will be Hanako’s prince if she needs him to (or something to that effect). Once again, this is obvious foreshadowing: we are intended to see Hisao’s arrogance, for it is patronizing attitudes like the one he has here expressed which will doom him.
I see so many moments of happiness here, like the tea parties – which I found extremely charming. But how depressing it all is, in reality. All of the happiness is tainted with the memory of what is to come – perhaps not for Hisao, who is ignorant, but certainly for the reader. What would it be like to live this way, I wonder? How would such pure, innocent happiness feel, were we to know it was impermanent? That it was a temporary, fleeting moment before a crushing finality? For all its flaws, I like the way Katawa Shoujo’s plot flows backwards. The game would just be a feel-bad story otherwise.
I have to wonder, however: if the story were presented in chronological order, might we be able to change Hisao’s fate? Have him end happily with Hanako, not push her so hard? I think back to the meaningless choice whether or not to go into town, at the beginning of Act 3. If the plot went forwards, that choice wouldn’t necessarily be meaningless. Going into town would give us a different result, a different ending. A happy ending?
But what would a happy ending be like, for them? Is a happy ending even possible for someone like Hisao? Can you ever really learn to give up that kind of patronizing attitude, to see someone as an equal and an individual when you’ve previously viewed them only as something to protect? I have to wonder what it would look like – it’s difficult for me to imagine.
I’m increasingly convinced this is more of Hisao’s tragedy, though: my earlier suggestion of it being about Hanako is likely wrong. I suppose the fact that there are another four paths/pasts/tragedies to undergo proves the point. The game is likely to be fairly harrowing.
One thing I’m unsure about is the Kenji character. In a game so fundamentally concerned with the past, with going backwards, his comic relief (?) comes off as somewhat indecipherable. I briefly considered that his misogynistic attitudes are backward-looking, much as the structure of the game itself is, but if this was the developers’ intention, I’m not convinced it succeeds. I found myself skimming much of his dialogue. He’s the only sour note in an otherwise intriguing experience, though.
Made it to Act One. I see a cinematic play prior to the act, showing Hanako alone in a crowd. She sees Hisao in the library (an event which I’ve seen referenced earlier – is it to come?). She looks hopeful. I wonder, however, if there’s meant to be a sad knowing in her eyes, a premonition of the tragedy to come? Of the fact that the hope she places in him is, as it were, misplaced? Or perhaps a sense of déjà vu?
The pace of the game has sped up. Now Hisao is drifting further and further away from the people who were only recently his friends. I’m broadsided suddenly by the sudden appearances of two new characters; an artist named Rin and a runner named Emi, (missing their arms and their legs, respectively) neither of whom appeared in acts two through four (though I recall their names being mentioned briefly). What could possibly be served, though, by introducing them so late into the plot, as I draw near the conclusion? Is it meant to suggest paths Hisao chose not to take?
I just saved and checked the main menu – yes, Emi and Rin are two of the four remaining options, along with Lilly and Shizune (the deaf-mute president of the Student Council, whom we first met at the end of Act 4). Perhaps this last act is common to all four routes? If so, that is again the cruellest of jokes, because if each path begins so bitterly as Hanako’s, then any path he might have chosen to take leads only to grief.
I admit, however, I might find the ending rather tedious if it’s the same for each character. How many times will I have to run through this first act? I suppose I’ll have a different perspective on the scene each time, though, depending on which character I’m looking at.
In any case, I found Hisao’s first/last meeting with Hanako in the library especially poignant. It brought to mind the cinematic I saw at the beginning of the act. He apologizes for startling her, hinting again at the over-protective attitude he will eventually develop…has developed? So hard to talk about a plot in reverse…toward her. She eventually flees.
There was something of an ironic reversal in that scene – while Hisao fled her room in the beginning, where she stood before him blazing with wrath, now, at the end, she is running from him. A far cry from her stand at the beginning. Just as I’ve seen Hisao grow cold, so too have I seen Hanako grow increasingly withdrawn and distant. Until here, at the end/beginning, she can’t even talk to him. She hides from everyone. Even herself? An enigma.
And after that…nothing. A glance in class, where she’s just another face in the crowd. And then Hisao’s in the hospital again.
I’ll finish the game tomorrow. It’s late, and I’m tired.
Just finished the game. My thoughts on the Prologue/Finale.
I actually quit more or less at the end, last night: I only had five minutes of scenes left (ten for a slow reader). Hisao spends four months in hospital recovering, at the end of which we’re told he’ll be going to Yamaku, explaining how he ended up at the school in the first place. And then I’m taken back to the beginning, which is to say, to the end. We see Hisao approached by Iwanako, a character who was briefly mentioned in a letter Hisao received in the middle of the game. She gives her heart to Hisao, and it causes his own to fail (if you’ll forgive the metaphor). He collapses into the snow, unaware of the fact that this shattered heart will not be the first, that his story both begins and ends with a breaking, a “Misstep” with dire consequences.
And then the game simply returns to the main menu. All of Hanako’s title cards are missing now. A story undone and unwritten. I find something about that blankness disturbing. I imagine that when I finish the story, the screen will be entirely empty.
As I reflect back on that final scene, it occurs to me that Hisao is unaware of the fact, and in the hospital will continue to be unaware, that Yamaku will bring him no salvation – only yet another broken heart, brought on this time by his own pride. I think what I enjoyed about the game is its fundamental despair and hopelessness: we see Hisao’s hopes traumatically destroyed as his relationship with Hanako flies apart, then we see those hopes stand strong for a while before they wither. He crawls into his shell, he loses friends as he meets them for the first – which is the last – time. And he ends the game in limbo, in a hospital for four months, while he loses older friends again. Even the very final scene is no comfort, for it depicts that fatal heart attack which will put him on the road to destruction.
Katawa Shoujo, in conclusion, is a very, very dark game. Its artistic brilliance is in presenting a tragic romance in reverse. One theme which I find slippery, however, is its focus on the disabled – the burned, the blind, the deaf, the limbless. How does the image of the disabled – the “Katawa” of the game’s title – contribute to its overarching theme of inevitability and fate? Hisao’s damaged heart, I assume, is meant to symbolize his similarly damaged emotional state: he cannot love Hanako, we realize, because his attitude toward her is fundamentally patronizing. And as we see his friendships turn cold as we move backwards in time, we come to realize that the damage to his metaphorical heart runs so deep that he is – we suspect – incapable of truly loving anyone (and indeed, the fact that the game gives us five failed relationships seems to hint that this is the case).
In this regard, Iwanako’s confession – the thing which triggers his heart attack – serves as a coda to the emotional detachment Hisao exhibits throughout the story. He cannot love, so a confession of love destroys him.
At least, that’s what I got out of it.
Hanako’s burns are a bit more difficult to quantify in terms of symbolism. Obviously, they’re the direct cause of her social withdrawal. Perhaps they’re best seen as an inversion of Hisao’s injury: while Hisao externalizes his injured heart, causing his relationship with Hanako to be fundamentally unhealthy due to his extreme protectiveness, Hanako internalizes her external injuries. Her heart blazes with fiery rage, a rage which simmered until it allowed her to stand up for herself, but only at the cost of burning the bridges between her and her friends.
Fire is strength; passion. But it is also a destroyer; that which consumes. It is unclear to me whether Hanako’s fire will bring her salvation or destruction, and we cannot know because we do not know what her future holds. So frustrating that because she threw Hisao from her life, we cannot see if she, like the phoenix, will rise from the ashes…
Maybe I’m just thinking too deeply into it. But it’s hard not to do so when we see a story like this. A story whose past is its future. With the exception of Kenji, whose character I found incomprehensible, I loved every minute of Katawa Shoujo, as depressing and draining as it is, and I think I’m going to enjoy playing the other four journeys into the past.