Last week marked what has been perhaps the oddest release I can think of for quite some time. What do I take away from the story of the development of Katawa Shoujo?
I'm going to talk about something that strikes me as strange (not bad, but certainly strange) today: just last week after roughly a five year development cycle the dating sim/ero game Katawa Shoujo was finally released to the world in full game form. For those of you wondering, Katawa Shoujo -- roughly translated as Disability Girls -- is a Japanese style visual novel game where the main character under your control is in a school for disabled children where he can meet and date heroines with various disabilities.
Now, aside from the fact that the heroines are disabled, there's nothing really new to the visual novel/ero game genre here. It's also certainly not strange that an independent developer was the driving force behind the production and release of the game. Still, I believe that a lot of odd circumstances took place in regards to the road to making this an actual game, and for some reason I find the entire thing a lot more fascinating than the normal "indie developer releases game" which is quite a common story these days anyways. Perhaps though to understand some of the points that I'll be getting to it would be wise to start from the beginning.
In January 2007 this image (which is SFW in that it contains no nudity) made it's way to 4chan. The page has character designs for a game -- although at this point it would stand purely as a thought exercise -- where the heroines you court would be disabled in some fashion or another. A lot of people, whether intrigued by the premise either benevolently or malevolently, said that they would play such a game. While such chatter is usually just idle daydreaming something extremely strange happened: people actually started coming together to form a development team for the sole purpose of making a title based off of this one page.
After the team came together, forming Four Leaf Studios as a nod to their origin, they set out to make the game a reality, and in 2009 they actually put out a demo of the first chapter. Now here's where I believe another strange thing occurred. While the subject matter of Katawa Shoujo is certainly somewhat ... morose, people that played the game said that it was actually handed with tact and respect for the most part; these girls were more than just the disability they were portrayed as having, they were actual fleshed out characters. Perhaps it's because of the origins of the studio -- let me just say that 4chan is not widely renown for its sympathy or tact regarding almost anything (some cases aside) -- to see something coming together that wasn't simply a parody of the initial idea, but something that actually hoped to do it some justice strikes me as simply remarkable.
And now, here we are five years after that initial posting of the image that sparked it all, and the full game is available for free in English under a creative commons license and is also set to have other translations forthcoming. Four Leaf Studios says they're done, aside from perhaps some translations and future patches (and I'm not even sure about the latter).
Perhaps it's a little morbid to look at it like this, but when I see the entire picture I find it remarkable that this game came out in the form that it did. There were so many places that it could have faltered and faltered badly. The content alone is enough to raise the eyebrows of just about anyone (myself included), and a game could have easily been put out that was unbelievably crass and ignorant, and yet that seems to be the furthest from the case.
Katawa Shoujo certainly isn't for everyone -- I somewhat doubt I'll ever play it -- but I can honestly say that in spite of or perhaps even because of everything that it sends some very powerful messages that aren't even related to its content: that with the right motivations that one seed of an idea can become something more than most people would ever imagine, that people can band together and create something and then just give it away and consider their job done, and perhaps most importantly that anything is worth at least trying to do to see if it can be accomplished.
Honestly, my hat's off to Four Leaf Studios. That'll do guys, that'll do.