It all started with a sketch on 4chan.

On January 4, 2007, an anonymous poster uploaded an image by doujin artist RAITA. The illustrator credited it to a non-existent dating sim (a popular genre in Japan) called “Katawa Shoujo” or “Disability Girls.” 4chan being 4chan, people began talking. What if this were a real game? What would it be like? Serious? Light-hearted? Some sort of perverse sexual simulation? It wasn’t long before a number of posters took to the idea and got to work. Now, just about 5 years later, the game has been released and completed.

The most shocking thing about it? Its actually really, really good.

Katawa Shoujo follows the exploits of Hisao Nakai, a teenage boy whose life takes a tragic and unexpected turn after suffering a near-fatal heart attack. After the danger (and some major surgery) is over he learns that he has arrhythmia, and his life will never be the same again. Wanting to continue his education but also make sure he gets the special care he needs, Hisao’s parents enroll him in Yamaku High, a school built specifically to cater to all manner of disabled children. It’s there that he begins a new life, meets new people, makes new friends and perhaps even finds love.

I know the first thing most people will think when they take a look at this game, mostly because I thought the same thing myself: it’s bound to be some kind of cruel and tasteless joke, full of mockery and bizarre sexual fetishes. I don’t blame anyone for expecting this because it did originate from 4chan, but it’s a wholly incorrect assumption. I mean completely wrong. As unexpected and downright unbelievable as it might sound, the subject matter in Katawa Shoujo is handled with a kind of grace and blunt truth that’s not only tasteful, but admirable. Hisao reacts in exactly the same way just about anyone would: shock, then guilt, awkwardness and finally familiarity. And just as he begins to stop thinking of these young women in terms of their disabilities, players will, too.

That’s not to say that it’s an easy-going love fest, however. Katawa Shoujo is very much a mature game, and I don’t just mean that because of the sexual content. Many of these girls have gone through some major shit in their lives. The kind of things that can severely twist a person’s behavior and psyche. I won’t get into specifics for fear of spoilers, but even attaining the “happy” ending can be an emotionally draining experience. After one particular ending (which I’ve discovered is indeed the best of the bunch for this girl), I seriously needed a hug.

Of course, none of the childhood traumas or social disorders would have much of an impact if the writing weren’t exceptional. Granted, I’m somewhat of a sap when it comes to this kind of stuff, but I’m honestly in awe of just how much attention and care has been given to the script and each of the main characters. Heck, even the supporting characters are awesome. Except Kenji. I hate that guy.

Having never played a dating sim outside of the social link aspects found in the latest two Persona games, I don’t have much of a comparison to draw from. I don’t know if the clever incorporation of a Skip Mode in order to fast-forward to those choices on repeated playthroughs is a new thing. I’m also not sure if anyone’s bothered to make the fast-forwarding automatically slow down when it gets to new scenarios that the player hasn’t seen yet. I’d expect that the ability to take a screen shot at any point isn’t unheard of, but it’s still handy to have.

Referring to Katawa Shoujo as a game is a tad misleading. It’s not really a game so much as a choose-your-own adventure graphic novel with only a dozen or so actual choices. Interaction is limited to tapping the space bar to progress the text and clicking between a few key choices at key moments. It may sound dull, and I imagine it will be to those who don’t enjoy reading in the slightest. However, it has a lot going for it that more than makes up for the lack of any real “gameness.” And it’s something that can be thoroughly captivating if someone is willing to get swept up in the stories of Hisao and his friends.

Katawa Shoujo is available for free from Four Leaf Studios’ website. Platform Reviewed: Mac – New to CFD!’s reviews? Check out our explanation here.