Ask Bobduh: Storytelling and Videogames, Part One

Management: I mentioned back in… uh, May or something that I was planning on compiling/archiving some of my more worthwhile answers into miniposts on Wrong Every Time. I’ve been distracted by a variety of things since then, but have finally gotten a few together that seem worth keeping, and so here’s the first of them. Enjoy!

Maybe you’ve already answered something like this, but what’s your favorite example of video game storytelling?

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On Katawa Shoujo as a Theoretical Anime


Which work from another medium would you like to see animated?


People ask this question pretty regularly, enough so that I eventually decided to do a little thought experiment for whenever it came up again. So here’s my unrealistic, fantasy-world proposal. I guess there’s light spoilers regarding dramatic structure? Anyway.

Design Proposal for a Katawa Shoujo Adaptation by Kyoto Animation


Katawa Shoujo, the recent English-language visual novel, has managed to develop a substantial and passionate fan base in the Western world. It’s distinctive in the thoughtful treatment of its concept, the acuity of its writing, and the diverse and relevant themes presented throughout. Though there are significant hurdles presented in successfully adapting this work, I believe an adaptation which captures the spirit of the visual novel would further bolster KyoAni’s reputation as a creator of emotionally resonant and deeply personal young adult stories.

Immediate thoughts:

The title would obviously have to be changed, as it’s by its nature offensive in the original Japanese. More critically, I believe an adaptation of this title would have to address the fundamental narrative failing of most visual novel adaptations – the consolidation of multiple storylines into a single linear narrative. In order to maintain romantic pacing and integrity of character writing, I propose a new solution – separate the central protagonist, Hisao, into five separate characters to reflect the five separate routes, and reorganize the five narratives so they interweave with each other while all progressing as separate love stories.

I believe there are generally two hurdles that prevent this approach. First, the tendency to characterize visual novel protagonists as blank slates, in order to aid audience surrogacy. I believe Katawa Shoujo lacks this problem – in fact, in my experience, the five routes each make use of a substantially different Hisao, with different desires, hangups, and personalities.

Secondly, it requires substantial rewriting and reorganizing of the visual novel content. This cannot be avoided – I believe it is the necessary price to pay if we wish to make a show that will stand the test of time.

One last thought – the broadening of the story into one larger narrative presents a few opportunities of perspective, with the largest being the potential to shift the Shizune narrative closer to Misha’s perspective. Considering her emotional arc is already the key conflict of the route, I believe holding closer to her perspective would improve the dramatic consistency of that line, along with offering the opportunity for a more meaningful exploration of gender identity. Something to consider.

Further planning:

As a strict adaptation is not advisable for this work, further thought must be put into the successful transfer of the original’s strength to the animated medium. A brief outline of those strengths might contain:

Organic Writing: Perhaps more than anything else, the core emotional resonance of Katawa Shoujo is derived from the utterly believable and naturalistic dialogue of the protagonists. Not all this writing can be conserved, nor should it – but the need for subtle and naturalistic pacing to match this dialogue’s emotional rhythm necessitates adapting this work as a two-season show. Consider the pace as slightly more propulsive than Hyouka, but applied to a work that’s attempting to fully execute five separate love stories.

Thematic Resonance and Acuity: The deft treatment of disabilities, as well as the way the source moves beyond that to actually be more concerned with themes of human connection, power structures in relationships, our various ways of dealing with our pasts, and emotional honesty, is another remarkable strength of the source. Here, we simply should adapt the best we can – these strengths underline the core conflicts of the narrative, and are virtually impossible to lose in translation.

Frank and Empathetic Depictions of Relationships in All Stages: Here we run into a more difficult question. Can the adult content be excised from the text without diminishing it? My response is a resounding no – not only are the game’s frank treatments of sexuality one of its greatest strengths, but the ways these events are woven into the narrative make them virtually unavoidable in the majority of the storylines. Only Shizune’s route contains adult content that seems to veer into titillation – all other such scenes further our understanding of the characters, provide crucial narrative turns, and exist as some of the most honest and touching moments of the narrative. They will be handled tastefully, and with much greater restraint than the game, but they will stay.

Regarding “depictions of relationships in all stages,” the game’s narrative actually provides some assistance here. Not all the stories operate on the same timeline – for instance, the narrative arc of Hanako’s route concludes in the interim between acts two and three of Lilly’s, and the scattered events of Shizune’s route could be rearranged virtually at will to better enable a steady rise and fall of the various dramas throughout. The various narrative experiments of the text (the even-handed positivity and maturity of Lilly’s route that is only rarely interrupted by narrative conflict, the continuous rise of narrative tension in Hanako’s route to one single emotional peak) will hopefully lend themselves well to the intermingling of narrative arcs this adaptation will require.

As a brief initial proposal, Emi and Hanako’s storylines might possibly hit more of their narrative beats in the first season, with Lilly’s and Shizune’s stretching from this period throughout the second season (though obviously not removing Emi and Hanako’s arcs – as I said, a positive portrayal of already-existing relationships is one of the great strengths of this work, and the anime adaptation offers further opportunity to explore a romantically healthy slice-of-life emotional space), with Rin’s progressing the slowest and her art exhibition and the aftermath perhaps offering a final gathering of the characters and last dramatic resolution.

Final Thoughts:

Obviously, successfully adapting such a sensitive text is always a risky proposition, and both the changes necessary and the changes that can’t be made further complicate this adaptation. However, I believe that in light of the source material, the final result could easily stand as an artistic pillar of both our studio and the medium itself. This challenge is a risk worth taking.