Second Date – Ikezawa Hanako, a Trans* Narrative

(Trigger Warning for trans* transition experiences)

Katawa Shoujo doesn’t make anything easy. Every positive has a caveat, each charming thoughtful moment its headdesk. Last time, I talked about how Hanako’s path exemplified the sexual exotification of disability in the game, mostly through giving the player a main character without a superficially notable disability. Upon a first glance, there seemed to be little application for this analysis outside of criticizing pandering to men’s interests in visual novels, however, my personal connection to Hanako provided me with something else. I saw her do something that triggered a muscle memory from my past: She covers her face.

This is emblematic for the teenage stage of life where you think everyone is always watching you. Appearances matter, especially how you dress, your hair, your face. Imagine having that double fold and outside of high school; that was me. Growing into a transgender identity isn’t a quick and magical process many people imagine, rather, it’s a very long and awkward transition. A transition with the destination constantly changing. One of the most painful experiences is claiming an identity that others don’t see or believe. Without the aid of fashion tips and makeup, people in my day-to-day life wouldn’t see me as a woman, and I lived that for a long time. One of the things I did was cover my face. I liked scarves, straightened my hair and grew out long bangs, tried to make a posture where I hid my jaw line with my hand seem natural. I felt awkward, and looking at Hanako, I now know everyone else knew I was awkward, despite my efforts.

Then there was the social anxiety, some that stays with me today. Whenever someone approached me and looked at my face, all I could think of was how they were staring at my trans-ness. It made me feel ugly. I felt ugly when people stumbled to identify me, I felt ugly whenever a guy would forcibly call me “dude” and make sure there was a yard between us. Hanako was the Id I battled with, wanting someone like Lily who didn’t notice what was transgender about me, who was sensitive to when I need to leave social gatherings, that I needed extra steps to feel comfortable. Society does two things to people like Hanako: shames and sexualizes them. Hanako’s path is a story of someone who survives both, however, she can only overcome the shame inside the bounds of Katawa Shoujo. It’s the same with being transgender, as one can ignore, hide, or embrace what distinguishes them from a cisgender identity, but it others will allow it to rule their interactions. People will interact with trans* people in accordance to essentialized notions of sexual orientation and relegate trans* bodies to sexual fetishism. Which, in turn, exotifies being transgender in the manner Katawa Shoujo does to disability.

I both criticize and empathize with Hanako’s decision to share her disability in a sexualized setting and ‘giving into’ sex with Hisao to gauge his interest. In my experience, when being transgender is the elephant in the relationship, sex is typically the answer. To parallel Hisao and Hanako’s relationship, an inexperienced cisgender partner will seek to answer questions about the transgender person’s body and their sexual chemistry with an identity they haven’t slept with before. Sex can often happen quickly, and will usually determine whether the cisgender partner will continue the relationship. Hanako needed to know what Hisao was there for, and sex was more about Hisao figuring out his feelings rather than their mutual satisfaction. The unfortunate truth is Hanako and transgender people know they are often viewed only through what makes them exotic, and once it becomes familiar, interest fades. What is lamentable is how oblivious Hisao is to this, and how players can excise their empathy for his situation without being aware of their contribution to the systemic oppression of those exotified.

The developers probably didn’t plan Hanako to be an exploration of the exotic or trans* issues. I also don’t claim to represent every single person with a trans* identity. It also isn’t a suggestion that players or anyone participating in visual novel culture are rapists or otherwise condemnable people. Katawa Shoujo, however, normalizes the exotic and makes it palatable to more hegemonic identities; it’s easier to explore feelings surrounding dating someone with a disability or transgender identity when they are a video game character bent to satisfy the player. It only serves hegemonic gamer identity, but future iterations of games aiming to explore the diverse range of relationships possible would benefit from looking at the ground Katawa Shoujo covered.

Ikezawa Hanako, the Otaku Exotic

You’re a male student who has the pick of five high school girls with disabilities to date and sleep with. Yes, Katawa Shoujo has a sensationalist premise promising for something to go horribly wrong. The main character, Nakai Hisao, transfers to a private school that accommodates students with disabilities and health issues that require the need of an around the clock medical staff. As he wrestles with his disability and how that involves his identity, attractive girls with their own problems whom he can romance complicate things further. One of the story paths Hisao can take is to involve himself with Ikezawa Hanako, a burn victim with scars covering half her body, and crippling social anxiety as a result. There is a case for Hanako being the standard romance, or the one made in mind of the audience that would play this game, despite having the most unconventional look of all the romances.

With its sexual connotation, the scars exotify Hanako. Without them, she would be a very typical Japanese schoolgirl who is extremely shy, tries to cook, hides in the library… Would anything be interesting about Hanako if it wasn’t for her accident? The mental side of her disability is actually emphasized traits of what we think of woman nerds: dislikes social interaction except with those who earn her affection, hypersensitive to her preferences of where they can go, and enjoying anything that makes them a relative shut-in. All wrapped in traditional Japanese beauty and given scarring to make her unique. Many of the other girls have personality quirks that involve their disability but don’t rely on it to make them unique. Hanako, on the other hand, enables the typical men’s fantasy traits; by rousing Hisao’s white knight tendencies and being an extreme stereotype of a geek or nerd, she is the most palatable choice for the typical consumer visual novels and dating sims. Having this social anxiety forces the player to invest their own protective tendencies, but in a way that won’t backlash at them. In a way, the player won’t feel their own social ineptitude or inability to read people to be a hindrance because Hanako is such an extreme case.

The conclusion of her storyline is pretty telling; you can only get the perfect run through if you respect her independence and allow her to start doing things on her own without Hisao hovering over her. Because this is a fantasy, her new stake in autonomy happens right at the end of the game, so the player doesn’t have to experience a complicated relationship. Instead, Hanako provided the chase and the emotions of caretaking and resolved her character arc without disrupting these feelings. So when players look back at their time with Hanako, they will remember holding a glass figurine rather than the first step to being a woman she makes at the end of the game. It is a strange convention of these high school dating sims to end the game when the relationship officially starts, which is typically after a sex scene. Because players will remember the dutiful, quiet Hanako that provided sex because she wanted to be close, and not the potentially threatening social and secure Hanako that happens after the story’s end.

Werner Herzog, the Power Fantasy

A current struggle in the gaming community is a call for more common and better-realized depictions of minority characters, from women to people of color to the LGBT. We still wrestle with questions on what would be different about games if minorities populated more casts and, eventually, what a game with only minorities would look like. Absolute Obedience attempts at this, giving the player two gay men as a main characters, both secret agents who do strange espionage-esque work in what seems to be post-World War II Germany. They are each given a unique set of assignments to complete (that the player is graded on) that typically include seducing the target, all who are men. It’s a meld between typical dating sims and visual novels, where you have a roster of romantic interests to pursue, but there are few choices and the main appeal lies in the narration. If you choose agent Louise Hardwich, you can pick up a mission that has you seducing the heir to a mafia family, Werner Herzog, renown as arrogant, hyper-masculine playboy. Louise’s client is a famous female prostitute Werner frequents, who frames this mission as a prank to undo the hyperbolic manly image Werner shows off.

It’s easy to write this off as a stereotype; gay men are over-sexed deviants who pine for straight guys to give them at once chance to switch teams. However, we need to look at the intended audience Absolute Obedience. While this game is categorized as a Boy Love (BL) or yaoi game, these are ultimately under the otome genre, which are games aimed specifically at heterosexual women. Looking to the history of fanfiction, which is arguably the progenitor of visual novels, yaoi and slash were centered around a community of straight women, not gay men. Louise’s pursuit to “turn” Werner is a sublimation of straight women’s desire for men that cannot happen between heterosexual couples. We can see themes of power, equity, ambiguity, and identity, all issues related to gender politics women have gone through, and which some argue straight men haven’t yet. Absolute Obedience misses the mark on depicting admirable gay male protagonists by serving an audience rarely pandered to in games. The player can see this in Werner’s gendered behavior in the game; while he is extremely affectionate and giving to all the prostitutes he sleeps with (while also advocating against human trafficking), he only sees men as intelligent and capable business partners and worth respecting. Even though he’s straight when Louise meets him, the woman player needs to take the role of a man to explore his character.

Louise approaches his objective to bed Werner by playing his ego against him, a familiar trope from advice columns for women that adopts a calculating mentality to tear a man down from his self-ordained pedestal. The choices you need to get an ‘A’ rating tell you clearly that you must never submit to Werner, never allow him to understand what’s on Louise’s mind and never give him the chance to be dominant. Werner eventually slips, referring to Louise as beautiful and talking to him as if to a woman, while mentally respecting the personality attributes he associates with men. When Louise eventually gets Werner to a bedroom, the scene takes on ambiguous rape qualities that are commonly found in pornography, where one participant starts out unwilling and eventually begins to enjoy what’s going on. Unaware that he would be bottoming (being penetrated) for Louise, Werner begins to struggle (oh, did I forget to mention that Louise carries around a whip with him at all times?) against what he perceived as humiliation, as his masculine persona avoided being treated like a woman at all costs. Even though this is a sexually explicit scene, it’s the action of feminizing a heterosexual man that’s erotic. As women’s gender is allowed more flexibility in expression of masculine traits, society still doesn’t allow men that same ambiguity and other men are typically the ones to bully each other into acting “like a man.” This scene is a forbidden fruit of sorts, revealing the aspect straight men try their hardest to avoid expressing and setting it up as sexually satisfying for straight women.

Making the correct choices, Louise’s cold and manipulative exterior eventually gives way to Werner, and starts to fall in love. There are many times Werner will try to flip the roles back to what they are “supposed” to be, but this results in a low score for the mission. It’s not until he accepts his new, ambiguous identity and performs with skill bottoming during sex that Louise realizes he’s grown affectionate for him. The true ending depicts a scene where Werner leaves behind a group of women escorting him to an upper-class party to join Louise instead, the first instance Werner shows affection for another man in public. This follows the erotic arc of queering a heterosexual man’s sexual identity, by an open announcement of his taboo lover. Werner serves as an example as a latent sexual tension surrounding straight men in relation to their sexuality to other identities, as well as revealing the politics of depicting male homosexuality for a audience of women.

Tsukuba Muneshige, the Meta-Samurai

Dating sims defy a lot of logic. Describing them to someone who’s never heard of them would paint them as a game aimed for girls; relationship focused, sappy, a social simulator. But as every other genre and the medium of video games itself, the main demographic consists of men while women are associated with a sub-genre. Yo-Jin-Bo is an otome game, a genre visual novels and dating sims made for women to play, or at least have a female playable character. From what I can tell, these are what the gaming industry thinks women want in a dating sim as they continue to apply conventions based on a male demographic. Tuskuba Muneshige fits that bill, blending tropes of “the nice guy” and “the stalwart protector” in a typical shoujo anime motif. Your character, Sayori, is a typical high school girl who finds a magical artifact that transports her to a feudal Japan-like world, caught in a life-threatening situation and ends up guarded by an Unwanted Harem of attractive men. All of these men vie for her affection and vow with their lives to protect her; every girl’s dream, right?

Except this isn’t just an attempt to create a game, or genre, for women’s wish fulfillment, but also men’s. I chose Muneshige mostly because I felt sorry for him. He was the guy in the movies passed over because he wasn’t as exciting, or enough of a jerk. Always waiting for the main woman to come to her senses and realize she’s been in love with him the entire time. I wanted to reward that, and maybe even appreciate a little of that myself. In most dating sims, you learn to like your chosen object of affection because you spend your time and actions pleasing them, or trying to figure out how to get them to like you more. The choices of how to manage your day, what to buy, what to say, create an emotional investment that the player expects a return on. However, Yo-Jin-Bo doesn’t have this mechanic; rather, the choices and variants seem to rest mostly on whom to end up with, not how. This creates a one-sided dynamic where the player doesn’t learn to like their romance options, but the characters develop and pursue their relationship with Sayori. Muneshige’s persistence on protecting the player and controlling his sexual drive (making note of it instead of keeping it to himself) reflects the “white knight” mentality that “should” be valued in reality. Instead of learning that he has this type of personality and whether you like him, the question becomes can you reject him, knowing you shouldn’t. Sayori’s thoughts turn to what some do and don’t deserve rather than figuring out her own feelings, making the game a strange reverse otome. Since the player character doesn’t really change throughout the story, the focus is on the men’s intentions, leaving room for men players to identify more with the game than women.

Yo-Jin-Bo also accommodates men by breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect. It’s constantly reminding you that this is a game, and not to take it too seriously. All of the romance options are well aware they are in a dating sim and struggle to be with the player in the end. Each character has their own way of doing so, and Muneshige’s is telling terrible puns on subject matter that exists in contemporary reality and doesn’t exist in his world. This is what contrasts this character with the others; he’s absorbed in pleasing Sayori despite how bad he is at it while the other men call on erotic tropes from anime fandom to interact with the player. The game also enjoys putting the male characters into yaoi-tropey situations, and Muneshige is one of the few that plays up this sort of fan-service for women. His scene is purely comical and innocent in its result; it portrays him as sensitive, open-minded, and willing to please while evoking the awkwardness in trying to appear attractive to your love interest. This changes in group settings, where the respectful boy-next-door joins in on gawking and begging for varying degrees of sexual interaction. Whenever the game starts to get romantic, the tone breaks and releases the tension where heterosexual men might feel uncomfortable playing.

This game isn’t obviously marketed to men or as something of universal experience, but the predominate presence of men in visual novel and dating sim culture only allows an otome game to go so far. Yo-Jin-Bo is a hyperbole of a very small genre; there are many games where the same tropes are subtle and easy to miss if you’re not analyzing it. Maybe this game hints at changing the structure in an attempt to figure out what women want in a dating sim? On the other hand, perhaps it’s a serendipitous product that shifts the agency and game away from the player in favor of the suitors? Either way, this prompts an exploration as to how dating in games would differ for women, or if the current method is appropriate for all genders.

Arianna Bell-Essai, the Teacher’s Vixen

Ah, dating a minor. Your student even! The beauty and tragedy of visual novels is the chance to engage in relationships you wouldn’t have considered, or don’t have access to. Dangerous territory doesn’t begin to describe the experience available to us that maybe we shouldn’t, like Arianna. When you first meet her, she seems so… unremarkable. Not the prettiest, or smartest, but nice enough. Drop her in a setting where you’re her teacher who can watch all of her private interactions, and she becomes anxiety incarnate. You see, Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story takes place in the near future, where students interact on Amie, a Facebook-like social service, where the main character, Mr. John Rook, can view the private messages between his students. Mr. Rook watches Arianna gush over him in private, spinning dreams about a romance everyone knows is a bad idea.

The rational thing to do would be to turn her down, and it’s pretty easy. It’s almost as if the game expects you to reject her advances. I felt kinda bad, but she fades into the scenery and is that secret you wish you never knew. However, it’s when you choose to date Arianna that you learn something about her, and yourself. Let’s not lie to ourselves, we’re gamers; if a choice exists, we’re going to play it. And that’s what a good game would encourage. I wanted to know, well, what would happen if I did date her. Will I be reprimanded? Is this just for naughty pictures at the end? Am I a horrible human being?

For now, yes, and I should feel terrible. I squirmed giving into the morbid curiosity of what it’s like to date a teenaged student of mine. If I didn’t feel like a complete creep, the game’s message would be lost on me. Mr. Rook is similar to Vincent from Catherine, but handled a lot more deftly. Both are immature and emphasize traits appropriated by their gender role in society. However, you learn Rook is a flawed character by actively looking through his students’ personal lives and not concentrating on his job. I couldn’t relate to Rook when he felt aroused by Arianna, and I was glad the game wasn’t forcing me to do so.

You know whom I do relate to? Arianna.

I was Arianna once. So “my” relationship with her had a particular insight. It was strange to be on the other end of the situation, to read the thoughts of the teacher instead of the student. The trope paints characters like Arianna as the predator, the seductress that grips at a man’s weakness so that he can’t control himself. Mr. Rook shows us that convention teaches us that the young, nubile vixen is the one in control, and men are hapless victims to the forbidden fruit of their sex drives. No – that’s not the whole story. I was young and unprofessional, and like Arianna, naïve enough to think I could accomplish anything I tried hard at, clandestine relationships with my superiors included. Relationships like these are romanticized, right? I thought I had to search out the older, more mature types, that I was beyond the boys my age. I thought of my teachers the same way I thought about Trowa Barton and Seifer; I was lonely and wanted to chase a fantasy. So did Arianna. She felt inexperienced, alone, and left out with most of her classmates dating each other.

This doesn’t amount to Arianna being a manipulative sex kitten, but a young, immature girl. And it takes an immature adult to date someone where there’s a conflict of interest. These teacher-student relationships show there is still a fascination with “deflowering” a girl, both in reality and in games. The game’s title says it all; it isn’t the player’s story, or Rook’s story, but students’. Both Rook and I treated them like objects to interact with, to game. He did whatever made his life the most interesting, and I assumed invading their privacy would clue me in on their intentions. Arianna fooled us both at the end when she used Amie as a part of her fantasy.

Don’t take it personally, babe… doesn’t exotify Rook’s romance with Arianna, but it does make it incredibly uncomfortable and dissonant so the player feels like something wrong is happening. While you feel better ignoring her, the story receives an added layer of depth if you explore Arianna’s character. You’ll feel like crap doing it, but few games give you morally ambiguous situations to navigate and duly punish your character for their questionable actions.

Derek Nevine, The Anti-Gamer

Derek Nevine is the star. Best player on the basketball team, hottest guy on campus, and even has the coolest theme music! We all know someone like Derek, that guy who effortlessly has the world revolve around him and gets what he wants. Even though he was just event triggers and art on my screen, I still felt a little intimidated by him. I was skeptical when he resorted to flattery so quickly and asked me out. Or asked the protagonist, Merui; it’s difficult to guess whose emotions are really involved in the romantic parts of visual novels. However, there is one thing that is clear from the design of the game:

You’re supposed to hate him.

He’s supposed to awaken those awkward feelings of inferiority and ineptitude gamers feel from those socially successful in high school, or any environment we’re forced to be social in. Merui’s other potential lovers sneer at him and his reputation, warning you of his false appearances and playboy attitude. Gaining his affection reinforces the stereotype of hyperbolized femininity: you must buy Merui the sexy outfits at the store, ignore her studies in favor of watching TV and going to the mall, and make Merui play hard to get to retain his interest. The real sting comes at the end when you find out he’s Alistair, a jerk who trolls Merui in the MMO all the characters play. He’s the title character, and the only reason there’s a story to play. He gets to be a gamer AND the popular guy at school? Something doesn’t feel right!

While it’s unsettling to see someone like him is a gamer too, it makes sense that he’s representative of the kind of people we don’t like online. I wasn’t surprised when the bonus scene revealed he was the least liked datable character in fan polls. If the player didn’t get Merui’s stats just right and played a perfect game to get Derek’s special ending, he reveals his trick and dumps them. This is unlike the other characters who have been looking out for Merui, trying to protect her the entire game and will date her indefinitely. She is punished for pursing the popular guy and ignoring the advances of her fellow nerds.

Confession time: Derek was my favorite.

Yes, yes, he’s a total ass and I should have known better, but that’s what I like about his character. He felt the most human because he was the most complicated. Unlike the other characters, he doesn’t force Merui to drudge through his baggage or suffer through insults until he sees the light and falls in love. What the player might not catch when romancing Derek is how he actually listens to Merui: when Merui wants to pay for her own ice cream, she damn well does. She tells him to stop acting like the white knight, because she can walk on her own feet, thanks. There is an equity that is missing in the other relationships. My experience with Derek made me feel that is was okay to indulge in stereotypically feminine activities, that splurging my lunch money on a hot dress doesn’t make me a bad person, and it doesn’t make him a bad person either.

While I found the process of attaining his affections extremely problematic, they also existed in lesser degrees for the other boys. All the guys preferred you to wear certain clothes, Derek just happened to like the typical expensive and sexy ones. On a game design level, all of your love interests are rather similar, and this informs our interpretation of Merui’s romantic situation. After making the right choices, you find out that Derek uses games as an escape as well. His problems seem trite to the underdog characters, but so real to him that he needs games to vent. Just like everyone else. Merui’s predicament with attracting these guys reflects women gamers’ tightrope act of managing their presence in the gaming community. Women who appear to spend too much time on their appearance and stereotypically feminine activities are shamed unless they are doing it in a geek-appropriate manner. Dress as nice as you are smart. Act as a defenseless damsel as much as you shoot zombies.

What interests me the most is how easy it is to miss this. It’s doesn’t feel good at all to win Derek’s affection, especially when you know he’s Alistair. The gamer in me to see all the possible endings defied what felt right by going through Derek’s romance, but his “perfect” ending really tied things into perspective. Besides the gag-worthy amount of sap inherent to visual novels, these simulated relationships teach us something about ourselves. Dating sim games for men far outnumber the ones for women, offering rare glimpses of our side of the affair. Even rarer is the honesty from an experience of a woman gamer, and Re: Alistair++ provides a starting point for that conversation.

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