When I picked up School Days HQ, it was largely out of a combination of curiosity at why the game (or, more specifically, its 2005 original incarnation) was such a fondly-regarded game that J-List and JAST USA were pushing so hard, and a general enthusiasm for any kind of story set in a school. Seriously, I’m loco for anything set in a school. Persona, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even crappy teen “coming of age” movies. (Fortunate, then, that Andie enjoys such works also.)
Regardless of the reasons for my fascination with school in general, I was expecting to be done with School Days relatively quickly and to be moving on to other things.
I was wrong.
After a single playthrough, the game helpfully informed me that I had seen just 12% of what it had to offer. After a second playthrough, that was largely similar throughout but had a very different ending, I was at 17%. Third time around, I’m starting the third episode of six and I’m somewhere around the 20% mark.
What’s keeping me coming back and playing this rather simple game over and over and over again?
Story. Characters. Simple as that. Each playthrough has followed a different narrative path and has taught me something new about the characters and their relationships with one another.
In my first playthrough, I played it “straight”. I always do this with visual novels or titles such as Catherine that are clearly inspired by them — all choices I make are the ones that I — or possibly the person I would like to be — would make. In School Days, you have the added pressure of having to make decisions in a relatively short space of time, with refusing to act at all also being taken as a valid choice, so I had to go with first impulses. I ended up with an ending that was somewhat bittersweet.
School Days’ setup is that protagonist Makoto likes pretty but shy girl Kotonoha. Sekai, the confident girl he’s been forced to sit next to when his class changed seats, immediately latches on to Makoto and discovers that he likes Kotonoha thanks to the picture on his phone that he surreptitiously (and slightly creepily) snapped on the train. She agrees to help him get together with Kotonoha, and one of twenty different endings ensues.
In my first playthrough, as I say, I played it straight, or as if I was Makoto and genuinely in love with Kotonoha. I maxed out Kotonoha’s “affection bar” pretty quickly by saying the right things and being supportive of things like her phobia of being touched. Makoto dropped everything to do things with her. He let her be alone when she wanted to be alone, and was there when she needed him. This all went terribly well, culminating in her opening up to Makoto (in more ways than one, fnarr) and accepting him as her boyfriend. Eventually, the pair made plans to spend Christmas Eve together in an expensive hotel paid for by Kotonoha’s family, where they proceeded to, not to put too fine a point on it, bang each other senseless.
Unfortunately, all this happened without any consideration whatsoever for Sekai’s feelings. Early in the game, we get an indication that Sekai might, in fact, like Makoto when she steals a kiss from him as “payment” for her help with Kotonoha. She denies this, however, giving the couple space and dealing with her own issues by herself. This doesn’t stop rumours circulating that she and Makoto are together, however, which doesn’t make her feel any better. She enters a cycle of depression, ending up so wrapped up in her own sorrow that she is almost unable to function. Her friends intervene and rescue her, but whatever there once was between her and Makoto is gone forever. Makoto himself says to Kotonoha in this ending that he doesn’t care who he has to hurt, as long as he’s with Kotonoha. She seems quite happy with this situation.
My second playthrough followed an initially similar path. Despite my attempts to get Makoto and Sekai together instead, I still found myself on the “Kotonoha” plot branch — the story diverges quite wildly at the end of the second episode and proceeds down either the “Sekai” or “Kotonoha” route according to the choices made at the beginning, splitting into about a bajillion other branches along the way.
This time around, however, Makoto was clearly confused, and more than a little miserable. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to be with Kotonoha, and missed Sekai, who was deliberately distancing herself from the couple in order to let them be together. Makoto tried to confess his love to Sekai, but she told him to stop being such an idiot and focus on his girlfriend. And rightly so.
But things continued to decline. Makoto’s heart really wasn’t in the time he spent with Kotonoha, and things came to a head at the school festival. In my first playthrough, Kotonoha takes the bold step of inviting Makoto to the hidden “break room” behind her class’s display to, uh, get over her phobia of being touched; this time around, however, the same situation arose and Kotonoha said nothing, largely because Makoto made his excuses and pretty much ran away before they could talk about anything.
Instead, Makoto made a choice: he went and found Sekai, who was waiting by the bonfire at the end of the festival. The school’s traditions and legends dictate that a couple who dances together by the bonfire will stay together for at least the next year, and knowing this full well, Makoto and Sekai dance together, and they both seem genuinely happy for the first time. The two enter a curious “friends with benefits” relationship, where Sekai agrees to be Makoto’s “practice girlfriend” with whom he can do all the stuff that Kotonoha won’t let him do, but it is abundantly clear that both of them actually like each other.
To cut a long story short, Kotonoha shows her latent bunny-boiler tendencies, forcing herself on Makoto and snapping a compromising picture of him in order to try and convince Sekai to give up. Sekai is understandably devastated and refuses to talk to anyone, let alone Makoto, but when he spends the entire night sitting on her doorstep looking completely and utterly defeated and is found by her mother, her heart melts and the two share the genuine couple’s embrace that they’ve been craving, while Kotonoha is left to stew and Think Very Hard About What She’s Done.
In my third playthrough, which I haven’t finished yet, I made a specific effort to woo Sekai from the beginning. It’s tough to do this — firstly because Sekai is seemingly resistant to Makoto’s advances and secondly because it genuinely makes me feel like absolute shit to treat Kotonoha like crap — but if you keep pushing enough in the right direction, the plot takes a wildly divergent path in a different direction. Rather than focusing on Makoto and Kotonoha, Sekai takes centre stage. It seems that she’s been avoiding both Makoto and her own friends — the former because she doesn’t want to get in the way of the relationship she helped build, and the latter because they believe her to already be together with Makoto and keep asking questions. It was impressive how much of a change some slight tweaks to remarks and context made to the plot, and I’ll be interested to see how this particular path develops.
As that lengthy explanation probably demonstrated fairly aptly, this is a title with a considerable degree of depth — not in gameplay terms, but in a narrative sense. Both Kotonoha and Sekai (and Makoto, for that matter) are very complex characters with a variety of facets to their personality — only some of which you appear to see on any one given playthrough. Three times around and I’m still learning new and interesting things about these characters, which will hopefully help me to make the “right” choices in the end.
But that then begs the question: with 20 different endings, what is the “right” one? School Days certainly has its fair share of bad endings (though I haven’t seen any yet) but who’s to say these are “wrong”? Similarly, the first ending I got with Kotonoha was technically a “good” ending, I guess, but I was still left feeling distinctly shitty about how I’d treated Sekai in the process.
This is genuine emotional engagement right here. The Feels, if you will. And along with that comes a real sense of your choices having real consequences. This combination of factors, it turns out, is enough to keep me coming back time after time to see what happens next. I don’t need beautifully-rendered guns, I don’t need slick platforming, or creative mechanics; all I need for a game to keep me compelled is three strong characters and some increasingly fucked-up relationships between them.
Further posts on this subject will undoubtedly follow, especially if I come across any particularly noteworthy endings along the way.