You may recall back when I was rather obsessed with visual novel Katawa Shoujo that I put together a lengthy series of posts dissecting each of the characters and each narrative path it was possible to follow in the game. School Days HQ is inspiring me to do that again, and I know that there’s at least one person reading this who is finding my descriptions of this game interesting (Hi, Calin!) so… well, here we go.
I make no apologies for the length of this post.
Spoileriffic thoughts follow. If you’re going to play School Days HQ and don’t want it spoiled, stop reading. Yeah, you.
The first thing I’ll say is that I have not seen all of this game’s endings yet. Given that there are twenty of them (I think), doing so will take a while. I have, however, seen five of them, and I feel this is starting to give me a good understanding of the characters involved.
School Days is structured in an interesting manner. As opposed to Katawa Shoujo’s heavily branching first act and then five completely discrete “paths” through the game, School Days’ narrative branches all over the bloody place. There are two distinct “paths” that the story splits into at the end of the second of the game’s six “episodes”, each seeing protagonist Makoto apparently pursuing one of the two leading ladies, but whether or not he will end up with his “chosen” girl is by no means a foregone conclusion. The various paths which the story can follow give additional context to various scenes, and help provide the player with additional understanding of a variety of characters — both the three leads and the more incidental characters. Let’s look at them one at a time.
Protagonist Makoto is, unlike a lot of visual novel/eroge protagonists, his own person rather than a “blank slate” onto which the player can project themselves. We join him as he finds himself attracted to the mysterious girl he sees on the train every day. This is Kotonoha. Shortly afterwards, his homeroom teacher rearranges the class’ seats, and Makoto ends up sitting next to Sekai, whom he has not had much occasion to speak to before.
Makoto initially isn’t sure how to respond to Sekai — she appears to be strong, pushy, loud and talkative. When she catches him apparently attempting to do a “charm” with his mobile phone — schoolyard rumour has it that if you take a photo of the person you like and keep it a secret for three weeks, they’ll fall in love with you — things get interesting.
The very fact that Makoto is attempting this charm in the first place shows us that he’s obviously quite a lonely person. He seems quite solitary at the best of times, and lacks the confidence to approach Kotonoha on the train. It takes Sekai’s assistance for him to be able to talk to Kotonoha, and even then he struggles. Conversely, he appears to have absolutely no trouble talking to Sekai, though that might just be because she doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
But why is Makoto lonely? We see that he has friends — he often hangs out with his best buddy Taisuke in class, for example, and he still has occasional contact with Katou, a girl whom he went to his previous school with. But he’s distant, cold and aloof at times. At least some of this can probably be attributed to his home life. His parents are divorced; he lives with his mother and his little sister lives with his absent father. We don’t see Makoto’s sister often (or possibly at all — I can’t speak for paths I haven’t followed yet) but it’s clear that he misses her; on a number of routes, he seems genuinely pleased that he’s going to get to spend the weekend with her when we hear that she is coming to visit.
When Makoto does eventually get into a relationship, we find out a few more things about him. We discover that he’s quite awkward in embarrassing situations, particularly when coupled with the equally-awkward Kotonoha, but like any red-blooded male, he has “needs” — specifically, a need for physical intimacy, even if it’s just holding someone’s hand. His sensitive side comes out even here, though — in one conversation with Sekai he worries about coming across as “perverted” when all he did was take Kotonoha’s hand. Granted, she did slap him around the face when he did so, however, so what is the poor chap to think?
We also learn that he’s easily swayed, particularly by women. He is weak-willed and unable to stand up for himself when another woman confesses their attraction to him, and he finds saying “no” difficult to do. Given the other facets of his character we know about, however, it’s probably fair to say that this isn’t because he’s a horny pervert — on the contrary, he’s a very considerate lover, given the evidence we see — but rather because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. This is a character trait he clings onto in most paths, though in the one where he focuses on Kotonoha to the complete exclusion of everyone else around him, he says explicitly to her that he no longer cares who he hurts, so long as he gets to be with Kotonoha always.
Despite the fact he is so easily swayed, he does have the capacity to devote himself to something (or, indeed, someone) and tune out all other distractions. While it takes quite some time in most of the paths for him to figure out whether it’s Kotonoha, Sekai or someone else he wants, once he does figure this out, he sticks to his guns. Unfortunately, whoever ends up spurned doesn’t always cooperate.
Which brings us neatly on to Kotonoha.
Kotonoha initially appears to be a “Hanako” — a shy girl who is almost painfully awkward in social situations, particularly those involving members of the opposite sex. She speaks in a quiet voice and clearly thinks about the things that she is going to say before she says them, presumably in an attempt to ensure that they are the “right” things and that she doesn’t make a fool out of herself.
We discover in several paths what one of the root causes of Kotonoha’s shyness is: bullying, both in the past and the present. We learn that Sekai’s tomboyish friend Nanami went to the same school as Kotonoha in the past, and Kotonoha regards her as a bully. We also learn that the other girls in her class bully her and take advantage of her whenever possible. This becomes particularly apparent at the school festival, when they leave her to man their class’ reception desk all day while they go off hunting for boys to take back to the secret “break rooms” to have their way with them.
Kotonoha’s difficulties stem largely from her appearance. She’s cute and she has noticeably larger breasts than many of the other girls, and she tells Sekai that it has been this way since the end of primary school. She resents this fact, however, because it makes the boys look at her “in an indecent manner” and the girls assume that she is wrapping all said boys around her little finger. The truth of the matter is quite the opposite, however, as Kotonoha has never dated anyone prior to meeting Makoto, which explains her awkwardness around him.
Kotonoha is heavily hung up on the conventions of polite Japanese society. It takes her two days of effort to summon up the courage to ask Makoto if she can call him by his first name, even after they’ve already been on a date and have spent several days eating lunch together. She is terrified of being touched, worrying about being seen doing anything improper, and resists all of Makoto’s advances when they are first together.
This particular facet of Kotonoha’s personality can be attributed to her father, whom we don’t see but we do hear about. He’s very strict and doesn’t approve of her consorting with boys, and also imposes a curfew on her to ensure she doesn’t step too far out of line. Interestingly, her mother, whom we do see much more often, is the polar opposite of this, encouraging her to take more bold steps with Makoto, even going so far as to teach her the family’s “secret lemonade recipe”.
Kotonoha, like Makoto, isn’t quite sure what to do once she’s in a relationship. However, one thing is abundantly clear in every path: once she considers herself to be in a relationship, she considers that to be for keeps. She is not good at admitting when something isn’t working, and continues clinging to false hope long after the object of her affections has clearly sought solace elsewhere.
If Makoto decides that Sekai is the one he really likes, then Kotonoha will continue to doggedly pursue him, eventually assuming that the reason he doesn’t want her is because of her reticence and fear of being touched. She grows more and more bold and discovers that she can take advantage of Makoto’s easily-swayed personality, particularly if sex is involved. She appears to develop something of a taste for sex after she seduces Makoto for the first time, going so far as to do some rather indecent things to him on the way home, and in one last-ditch attempt to break him and Sekai up (if, indeed, that is the path down which the story is going) seduces him once more and surreptitiously snaps a photograph of him in a very compromising position.
Kotonoha’s stubborn, dogged determination stems from the fact that she has nothing to lose. We learn early on that she has no friends, preferring to absorb herself in a book than try and make peace with the girls who bully her in her own class. She welcomes Sekai into her life, however, believing that she is helping her altruistically. When it becomes clear that Sekai also has feelings for Makoto, however, Kotonoha becomes very jealous and clearly worries that she is going to end up alone again, so figures that she might as well throw everything she’s got into trying to rekindle whatever spark there once was. On the flip side, if Makoto devotes himself to her, she doesn’t appear to care one little bit about Sekai’s feelings, because she knows that she’ll always have Makoto and doesn’t have to worry any more.
Kotonoha is a prime example of a character who is not at all what she seems at first glance. The shy, demure-looking cute girl actually turns out to be something of a master manipulator if provoked — given that she has nothing to lose, who knows what she’s capable of if things really don’t go her way?
Sekai is the exact opposite of Kotonoha in almost every way. While Kotonoha is always immaculately-groomed and generally in her shy, quiet and demure persona, Sekai has shaggy, scruffy hair and is loud, brash, and confident, usually saying exactly what she thinks. She has a close group of friends whom she confides in regularly, and she latches on to Makoto as soon as the pair are made to sit next to one another.
It transpires, of course, that Sekai has actually had her eye on Makoto since the school’s opening ceremony, when Our Hero helped out her childhood friend Setsuna. (Setsuna also fell for him around this time, though this only becomes apparent or an issue in one path that I’ve seen so far.) She is secretly delighted at the chance to spend more time with him, even if it is just to get him together with someone else.
It quickly becomes apparent that Sekai’s interest in Makoto is a borderline obsession, as she refuses to give up on him even if it’s clear he’s favouring Kotonoha. She allows herself to be strung along in a “friends with benefits” relationship that arises from Makoto’s frustration and Kotonoha’s unwillingness to be touched. She is frustrated by this arrangement, but sees it as better than nothing. “It’s a lie,” she says every time Makoto tells him he loves her, “but it makes me so happy.” On the rare occasions where she does get frustrated and voices these concerns to Makoto, he immediately apologises and decides that they should stop doing what they’re doing, but every time she retracts what she says out of fear of losing him.
On the occasions when she does lose him, she shows that she does not cope well with rejection. She sinks into a deep depression, often becoming so upset that she’s completely unable to function. Often her friends are able to help her out of this, but if Makoto proceeds down the path where he devotes himself entirely to Kotonoha, she becomes completely inconsolable. She loses all sense of self-respect and self-worth, submitting to Makoto’s friend Taisuke as a “second best” option, culminating in a horrifying scene where Makoto and Kotonoha walk in on the aftermath of her clearly having been raped, despite the fact that both parties involves deny this. (This is the same path where Makoto comments that he doesn’t care who he hurts any more, so his reaction to seeing one of his best friends having clearly been abused by another of his best friends is simply to be irrationally turned on by the fact he saw her in a dishevelled, half-naked state, going so far as to whack one off over the memory when he gets home. What a cock.)
Alongside the fact she is prone to depression, she also has something of a defeatist streak. In one path, her mother gets a new job in Paris and it becomes apparent that Sekai is going to have to leave with her. She does everything possible to try and avoid this but eventually concludes that it is hopeless and gives up entirely. It takes Setsuna stepping forward and mock-seducing Makoto (and secretly hoping that it can go further) for her to realise that she is willing to fight for him, and is unwilling to give up on her own happiness just because of something that may or may not be out of her own control.
Sekai does not appear to have a mean bone in her body. Even when Kotonoha is doing her best to secure Makoto as her own, Sekai never stoops to insults or manipulation, instead preferring to “win” on her own merits. The worst she gets is yelling “Coward! Idiot! Die!” down the phone at Makoto towards the start of the game when he’s getting cold feet about asking out Kotonoha — a sequence which caused me to mistakenly describe her as “dangerously unstable” when I first started playing.
And while she describes herself as “quite a perverted girl” (despite being a virgin when Makoto first meets her) she never uses sex to get what she wants, unlike Kotonoha — although it could perhaps be argued that the times when she willingly goes along with Makoto’s “friends with benefits” relationship is a form of manipulation to try and keep him around for as long as possible. She has no real power, however; she even jokes at one point that getting Makoto to say that he loves her more than Kotonoha is “more than I can get you to say, even with your dick in my hand”.
Sekai’s clearly a better fit for Makoto. The two of them both seem considerably happier when they’re together, but shaking off Kotonoha proves to be rather difficult on most of the paths through the game. When they do get it together, though, there’s much less of a feeling of “bittersweetness” than in some of Kotonoha’s endings.
All three characters are fascinating to study, and not one of them falls into the trope trap. All of them have a surprising degree of hidden depth, and their interactions with one another is what makes School Days such a fascinating game to play. I’m looking forward to discovering even more about them as I creep ever-closer to 100% completion — it might be a while yet, though, since after seeing five endings I’m still just at 31%.