I’ve mentioned Kana Little Sister in a number of previous columns, but I think it’s about time we talked about it directly. There are a number of reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that if ever there were an entry in the medium that could legitimately be considered a “classic,” Kana would certainly fit the criteria. It’s an entirely subjective definition, of course, but Kana is a title that a lot of people have at least heard of, though perhaps for the wrong reasons.
The English language version of Kana Little Sister, published by G-Collections (NSFW site), is marketed as a “multi-scenario love sim” or “bishoujo (pretty girl) game”. While romantic and sexual elements do play an important role in the story, it’s more accurate to describe Kana as an example of the “utsuge” genre. The Japanese word “utsuge” means “lift depression” if translated literally, but in this case, it’s more appropriate to regard it as a portmanteau — “utsu” means “depression” while the suffix “-ge” denotes a game around those themes (hence “galge”/”gal game” and “eroge”/”erotic game”). Consequently, Kana Little Sister can be understood as a “depression game” or, to put it another way, a game specifically designed to elicit powerful feelings of sadness in its audience. A tearjerker, if you will — nothing unusual in the world of movies, TV shows and books, but a relatively underexplored concept in gaming at large, where players are often (though not always) cast in the role of world-saving heroes who can fix any problem by the end of the story.
Let’s back up a moment and consider Kana Little Sister’s core themes for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with it. Here’s the gist: Kana is, as you’ve probably guessed, the little sister of the game’s protagonist, who is named Taka. She is a couple of years his junior, but the pair have always enjoyed a very close relationship since a dangerous incident in their youth brought them closer together. Kana has suffered from chronic renal insufficiency for her whole life, meaning that she’s constantly in and out of the hospital, struggling to make friends and live a “normal” life. The story jumps back and forward in time as Taka remembers various incidents that helped make him the person he is today — and that helped shape his attitude towards his sister, the other people in his life and the idea of death in general.
There are two principle themes at play in the story — attitudes to mortality and living life to the fullest; and forbidden love. Both are personified nicely in the character of Kana herself, who grows and changes both physically and psychologically over the course of the story according to the choices the player makes to direct Taka. Certain events happen in the narrative regardless of choices made, but the context of these events and the characters’ understanding of them vary. Interestingly, the “gameplay” mechanics of Kana Little Sister vary a little from the usual “flag-based” approach to branching narratives in visual novels, instead tracking two distinct statistics behind the scenes — “energetic” and “intellectual” points. The final levels of these hidden stats determine which of the game’s six endings the player gets based on how the choices made have shaped both Taka and Kana’s personalities. “Energetic” points are earned by treating Kana like a regular teenage girl and providing experiences for her that help her feel “normal”; “intellectual” points, meanwhile, are earned with choices that make her smarter such as encouraging her to study and read difficult books.
The differences between the various endings and the lead-up to them are very marked. I’m going to try and remain relatively spoiler-free here for the benefit of those who are planning to play the game, so forgive the vagueness of some of these descriptions.
There are three “intellectual” endings. These tend to follow a fairly similar path for the majority of the story and then diverge somewhat at the end as Taka looks back over everything that has happened and tries to figure out his own feelings. The core theme in the “intellectual” path is developing a philosophical attitude towards mortality, and we see Kana gradually work her way through most of the Kübler-Ross “five stages of grief” model as she comes to terms with the fact that she is going to die. There are characters in the “intellectual” path that don’t show up at all in some of the other routes, or who are only mentioned in passing — these characters play an important role in helping both Taka and Kana develop their own emotional maturity.
Contrast with the other endings, which focus rather more on the growing incestuous relationship between Taka and Kana, and the “bubble” which both of them build up around themselves. These aren’t necessarily “worse” in terms of their outcome, but they show different means of coping with the loss of a loved one — or, in one particularly heartbreaking conclusion, the complete failure to deal with it at all without help from another person. (Mild spoiler: there’s also a “true ending” in which Kana survives, but you have to have seen some of the other endings first.)
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I hear you saying. “Incest? Count me out.” Well, okay. I did sort of skim over that. But I kind of don’t want to talk about it too much, because the exploration of “forbidden love” is, as previously mentioned, a key part of the narrative that is best not spoiled. And not just with regard to Taka and Kana’s relationship, either, but also with regard to the way that both Taka and Kana often dismiss external influences who want to break into that “bubble” — in effect, “forbidding” love to those who want to express it. Suffice to say — and without spoiling anything — this delicate, taboo subject is handled tastefully in all of the paths through the story, and any discomfort you might feel at the exploration of these themes throughout the game is entirely intentional. It’s also worth considering that incestuous relationships have been at the heart of a variety of Japanese manga and anime works since the ’70s — anyone who has been keeping up to date on the popular anime and light novel series Sword Art Online will doubtless be familiar with just one of the most recent examples. Further exploration of this theme is perhaps a little beyond the scope of today’s column, but let’s just leave it at “don’t let it put you off” and “it’s really not how it initially appears” to make you feel a bit better for the moment.
Above all, Kana Little Sister is a remarkable work for the sheer emotional weight it carries. It’s a genuinely affecting game and even now, having seen most of what it has to offer, the endings still make me tear up. As we discussed in the post a few weeks back on bad endings, the fact that the game makes it abundantly clear throughout that Kana is going to die certainly does not reduce any of its impact. On the contrary, the fact that Taka and Kana’s relationship is explored in such detail while the player is constantly conscious that there probably isn’t going to be a “happy” ending helps to make it all the more powerful. It’s for this reason primarily that Kana is well worth your time; the tasteful and sensitive exploration of some difficult subject matter and themes is a happy bonus.
A copy of Kana Little Sister will set you back $24.95 in either digital download or physical format. You can grab a copy from G-Collections’ (somewhat NSFW) site here.
READ.ME is Games Are Evil’s weekly delve into the world of visual novels, a genre of interactive entertainment primarily developed in Japan which has carved out a small but dedicated niche in the West. Follow this column’s author Pete Davison on Twitter here.