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Building a Better Broken Bird

Good evening, everyone. Allow me if you may to introduce myself first: I am Gloom, the writer in charge of Katja Böhm's route. 

Now that you have someone to blame for the upcoming, let us without further ado move on to the subject of today's discussion, which I believe is one that unavoidably will be touched upon (in all the wrong ways) during the creation of a game such as this:

Broken Birds.

Also known as Fragile Flowers, Damaged Damsels, and Tarnished Treasures, Broken Birds are a literary archetype extremely prevalent in the romantic VN genre and one that you are quite likely (almost by definition, being readers of this blog) well acquainted with, if not officially.

Usually female, usually young and beautiful, the Broken Bird is a character meant to evoke a very specific set of feelings at the reader. Where the Poor Little Kid with Leukemia is meant to tug on heartstrings through pure pity, the Broken Bird goes a step further: through pity, she seeks to attract the reader.

And indeed, that is a very attractive archetype: the reasons are multitude, and range from sociological and psychological to, arguably, even evolutionary (hence the babylike appearance of the classical "moe" figure, with her big eyes and round face). 

The Broken Bird isn't just attractive and weak – she's attractive because she's weak. Her weakness (be it psychological trauma, a physical disability, a painful disease or what have you) is presented in such a way as to purposefully invoke feelings of parental/territorial protectiveness. She makes the reader (put in the role of the loving protagonist) feel strong and important by making it obvious that she needs someone strong and important to survive.

You have to wonder what the fact that this kind of ego-stroking works so well on us, the VN reading crowd, says about us, don't you?

I could go on and on about all the various sociological and psychological implications of the recent, rampant idolization (not to mention eroticization) of weak and needy female characters in our media (while women who were weak in the sense of not being able to protect or finance themselves were always seen as desirable in popular media, we are now dealing with women for whom simple day to day existence is a challenge), but this time I'd like to say something more specific:

Prior to its release, Katawa Shoujo was often accused of shamelessly exploiting this archetype for cheap melodrama (that, and creepy amputee sex, but that is aside the point). 

But defying everybody's expectations, not only did KS eventually turn out to avoid this trap: it went further to lampshade, subvert, deconstruct and reconstruct the trope in every way possible. While literally all love interest characters in the game were actually, physically crippled, not one was a "Broken Bird" as per this trope: they all, in one way or another, dealt with their problems themselves (even when their method of coping was inefficient or self destructive, it was still their own – a valid option and realistic situation, if I might add). 

The one case that seemed to go the Way of The Broken Bird (I am going to assume that you know which one I am referring to) was actually the one who went the farthest to deconstruct it: the message of the story was directed at the player in the clearest, most poignant way possible. 

Love must be between equals. There can never be a fruitful, healthy relationship between a protector and a protectee - and by forcing one as such upon your loved one, you're only causing lasting harm to the both of you.

Now, we are making a game in which the player (as Erik Wilhelm) interacts romantically with girls who are all, in one way or another, mentally disturbed. By definition, they are all somehow damaged. Somewhat weak, and seemingly, somewhat in need of assistance or defense – otherwise they wouldn't be in a special institution.

Following in KS' steps as we do, it wouldn't be much a spoiler now to go on and tell you that (or so we hope to manage) no girl in Missing Stars is a classical "Broken Bird". 

Of course, as much as we want to follow in KS' steps (at least conceptually), we don't want to come out as mere copycats. As such, we are striving to come up with new interpretations of the archetype with every one of our routes. 

As aforementioned, a character does not become a "Broken Bird" merely by being weak (which all of our characters, protagonist included, somehow are) or attractive (which all of our main character, protagonist especially, most definitely are): the appeal of the character must be derived from her damaged status and apparent need for protection.

This distinction is even more important (or so I selfishly feel) to me, seeing as my character, Katja, is not only mentally disturbed, but obviously physically damaged as well.

There is no point in making a "damaged character" (traumatized, weak, crazy) who's damage never becomes apparent, or isn't relevant to the story. Its poor writing (generally, details which contribute nothing whatsoever to the story are considered poor form, unless they're sort of the point… but I digress). Worse, it creates the mildly offensive impression that the writer is attempting to insert a crippled character into his story solely for the drama/political correctness/fetish value ("Look at my excellent and sensitive story! The love interest is deaf! Of course, she's good enough a lip reader and vocalizer that she might as well be hearing, b – but she isn't!"). At the same time, we must avoid creating characters defined by (or only approachable) through their disabilities.

And yet, our game isn't one about mental disorders. It's about the people who just so happen to have them. Each of them is unique, set apart from characters that came before (in KS or other VN's), and from those who stand by them (in this game). 

Our game will be full of Broken Birds – seemingly. There's nothing bad about it: it's a powerful image, and not unrealistic (terrible as it is to say, the world is often a cruel place and those kinds of things just happen: beautiful girls do get their brain cancers, they do get traumatized for life, and they do end up breaking their spines and becoming paralyzed from the waist down). But if we succeed as we hope to, none of them would be nothing but – and as importantly, neither would they be Broken as a KS character.

Drawing upon reality as much as upon other literary sources, we've been busy looking for interesting examples of the myriad ways by which people handle the sort of damage that would Break a Bird. The variety is, to say the least, staggering. Starting to list now even the general categories of reactions to trauma to any adequate level would fill by itself an entire essay. The human brain (not to mention the human mind, two concepts that are related yet distinct) is an incredibly complex, and as of today, far from completely understood mechanism. Its inner workings are sometimes nothing short of a full blown mystery, and far more so are the ways in which they get broken. 

Each human mind is a world unto itself, beginning to end, top to bottom, deep inside and all the way out. Shake it, steer it, freeze and boil it: each would react differently, in more way than could ever be discerned by even the brightest of psychiatrist. What might make one person shrug in indifference might scar another for all eternity. One person's scars may drive them to change their life completely, to drive away their friends and family and to never see the world the same way again. Another's might be hidden deep beneath the surface, deep under a mask of nonchalance, perhaps forever, perhaps until the day they snap and down a bottle of sleeping pills. 

And yet another might have simply been born with the blessing and the curse of being able to speak to the birds and the fish. Who are we to say they won't answer?

The fact that a girl has been damaged does not in any way mean that she must passively wallow in misery for that. And if she does, it may not mean that all she needs is the powerful hug of some loving White Knight to fix her. People are more complex in real life, and interesting stories should probably reflect that – at least in this regard.

Believe it or not, but we really are doing our best to ensure that our characters are unique. For all of their representation of archetypes, they are each tailored towards being their own person; their own kind of story, with its own kind of lesson and atmosphere.

They are each their own mental maze of multifaceted madness, each their own practical puzzle of personality problems. 

They are broken because they are.

They are loved because they are.

(artwork courtesy of Imperial.Standard)