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Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

The issue of what the optimal degree is of letting a fictional character be defined by a so-called "mental illness" is one that is obviously of great relevance to our work and that by extension has already been discussed at length several times already by several different persons on this very blog, some of which are probably smarter than me or more knowledgeable on the subject matter and all of them undoubtedly more capable of expressing their opinions in less than a thousand words.

I still haven't done so, though, or at least not to any degree that I would consider satisfactory and thus I have decided to take a short break from the job I've signed on to do and that is by all means expected of me to once again bother the lot of you with my pointless verbosity and meaningless rhetorical cyclicity. My desire to spew forth purple prose must, after all, be satisfied if I am to further postpone the inevitability of me one day snapping and going on a destructive rampage of poetic weather descriptions.

I should start by pointing out that much like anything else pertaining to the matter at hand the issue of the degree to which people are defined by their mental conditions is a dark abyss of political correctness the bottom of which the naked eye cannot see and the innocent mind cannot fathom, so writing of it is often as (if not more) problematic than writing about mental illness in the first place. In fact, the very term "mental illness" is considered by some politically incorrect these days, and perhaps not without reason, as "mental" implies a disconnection from the physical which is scientifically questionable in today's age of advanced neurology and far more direly, "illness" implies the existence of an ideal, "healthy" mental state any deviation from which is essentially negative.

That, of course, is a whole Pandora's Box by itself (where should the line be drawn? Can a person with unusual sexual preferences said to be "ill"? What about one with unpopular hobbies?), and thus in an exhibition of uncharacteristic efficiency I will avoid further elaborating upon it.

As many before me have pointed out, one of the greatest achievements of Katawa Shoujo, Missing Star's spiritual predecessor by admission, was the accurate yet thought-provoking representation of the physically disabled as ultimately people first and foremost. The writers have managed to walk the thin, golden line between the wasteland of "She's technically disabled but that doesn't really ever impact anything she does" and the mire of "She's disabled, what more is there to her?" The character's personalities and backgrounds are (as they should be) obviously influenced by their particular disabilities and the fact of their being disabled, but far less so than by things such as their family situation, their hobbies, or even their closest friends. Even if you could argue that Lilly's docility might have something to do with her having to live her life slowly and carefully due to her blindness (a common theory), that would have only been a tiny part of the explanation, and that personality trait by itself would have only been one of a great many that form the very specific whole that is the character.

But if Alice the Attention Deficit is always late for class, is easily distracted by the most insignificant of stimuli and seems to never be able to find her earrings, would you say that this is an expression of her personality, or of her "condition"? A theoretical scientist might be tempted to give an answer along the lines of "Well, all you need to do is observe her behavior sans ADD" but therein lies the root of the problem: how can you separate her behavior from her personality, and how can you separate either of them from ADD itself? In this particular case, one could presumably argue that giving her a measured dose of Ritalin might be helpful (as is indeed common practice regarding kids suspected of having such disorders in real-life), but unfortunately for us (not to mention poor Alice, who is still looking for those earrings) doing so wouldn't solve the actual question at hand – even if her symptoms at the moment are subdues, Alice still has ADD, and perhaps far more importantly regarding her character, has always had. Isolating any one aspect of a person's (especially a fictional character, which is obviously far less complex than a real person) mental being from any other can only be done artificially and crudely at best – not at all at worst. Alice The Character sans ADD will not be the same character. There's a finite amount of definitions for her and it's the interactions between them that ultimately determine her "behavior" whatever we see of her in the story.

A "personality" is not something that can stand by itself – it is a factor of the sum of its parts, and they themselves can only stand if they are expressed in some way, preferably through action within the story.

Far more so than is the case regarding characters with physical disabilities, if a character's mental condition does not become apparent during the story, it might as well not exist. We are always striving to keep our characters as realistic as possible while still keeping them interesting and fun to interact with but we would be foolish to forget that we are dealing with, essentially, story elements. By necessity, it could be said that in many ways our characters will come off as being more strongly influenced by their conditions overall than a "real-person" might be. In real life, in order to truly appreciate the extent to which a certain mental condition influences a person's existence it is necessary to observe them over a long period of time, as they are exposed to a variety of different situations and conditions. Unlike a missing eye or a burn scar, one cannot simply "see" a phobia or a personality disorder unless something happens that causes the phobic person to react in a significantly different way than a person who doesn't suffer from a phobia probably would.

But it is the nature of stories of this sort to deal with exceptional circumstances – even if they are only exceptional by "day-to-day" standards. As writers, we are limited in the scope of the stories we can tell, if only by the fact that we want to finish writing them one day and would like not to make it to a billion pages – detailing every moment of a character's life (especially from an observer's point of view) over any non-negligible period of time is simply not doable. Even if it was, let's face it: it probably would have been boring, because the vast majority of any person's life (whether that person has or doesn't have a mental condition) is rather unremarkable – and by dedicating 99.98% of a character's story to them contently going through their life we'd be doing our subject matter as much injustice as we would be making it seem as if their lives are one long series of freak-outs and hilarious autistic blunders.

As we write our story, we deliberately and inevitably choose to focus on those moments that help us drive it forward in an interesting and entertaining fashion. Since our particular story is character driven that usually means telling something of a character through their actions, and as mental illness is one of the main themes of the game that means that we are going to purposefully focus on those extremely unusual moments in people's lives in which their mental conditions influence their behavior in a very dramatic manner. Not every scene will be like this, of course - but many will. Some might feel that this makes the characters seem like caricatures of themselves, or worse: caricatures of people with the character's conditions. But between that and treating them realistically – to the point of very likely never exposing their conditions to the player, or of doing so in a painfully slow and subtle way, we decided to lean towards using the first method.

This article's title, by the way, comes from the "trope" of the same name, referring to the fact that in fiction, a character who mentions (even if only offhandedly) a phobia of theirs is extremely likely to be confronted by it by the end of the story. If they weren't, after all, why mention it in the first place?

All of the above, of course, is bound to be all the more prevalent during the Act 1 demo. Using a very limited number of scenes, even less of which would be fully dedicated to interaction with and exploration of each individual character, we writers must acquaint the reader with as many characters as possible to as large a degree as possible while still keeping all of them interesting in the long and short terms. If it seems like all too many scenes focus on characters acting funny (some would say, unrealistically so) because of their conditions, that isn't because that's all there is to them – it's because otherwise, it wouldn't matter at all to the story that they even have any.

We took upon ourselves a great challenge, knowingly, when we chose to write a story about (arguably) "mental conditions", or the people inflicted with them. Trying to remain politically correct is important to us, to a certain degree – we are not slaves to PR but we do like to maintain at least a modicum of tastefulness. But so it is important to us to keep the story believable on the one hand, and fun to read on the other.

As I too often say, at this point, there is little we can do but hope that we can manage.