Well, I'm 4 out of 5 paths in. I'm kinda glad I chose to do them in Shizune->Emi->Rin->Hanako->Lilly order. Why? Well, Shizune is the kind of girl I've always wanted to whisk me off my feet, and is generally pretty easy to deal with. Emi's indomitable upbeat demeanor makes it nearly impossible to really ever get down about things. As such, they're light, fluffy discussions that quickly drew me into the game.
Rin and Hanako, however, were a different story. Had I started with either of them, I would not have continued this game at all. Not because they're badly told stories. Far from it. But because they both hit so close to home.
From what I hear, however, Lilly is a much more traditional romance path, and should be fairly lighthearted. As such, I'm excited to get back on the positive life outlooks train and finish up on her arc.
That said, I've put my thoughts about why I had trouble with Rin and Hanako below the cut, in case you're not the spoilers type.
Rin and Hanako were much more difficult for me to enjoy. In game, Rin's disability is allegedly the fact that she's got no arms. But to be perfectly honest, it's more important that she appears to be a high functioning autistic. Not a textbook Asperger's case, but definitely on the spectrum. When she says "What am I doing?" when she cries, it's a genuine failure to understand ever her own most fundamental emotional state. It's like there's a rational disconnect between the very idea of emotion and her mind. Her "Good" end leaves you in a state that, in the other two stories I've read, would mark the beginning of Act 4.
And in the end it makes sense. Your character spends a ridiculous amount of time trying to understand Rin; clawing at every possible straw in hopes of getting her to tell him about herself. However, in the end, the reason she doesn't isn't because she doesn't want to, like with Hanako (more on that later), it's because she literally can't. Early on she tells you as much about herself as she knows, which doesn't really amount to much. Moreover, much of what she has come to understand internally she fails to express; she tells you as such several times. Not because she can't speak, but because the words that describe how she feels don't exist.
This is all very coherent through the lens of autism. The words don't exist because the thoughts that she has don't exist in the larger culture. The reason she seems so unique is because she truly is. The construction of her mind is such that it is alien to the world around her. But worse, that makes the world around her seem equally alien. It's why she sees things other people don't and misses the obvious sometimes; because the things that are important and "obvious" are fundamentally different for her.
But just being autistic isn't what made that path hard for me. It's that it's clearly untreated. My character doesn't understand, and doesn't seem to have the necessary background to frame it. He bumbles through interactions without so much as an inkling of how to handle things, and in his desperation to rationalize her thinking, misses the point that it's (by his standards) intrinsically irrational. Which is all the more frustrating for Rin, who, within her own mental framework, operates extremely rationally. She can't express why it makes sense, but that's because some of the axiomatic experiences that our language depends on isn't present in her world and vice versa.
With my own experiences being loosely similar, I can understand her frustration. I know for myself, I worked to master language so that I could try and convey my meaning, even in the absence of those fundamental axioms. It lead to a sense of poetry and strict language that I felt compelled to be hyper precise with. The reason was that I couldn't get a feel for the nuance of a conversation just from broad strokes of carelessly placed words. If you speak precisely, and mean only exactly what the words mean, the meaning of the sentence can be deciphered; even without access to some of those basic assumptions about how people think.
Rin, however, never mastered language. She couldn't just get pedantic and browbeat people until they said what they actually meant after some serious effort. She points out herself that words and her don't get along. For as much trouble as I've had (and as many years to learn by academic study some of those social axioms everyone takes for granted,) trying to understand people with what Rin has available to her would be maddeningly isolating.
Then there's Hanako. Like the main character, at first I thought Hanako was in this school because of her burns. But the truth is that the burns are long since healed and haven't been life threatening for nearly a decade. She's in Yamaku because of PTSD and it's consequences. The burns are just her constant, inescapable reminder of the horrors she experienced.
However, my trouble isn't with her backstory. Unlike Rin, who I can feel for directly and have trouble dealing with Hisao's inability to understand, Hanako's arc puts Hisao in my shoes with dealing with one of my close friends. Like with Rin's line, her "Good" end is really more like the opening to Act 4 in Emi or Shizune's line, and begs for a lot more work (which, BTW, will ultimately be as fruitless as it would be with Rin.) Just as Rin's inability to express herself left her (and by extension, me) feeling frustrated and isolated, Hisao's inability to do anything for Hanako frustrated him to no end, and reminded me of my own ongoing frustration when dealing with my friend. Half the time the right answer is to press, even when it would be hard. Half the time the right answer is to give space. There's no way of knowing which is right.
And then there's the whole "white knight" issue. You like someone as a friend, maybe something more, and you want to help. They have obvious issues, so you resolve to act on those issues. However, it quickly becomes the case that those issues end up defining the friend. Because the issues themselves are incurable, you become wholly focused on the steps of treatment; much like the doctors in Hisao's hospital. To the caregivers there, there was no meaningful distinction between the person, and the chart.
Emi's arc goes into this particular issue somewhat, with you becoming fairly strongly focused on "fixing" her reluctance to speak, and spending much of act 4 learning the nuance between knowing enough to help when necessary and treating the person as a machine to be repaired.
In the end with Hanako, you finally realize that the right answer is to pursue Hanako, rather than pursuing Hanako's PTSD, which you had been doing pretty aggressively for the last two arcs.
Maybe it's my own (admittedly mild) autism speaking, but the main character's insistence on not feeling like two people are close unless he knows (within the first one to three weeks typically) about whatever their particular horrible tragedy was seems unnecessary. He plays his own disorder astoundingly close to his chest, to the point that at the end of Shizune’s arc she still doesn’t know, but his insistence on probing with everyone else is insane. As my addled brain sees things, it’s not strictly necessary to know why everyone is the way they are. Just accept that they are as they are. Ask how, if at all, you need to assist, and treat them as you would any person. “Normal” people turn out to have issues too; it’s just often easier to see with these folks what at least some of those issues are. That people assume there’s only one issue is how you end up with Rin’s situation.
But that suggests, to some degree, a brief discussion of “my addled brain”. If there’s any single place my own perspectives seem to mismatch with the world at large, it’s what it means to be “close” to someone. I mean, by the time someone’s inviting you regularly to join them in their private lunches, my brain says ‘You’re damn close”. Getting one invite is one thing, when they make it a scheduled appointment, what they’re saying is “out of all of the people in this huge world out there, I want to make sure that you are a regular part of it. Not any of those other 7 billion people. You.”
Which itself leaves me a lot to think about for my own behavior. I already know I’m not close to many people. In practice I don’t think I’m close to more than 5. And if I measure based on who I think is important enough to involve in my life, 5 may be a high estimate.
Idunno. That line of thinking goes to complex places for me emotionally. Since I’m not up to that challenge at the moment, I think I’ll wrap this up here. In any case, I just wanted to get this off my chest, and I don’t know who to talk about VN stuff with thanks to its crazy terrible (and well earned) stigma.