Recently, after much anticipation, I finally got around to playing Catherine, one of my most-anticipated games of 2011.
Boy… what a piss-off that was.
SPOILER WARNING: This article contains plot spoilers galore for Catherine.
If you’re unaware, Catherine is a thematically ambitious game about relationships, (in)fidelity and becoming an adult. The game relates this mature tale through the classic gaming tradition of the block-pushing puzzle, which is kind of like gaming’s iambic pentameter. Or whatever.
Kind of like how the Legend of Zelda games are actually about Link, Catherine is about Vincent, a 30-something man struggling to navigate a rapidly-developing relationship with his longtime, pregnant girlfriend Katherine, who’s pressuring him to settle down and start a family. After a late night of drinking, Vincent has a one-night stand with 22-year old blonde bombshell Catherine, and his world is turned upside down when, every night after, he’s forced to endure a series of life-threatening nightmares meant to test and punish unfaithful men.
These nightmares force Vincent to navigate a tower of falling blocks, frantically sorting them into something climbable so as to reach the top and not fall to his death. See? Block-pushing. Escaping towards a goal, navigating a life-threatening situation, pressure and fear propelling Vincent ever upward — ohhh! It’s a metaphor! Games are doing that now!
Catherine is certainly unlike any game you’ve seen before. Well, except maybe Passage… but I’ll get back to that later. Unfortunately for Catherine, just being “interesting” isn’t enough to make it good. In fact, Catherine is often quite bad: a mess of half-baked ideas, poorly executed narrative, undelivered promises, punishing difficulty with no reward structure, and muddled thematic messages. You can see from my tone that I felt a bit hurt, betrayed even, by what I expected to be a thoroughly ground-breaking game — no, not “game” — “ludo-narrative experience.” But dear Catherine let me down; it let me down more than any other game ever has. Yes, even Fable.
Like the game itself, my reasons for looking back at Catherine with such a fiery lust for revenge are disparate and varied. But I’ll start with the most basic criticism that inspired this anger-management-therapy-as-writing piece, namely that….
Catherine is a Bad Game
Before I put on my video-game-snob hat and discuss Catherine’s many thematic inconsistencies, shoddy treatment of the player and unbalanced narrative structure, allow me to say this: Catherine just kind of sucks. In the way that many games are just bad — control issues, balance, pacing, length — Catherine is just bad.
Vincent himself controls like a schizophrenic cricket — unpredictable and twitchy. Sometimes a gentle flick of the analog stick would cause him to simply face a certain direction; other times that little nudge would send him dashing forward headlong into death. Sometimes I could navigate tricky spike-trapped blocks by holding the analog stick in one direction and trusting Vincent to scurry ahead and narrowly avoid death; other times, he would decide to simply stop in his tracks and stand like an idiot, awaiting the death that shortly followed.
The camera is a consistently frequent asshole. More specifically, any time there’s a puzzle involving depth (and there are a few), the camera becomes more dangerous than any spikes or axe-wielding demon sheep. Picture me, my eyes sullen with desperation, my lips pursed with frustration, my fingers contorted in such a way that could probably land me a decent gig in Cirque du Soleil, holding the right stick in place with the tip of my thumb while the base of my thumb keeps the controller braced against my little ring and middle fingers below, while I force my index finger to the top to hold down the A button so I can grab blocks. This is all just so I can see what the f*ck I’m doing because I’m in the background of the stage, my vision blocked by the foreground of the stage itself, and there’s no way to just move the camera and keep it in place and–JESUS F*CK SHIT F*CK!
Then, there’s Catherine’s notorious difficulty. Unforgiving difficulty is one thing but it has to be balanced out by some kind of reward structure or some sense of accomplishment that makes the punishment feel worthwhile. At its best, all Catherine offers is fleeting reprieve from its hell; the weight of exhausting 30 lives just to reach a checkpoint is lifted from your shoulders for about 20 minutes until the next nightmare begins. And even that slight, relieving breeze feels more like sarcastic mockery when you enter the longest, most grueling end-game since the decline of the Roman Empire.
Catherine has more false stops than The Return of the King. Three times I wiped the sweat from my brow, relieved that the pain was finally at an end, only to be punched in the neck by another spectacular f*ck-your-mother block-pushing trial, each longer than the last.
Pacing a game like this hasn’t been a thing since the ‘90s. Generally, the denouement is the shortest part of a story, but Catherine’s avant-garde take is to make it comprise a fifth of the entire game. Both the game and the narrative extend a good three hours beyond their natural conclusions, seemingly just for the sake of back-loading the game with new gameplay features and plot developments that aren’t introduced until the final seven stages. There’s as much new stuff introduced at the end of this game as the entire beginning and middle, and all for no reason other than to jack up the difficulty to toxic levels that erode any metaphor the block-pushing gameplay may have, at one time, represented. It becomes hard to appreciate the abstraction when you’re just vomiting a never-ending stream of curses at your television.
Which makes me wonder….
OK, I get that the block-pushing puzzle mechanic is supposed to be a mirror to the pressure and complexities Vincent is facing in life, and they’re as difficult as they are (in the beginning, at least) to drive the point home. But by the game’s end, that metaphor erodes into dust.
At a certain point in the story, the puzzles themselves cease being a metaphor and become a literal trial for Vincent. The abstraction goes out the window with any traces of coherency the plot may have had, and thenCatherine just feels like playing a frustrating arcade game from ‘80s. Catherine is kind of like Q-Bert meetsTetris, only there’s a giant demon who kills you with a laser every 20 seconds.
Outside of the block pushing stages, there are sequences where you control Vincent at the Stray Sheep bar, where he and his friends (and other sufferers of the block-pushing nightmare) gather every night. It’s during these sequences when Catherine is at its strongest. You can talk to people, drink, and delicately manage texts from your two lovers, deciding line-by-line the tone Vincent will take. It’s like The Sims, only with a plot, a lot more drinking and a lot less psychopathically experimenting with how to torture tiny, fake people.
Pictured: a better game.
Catherine represents a huge missed opportunity to bring this social/dating sim genre that’s so popular in Japan to the west. Guiding how Vincent responds to other people, the approach he takes with Katherine and Catherine (I was incredibly distant toward both… seriously, both of these women are the worst but I’ll expand on that later), whether or not he gets shitfaced night after night (something Katherine is no fan of) — all of this could have been expanded into a much more coherent and relative form of play.
For a game that emphasizes story so much, the conceit of classic arcade-style gameplay, even as a metaphor, just feels like a contrivance. Allowing us to play through the cut-scenes that dictate how Vincent behaves in every social interaction outside of the bar would have resonated way more than pushing blocks. As it is, the bar scenes represent the only chance we have to guide Vincent in his actual life, which is a problem because….
The Player Doesn’t Matter
Generally, when it comes to storytelling in games, there are two poles: player agency-driven personal narrative and linear narrative. Nothing is inherently better or worse with either approach, and some games manage to straddle the line quite well. For example, Mass Effect effectively casts the player as a writer following an outline; Shepard is always “good” but the player gets to define what “good” is to the character. Catherine just tries to have it both ways.
Like most JRPGs of not-so-long-ago, Catherine presents the player with choices that just don’t really matter. Sure, how the player responds to Vincent’s fellows stuck in the nightmare will determine which of these ancillary characters live or die, but aside from the brief conversations you’ll have with them, those characters have no actual impact on the plot.
The player can choose how to respond to Katherine and Catherine’s texts during the bar sequences, but there’s no tangible consequence. I was incredibly cold towards both, but my attitude never affected my relationship with either.
Then, there are the confessional questions asked of Vincent in-between the block-pushing stages, during which the player enters a confessional booth and is asked a polarizing question regarding your outlook on life and relationships (eg. “Does life begin or end at marriage?” or “Is it OK to lie if you know you’ll never be caught?”).
Every choice you make in the game will nudge you close to one side of Chaos or Order on a binary morality meter that you can check in the game. Where you stand on the meter determines which of the game’s numerous endings you’ll receive… and only which ending you’ll receive. The rest of the plot goes on linearly.
The consequence is that any ending other than the “real” one just feels like it comes out of nowhere. Even though I spent the entirety of the game making it pretty clear to both K/Catherines how much I couldn’t stand them, Vincent still wound up spending the latter parts of the game pining for Katherine and longing for the adult life he’d been avoiding. And even after that, because of where I stood on the morality meter (ever-so-slightly favoring Chaos), the game ended with Vincent as a simpering puppy, declaring his love for Catherine and begging her to let him be with her. Nothing about the last half of the game made any sense — all context was just obliterated in a half-assed attempt to appease the illusion of agency the developers felt obligated to provide me.
Which begs the question: why even give us choice in the first place? If Catherine is simply Vincent’s story, then fine — make it Vincent’s story. Don’t try to trick the player into thinking he has any real control over anything; doing so completely muddles the game’s themes… Which were what, exactly? Seriously, Catherine devs, tell me….
What is the Message Here?
Catherine doesn’t really seem to be about anything. The marketing and hype said it was about relationships — and it started out that way — but by the end of the game, Catherine didn’t seem to know what its theme was or even if it had one.
Let’s begin with the inciting incident that drives the whole story: Vincent’s one-night stand with Catherine and consequent crisis of having to choose between growing up with Katherine or living free and loose with Catherine. The option to choose neither seems like a huge omission, considering that both of these people are just awful.
Katherine doesn’t even seem to like Vincent. The way she treats him is more like a cold, distant mother than a girlfriend. She’s frigid, controlling and often just downright mean.
Meanwhile there’s Catherine, a psychotic ditz who whispers veiled threats and constantly spouts off about her precious little 22-year old worldview. Clearly, Vincent has a desire to be a kid again – free of responsibility, but I couldn’t help but roll my eyes over what I must have sounded like at one time. I’d be the last person to call myself the adult that I’m criticizing Catherine and Vincent for not being, but I’m old enough to recognize what a dumb child Catherine is. Is her naivete supposed to be attractive to me or to Vincent? Again, the token attempt at player agency distorts what the story is trying to communicate.
If anything, the message — the choice between these two shitty people — just seems to be that Vincent is better off alone. Unfortunately, despite my best attempts, “not being in a relationship” doesn’t seem to be an option… which just makes Vincent seem all the more pathetic. Is he really so desperate to be in a relationship that he’s forced himself to choose between these two harpies? I’m trying my best to toughen him up a bit through the choices I’m given, but in case I haven’t harped on it enough, the game doesn’t care; Vincent is Vincent and none of the control I’m given can change a thing about him.
Gamers love escort missions, right?
The message that I got — that Vincent is better off alone — is highlighted during one of the most irritating escort levels I’ve ever played. Goldeneye 007’s Natlya Simonova has nothing on that bumbling moron Katherine, the slowest, dumbest AI I’ve ever had to babysit.
The big problem here is that you’re being forced to traverse one of the blockstages “together” with your partner. But Katherine isn’t a partner — she’s a weight around Vincent’s neck. She’s slow, she falls off ledges, she gets in the way — every time I failed this stage, it was her fault. So… where’s the “together” part here? It seems like what they want to say is that a relationship is a partnership, but again, what the they actually wind up saying is a stark contrast. And if you want to see the former communicated in game form, just go play Passage. It’s a lot better, it’s free and it only takes a couple of minutes.
That’s where Catherine lost me. Now let me tell you about the part where Catherine flipped me off and spit gum into my hair: Catherine isn’t actually about relationships. It’s not about being alone, it’s not about becoming an adult — all of that is nothing but plot for what Catherine is actually about: Japan’s struggle with its declining population.
By Catherine’s final act, the story goes off the rails in an exposition-laden attempt to explain everything that’s been happening. 90% of the game’s plot is crammed into the last two hours, where every tiny detail of the nightmares and who Catherine really is is explored through dense monologues from the story’s true villain — the anonymous bartender at Vincent’s favorite stomping ground.
It turns out that Catherine is a succubus, and the bartender is her demon/god boss. All of this is part of a grand plan by the gods to test men in their relationships so they’ll either buckle down and get to procreating or die so their ladies can find more suitable mates. Why? Because mankind has to prosper and we need to make babies to make that happen. For the sake of the species.
Look… I know that Japan’s declining population is a scary phenomenon for Japan, but in case the developers haven’t noticed, the rest of the world is kind of having the opposite problem. We have more people that we can feed. Do you realize how ridiculous that is? Food literally grows from trees and we don’t have enough of it to feed people — that’s how many f*cking people we have. To a Japanese audience, I’m sure the population-growing message resonates, but to me it just reeks of ethnocentrism.
A little bit of context would have helped, like giving the characters Japanese names so the story is more clearly set in Japan, or referencing the celestial population-growing plot as a thing for Japan, but only a bit. Catherine’splot still winds up being a huge bait and switch — the angle about relationships just winds up being a plot device and the subtle supernatural elements are expanded to Dragon Ball-caliber zaniness.
But none of this compares to Catherine’s greatest indignity….
It Ruined my Birthday
Sucked into Catherine’s infinite endgame, fooled by every false stop, too stubborn to give up, too angry to enjoy the day, I spent my birthday slogging through the final quarter of Catherine, determined to finish it and put it behind me.
Sure, you could say this is my fault — that I should have let it go and enjoyed my day, that I shouldn’t have let my stubborn streak control me, that I shouldn’t spend my free time being angry and developing an ever-expanding hatred for a damn video game… but then you wouldn’t be me. Instead of drinking and playing with friends, I chose to spend my 26th birthday alone, bashing my head against a wall for the sake of a meaningless sense of accomplishment and victory.
Uh… I’m going to go kill myself. Blame Catherine for that, too….
Originally posted at Digital Hippos