Catherine Chokes On Its Own Aspirations 5

I remem­ber first hear­ing about Catherine in a short Escapist arti­cle which most­ly focused on how the game looked to be sexy and weird. Clips of bipedal sheep being evis­cer­at­ed inter­spersed with shots of a not-overdressed blonde made up most of the trail­er, and as the nar­ra­tion was in Japanese, I had absolute­ly no idea what was going on. I would prob­a­bly have com­plete­ly for­got­ten about it, but once the game came out, some months later, games crit­ics I respect and admire began to wax rhap­sod­ic about its many virtues. Catherine deals with sex, mar­riage, and rela­tion­ships, they said, and does so in a mature and inter­est­ing way, all the while using the game’s puz­zle sec­tions as metaphor­i­cal com­men­tary on the protagonist’s predica­ment.

My inter­est was piqued, and while my gen­er­al, lurk­ing (and almost cer­tain­ly unjus­ti­fied) dis­trust of all things anime-related stopped my hopes from ris­ing too high, I resolved to play this strange sheep-game myself. After all, if Tom Bissell and Leigh Alexander both think it’s inter­est­ing, it has to be worth play­ing.

Circumstances and a gen­er­al lack of funds con­spired to push my own expe­ri­ences with Catherine back until late December of 2011, six or seven months after the game arrived on American shores. By the time I placed the game in my disc tray, I had read dozens of arti­cles about how fas­ci­nat­ing it was. This may have cre­at­ed unre­al­is­tic expec­ta­tions: noth­ing can ruin one’s enjoy­ment of a mediocre expe­ri­ence quite like being repeat­ed­ly told how bril­liant it is.

Even its staunchest defend­ers agree that Catherine is a strange game, if, indeed, it real­ly ought to be called a “game” at all. (That’s a point­less dis­cus­sion, and not one I real­ly wish to engage in at this time. Consider the con­ver­sa­tion about the prob­lem­at­ic def­i­n­i­tion of the word “game” invoked, and let’s move on). It’s two parts anime to one part puz­zle game, and long cutscenes com­prise at least half the game’s play­time.

Catherine is divid­ed between pro­tag­o­nist Vincent Brooks’ wak­ing hours, spent drink­ing at the pub with his pon­cey friends or in con­ver­sa­tion with his long-term girl­friend, the no-nonsense Katherine, or the one-night stand he can’t seem to shake, the volup­tuous and tit­u­lar (heh, “tit­u­lar”) Catherine.  At night, Vincent descends into the night­mar­ish puz­zle sec­tions which make up most of the game part of the game, a sort of hor­ri­ble bas­tard cross­breed between Q*Bert and Intelligent Qube, sprin­kled with gen­er­ous quan­ti­ties of LSD. In between puz­zle sec­tions, Vincent is placed in a con­fes­sion­al booth, where­in the play­er is con­front­ed with osten­si­bly yes/no ques­tions.  These vary from the mere­ly strange (“Have you ever got­ten a nose­bleed from being too excit­ed?”) to the inher­ent­ly absurd (“Do you pre­fer to date older or younger part­ners?”).

When it’s not about push­ing blocks around or look­ing at dirty pic­tures, Catherine is, fun­da­men­tal­ly, a game about a per­son­’s choice, so I found it a bit sur­pris­ing that the game rarely gives you any agency in Vincent’s actions. The game’s end­ing is deter­mined by the player’s con­fes­sions and the dis­cor­dant moral­i­ty meter those con­fes­sions affect, but most of the game is firm­ly script­ed, save for a few more or less irrel­e­vant lines of inter­nal mono­logue which change depend­ing on the posi­tion of the moral­i­ty meter.

That said, games do not nec­es­sar­i­ly have to involve mas­sive quan­ti­ties of play­er agency in order to be inter­est­ing, and if the play­er was allowed to remove Vincent from the sit­u­a­tion in the first few min­utes of the game, there would­n’t be much of a game to play at all.  But most games that do not allow a play­er much agency try instead to fea­ture inter­est­ing and engag­ing char­ac­ters and choic­es, such that if the play­er is spend­ing time watch­ing cutscenes instead of play­ing the game, the cutscenes are at least worth watch­ing.

Catherine, how­ev­er, focus­es on the three least com­pelling and relat­able human beings in the world, and fills its sup­port­ing roles with bland clichés or the spon­ta­neous­ly bizarre.  Each char­ac­ter is paint­ed only in the broad­est strokes.  After thir­teen hours of play, the char­ac­ters can still be summed up in two or three words each: Katherine is over­bear­ing and dis­ap­prov­ing­ly mater­nal, Catherine is a squeaky sex kit­ten, and Vincent is the Least Interesting Man in the World, gullible, bland and thick, thick, so very thick.  When exam­ined fur­ther, these char­ac­ters become active­ly wor­ri­some: are all men just hap­less, cheating-prone pup­pets being pulled around by their women?  Must all women fall into the cat­e­gories of skank or shrew?  How much gender-essentialism can you pack into a game this size?

This lack of detail is the first of the real prob­lems with Catherine.  It pur­ports to inves­ti­gate rela­tion­ships and adult life, but never gives us any rea­son to care about the rela­tion­ships or peo­ple in ques­tion. Vincent and Katherine have osten­si­bly been dat­ing for a very long time, yet we never see any indi­ca­tion that they know any­thing about each other.  We only ever see them togeth­er at lunch in some pink bistro, hav­ing vapid con­ver­sa­tion, show­ing no signs of chem­istry or inti­ma­cy, whether emo­tion­al or phys­i­cal.  What do they do togeth­er?  Why did they get togeth­er, and why do they stay?  Where are the lit­tle in-jokes that all long-term cou­ples have?  Katherine’s preg­nan­cy scare com­plete­ly failed to move me because I could­n’t believe these peo­ple had ever even kissed each other.

In short, the game does no more than sketch out the barest hints of char­ac­ter or rela­tion­ship, leav­ing out any poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing details until all that is left is a bland­ly arche­typ­al sce­nario, with­out even the sav­ing grace of inter­est­ing arche­types.  Only teenagers and sit­com char­ac­ters view rela­tion­ships in such abstract ways.  Real, mature rela­tion­ships are messy and embod­ied and heav­i­ly root­ed in con­tin­gency.  Real-life rela­tion­ships are all about specifics and details.

I’ve never been in Vincent’s exact sit­u­a­tion, not just because I’ve never cheat­ed on my girl­friend, but because I’ve never been an early thir­ties unmar­ried man try­ing to decide if he should com­mit.  But when I was try­ing to decide if I should get mar­ried, the ques­tions I asked myself were much more spe­cif­ic. I didn’t think about “mar­riage” or “com­mit­ment” or “chil­dren” in some sort of abstract sense – I won­dered if my Christianity and my now-wife’s agnos­tic­ness (not a word) would prove big­ger bar­ri­ers once we were mar­ried, wor­ried about mov­ing across the coun­try with­out a secure job to sup­port her get­ting an MFA. I wor­ried about try­ing to bal­ance what­ev­er the heck I want­ed to do with her aca­d­e­m­ic career. Whatever “big ques­tions” about mar­riage I asked myself were all root­ed in con­tin­gent cir­cum­stance and real-life con­text.  I did­n’t ask “Should I get mar­ried,” as some sort of abstract, for­mal con­cept, because that’s absurd.  I asked “Do I, Bill Coberly, want to marry Erin McNeil, before I can legal­ly drink, and then move across the coun­try with her to some­where I’ve never been?”

Maybe Catherine left its char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions bland so as to be able to say huge things about Relationships in gen­er­al, Relationships as a for­mal con­struct, to ask ques­tions about Marriage and Commitment and Freedom and Sex, to keep its sit­u­a­tions so broad that they might be able to appeal to any per­son in any rela­tion­ship.  But ster­il­iz­ing the sit­u­a­tion with such enthu­si­asm has the oppo­site effect: it ren­ders the char­ac­ters com­plete­ly unre­lat­able.  These peo­ple don’t seem to be real human beings whose tribu­la­tions and ques­tions relate to my own expe­ri­ences, they seem like automa­ta engaged in a hol­low fac­sim­i­le of human life.  As rela­tion­ships are inher­ent­ly unique and full of specifics, any dis­cus­sion of Relationships or Marriage must be root­ed in the spe­cif­ic and the con­vinc­ing.  

But, mov­ing beyond my own existentialist/feminist dis­trust of all things uncon­tex­tu­al­ized, the game still fails because it cuts its own legs off.  Three-quarters of the way through the game, it is revealed that Catherine is a suc­cubus sent by Dumuzid, the Babylonian shepherd-god (I am not embar­rassed to say I did­n’t know who Dumuzid was until I looked it up later.  Perhaps Atlus over­es­ti­mat­ed their audi­ence’s famil­iar­i­ty with obscure Mesopotamian deities?) to tempt Vincent for… some arcane rea­son.  I don’t real­ly know why, as at this point, my brain was refus­ing to pay too much atten­tion to the plot, as I was too busy yelling at the screen.  What lit­tle respect I had for the game vapor­ized with that reveal, because turn­ing Catherine from an actu­al human being with agency into some sort of lust-demon com­plete­ly inval­i­dates the cen­tral ques­tions of the game.

The ques­tion “Should I stay with this sta­ble, bor­ing rela­tion­ship or pur­sue some­thing wild and crazy and spon­ta­neous” is, poten­tial­ly, a valid one.  The ques­tion “Should I stay with this human being or try to chase after this crazy demon-lady who has only shown inter­est in me so as to lure me to a bloody death” is not.  Turning the temptress into a lit­er­al demon makes the game skirt its own cen­tral ques­tion.  It’s a cow­ard’s way out, both for the sto­ry­tellers and Vincent.  The sto­ry­tellers don’t have to real­ly engage with the mess they’ve made, and Vincent does­n’t have to deal with a real ques­tion.

If Catherine is a suc­cubus, Vincent’s dilem­ma isn’t a dilem­ma at all.  If he choos­es the sex kit­ten, he never has to worry about whether she will quit being sexy and hot, or if she will bore him.  The thrills of the pure­ly sex­u­al will always be his, because if she does­n’t just pull out his heart and eat it, then she’s a @#$%ing suc­cubus, and can thus prob­a­bly make his sex life inter­est­ing more or less indef­i­nite­ly.  If he choos­es to stay with Katherine, how­ev­er, then he has only reject­ed an ide­al­ized fan­ta­sy of free­dom, and not a real per­son at all.  He has­n’t made a real, mature choice either way, and thus what­ev­er real things the game might have to say are drowned out by the pre­pos­ter­ous­ness of its premise.

Not every story needs to be an accu­rate por­tray­al of how rela­tion­ships work, and there’s absolute­ly noth­ing wrong with inject­ing fan­tas­ti­cal ele­ments into an every­day sit­u­a­tion in order to exam­ine it in more detail.  That is, in fact, half the point of worth­while sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy, but for a game which is sup­posed to be all about matu­ri­ty and adult rela­tion­ships, Catherine is shal­low, cow­ard­ly, self-defeating, and unre­flec­tive.

In my post-Catherine grum­bling haze, I reread the arti­cles which first direct­ed me into play­ing the damn thing, try­ing to glean some rea­son for why these game crit­ics, who are far smarter and better-read than I, could speak so high­ly of what seemed such an obvi­ous­ly mediocre expe­ri­ence.  All jok­ing about whether or not we had played the same game aside, I wor­ried I had missed some­thing, won­dered if I should play it again, if per­haps my answers to the game’s few choic­es had blind­ed me its bet­ter parts.  I fur­ther wor­ried that my own life expe­ri­ences had ren­dered me unable to “get it,” wor­ried that maybe it con­tained some secret chord through­out which only those who have dated as post-college adults could hear.

But as I reread Bissell & Alexander, I real­ized some­thing about the way they both speak about Catherine.  Both tend to praise its courage, its nov­el­ty, and cite its matu­ri­ty in com­par­i­son to other games.  In other words, they call it mature because it is not sim­ply puerile Soul Calibur soft­core pornog­ra­phy, and, how­ev­er bland and silly its rela­tion­ships are, it does engage with them as some­thing other than a series of clum­sy con­ver­sa­tions even­tu­al­ly result­ing in a stilt­ed sex scene.  It’s mature in com­par­i­son to other games, a breath of fresh (or at least dif­fer­ent) air.

For Bissell, “Catherine became less a game than a much-needed fox­hole in which to hide from that stuff for a lit­tle while. Above all, it serves as a brac­ing reminder of how much there remains to be done and said and explored in the video-game medi­um.” Alexander’s arti­cle is titled “Catherine Poses Questions About Mature Relationships Most Games are Afraid to Ask.”  Catherine is mature in com­par­i­son to the rest of gam­ing, they say, and when I take a long, hard look at some of the non­sense that is thrown around this medi­um, I might be forced to agree.

It is infu­ri­at­ing to con­stant­ly talk about the poten­tial for great­ness in this medi­um and play game after game after game which retries the same bro­ken for­mu­lae and wal­lows in the same muck.  I can thus under­stand the desire to seize on any­thing that seems at all dif­fer­ent, any­thing which tries even a lit­tle bit to engage with mature themes.  I know I’m guilty of this sort of behav­ior.  While I’m sure Bastion is good, I’m equal­ly sure I like it more than it prob­a­bly deserves, because I played it imme­di­ate­ly after play­ing a series of dis­ap­point­ing and half-baked games which left me hun­gry for any­thing which felt fin­ished.

Games are still an ado­les­cent medi­um, and I under­stand and appre­ci­ate the need to nur­ture those artists who try to bring it into matu­ri­ty.  But we should not allow our­selves to be so caught up in a game’s nov­el­ty that we turn a blind eye to its prob­lems.  It wor­ries me to label Catherine mature because it sets the bar for matu­ri­ty very, very low.  Catherine isn’t just “not mature,” it does­n’t just fail to live up to high stan­dards, it’s active­ly lousy.  By the end of the game, the things it says about rela­tion­ships and men and women are not just unin­ter­est­ing, they are essen­tial­ist and crass.

If pressed, I sup­pose I will admit to being glad that Catherine exists, but only because of its instru­men­tal value. I am glad that games about rela­tion­ships are being made, and glad that they can appar­ent­ly suc­ceed.  Catherine sold 200,000 units in its first week in North America alone, and if its suc­cess allows other, bet­ter games to come into exis­tence and reach an audi­ence, I’ll call it a net gain.  But Catherine is not worth­while as an end-in-itself.  Novelty is not enough to redeem shal­low tripe, and ulti­mate­ly, dif­fer­ent crap is still crap.

Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

5 thoughts on “Catherine Chokes On Its Own Aspirations

  • Anonymous

    The point at the end seems a lit­tle con­fused. You say you’re both “glad the game exists” but con­clude that “it is crap.” Shouldn’t it be one or the other? If you’re going to hold some­thing to a moral stan­dard, is the poten­tial for minor polit­i­cal progress real­ly any bet­ter than nov­el­ty? Isn’t a bad thing still bad even if a bet­ter per­son makes a good thing in response to it?

    Basically, why con­cede that you’re glad Catherine exists when you could sim­ply hope for a game actu­al­ly achieve what Catherine attempts?

  • William Coberly

    I’m not real­ly that com­mit­ted to being glad Catherine exists, so if it upsets you that much, I can go ahead and retract what luke­warm sup­port I put for­ward.

  • William Coberly

    Less flip­pant­ly, I do think it’s still bad, even if good things come out of it. If a good game is inspired by Catherine or green­lit by a com­pa­ny because of Catherine’s mon­e­tary suc­cess, I can be glad Catherine exist­ed for pure­ly instru­men­tal pur­pos­es– glad it allowed some­thing bet­ter to hap­pen.

    Something can still be a ter­ri­ble work of art, ter­ri­ble under its own mer­its, ter­ri­ble as an end-in-itself, and still end up hav­ing a net pos­i­tive effect on the medi­um, depend­ing on how other folks react to it.

  • AlexP

    Excellent piece. I think I fell into the trap you men­tioned when I played Catherine. I remem­ber enjoy­ing myself and think­ing the game was a brave and inno­v­a­tive. In ret­ro­spect, I think I appre­ci­at­ed that Catherine was try­ing to present story dif­fer­ent­ly more than I appre­ci­at­ed the story or char­ac­ters them­selves (And you’re right, the women are ridicu­lous­ly stereo­typ­i­cal. Though the men don’t real­ly have much going for them either, which sort of soft­ens the blow. Or does it?) I found the elab­o­rate and absurd attempt to pro­vide this weird con­text for a sim­ple, but dif­fi­cult, puz­zle game kind of charm­ing. I liked that the game val­ues slower-paced expo­si­tion and back­sto­ry just as much as it does action sequences, but I did­n’t real­ly like any of the char­ac­ters. As most review­ers did, I sup­pose I for­gave Catherine for what it is because of what it tries to do. Man, you’re right, our stan­dards must still pret­ty low.

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