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.