One refrain typically overwhelms all others when we talk about narrative games. Give us something different. In my own case, it’s Give me something truthful. In a critical environment where genre blends and formula tweaks are hailed as major advances in game design, a thematically ambitious title that genuinely challenges conventions and boundaries deserves special attention. Catherine is not that game, but it comes tantalizingly close.
Catherine masquerades as a sexually edgy interactive experience, and Atlus’s promotion, box art, and collector’s edition (Destructoid called it “wanktastic”) collectively send the message that Catherine is a naughty, wink-wink little game. It isn’t. I wish it were. Maybe Atlus lost its nerve, or maybe its designers never intended to cross certain boundaries of 'taste.'
I generally try to avoid taking a game to task for what it isn’t, but it’s hard not to see Catherine as a missed opportunity to navigate territory few games have explored. The potential is there. The game is remarkably effective at plunging the player into the subconscious of its protagonist, deeper than most games have delved. (The Darkness comes to mind as a notable exception.)
Vincent is one messed up dude, as are nearly all the men presented as NPCs. To Catherine’s credit, it shows us male characters we seldom see in games - vulnerable, damaged, self-loathing - all gathered in a freakish final-exam-nightmare purgatory. “Why am I constantly hurting the one I love?” wonders one NPC. Another ponders whether he should answer the test questions honestly, or choose the “right answer” - a dilemma reflected in the player’s experience choosing Vincent’s answers throughout the game.
The game features a series of hallucinatory images - metaphorical personifications of Vincent’s fears and insecurities - that help us see the world from inside his head. Sadly, this imagery feels curiously restrained for a game that stakes out the psycho-sexual territory Catherine seems to want to inhabit.
Catherine presents a Madonna/Whore dichotomy faced by Vincent, a shiftless, self-absorbed, 32-year-old heterosexual man torn between two women inexplicably drawn to him: Katherine (security, responsibility, parenthood) and Catherine (freedom, spontaneity, sex with no strings).
At times, Catherine flirts with adventurous material. Such a moment occurs when Vincent’s phone vibrates as Katherine is talking to him about taking a maternity leave. She's talking about a vitally important subject...but that phone just keeps buzzing. It’s a deliciously staged moment - awkward but tantalizing for Vincent. Is it Catherine calling? Has she sent another nasty photo of herself? Why am I so tempted to take this call, even as Katherine is reaching out to me? Why do I hate myself for even thinking this way?
Gradually, a cacophony of voices fills Vincent’s head as he tunes Katherine out. The thrill of the hunt collides with the fear of commitment. A whirr of thoughts and desires spin through his feverish mind, and just when you think something interesting may emerge from this chaos, the game bails Vincent out of the situation and the scene abruptly ends. This pattern is repeated at various key moments throughout the game.
We routinely denigrate cutscenes because they function as shortcuts to outcomes that might have been more richly realized through interactivity. Catherine’s cutscenes are more effective because they lead the player to make choices that significantly impact Vincent’s path through the game. Those of us with a special fondness for JRPGs have made our peace with a brand of interactivity that encourages replays to produce different outcomes. Catherine has a total of eight endings, branching from three central narratives. These endings differ wildly, and it’s fun to discover just how wide the gaps among them are.
Unfortunately, prime moments for player choice - situations that might lead one to fully explore Vincent’s darker desires - are off the table. Catherine teases an experience untethered from societal norms - and it offers an ending that liberates Vincent from all traditional mores - but the road to that outcome curves around all the best views. Games can provide safe places to explore our fantasies, but Catherine only lets us look out the window as they pass by.
I’ll leave it to others to analyze Catherine’s ‘gameplay’ elements. The question posed by its designers: “Can Vincent overcome all the blocks in his life?” creates an opportunity for action-puzzle sequences that strain to maintain their metaphorical relevance.
For the first hour or two, the story/play connection feels sound and occasionally even inspired. Sadly, the difficulty spikes unreasonably high, and the metaphor grows stale. Vincent keeps climbing - and reaching the top of each section imparts a feeling of victory - but these nightmare sequences soon begin to feel like filler material.
Catherine points at the potential for games to explore (responsibly) ‘off-limits’ sexual and psychological elements of human behavior, and it boldly allows the player to chart a course for Vincent that takes him to an M-rated destination. Perhaps another game will make the journey itself a playable fantasy.