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Opinion:  Sex and The Male Psychology --  Catherine
Opinion: Sex and The Male Psychology -- Catherine
September 16, 2010 | By Colette Bennett

September 16, 2010 | By Colette Bennett
More: Console/PC

[Columnist Colette Bennett explores reaction to Atlus' recently unveiled Catherine trailer, and highlights why she feels it presents hope for an unprecedentedly mature treatment of psychological and sexual themes in video games.]

This week, I saw the first game trailer that has truly intrigued me this year. The game is Atlus' Catherine, a 360/PS3 offering due out this winter (so far, in Japan only) from the team behind dating sim/dungeon crawler hybrid Persona 3.

In the game's first trailer, we meet a man named Vincent who seems to be haunted by dreams both sexual and horrific in nature; he is alternately chased by rams wearing ties and taunted by a blond woman named Catherine who flirts with him, kisses him, and straddles him naked as they appear to have sex.

He is clearly worried and afraid, but from the little we've seen, we aren't sure what's real yet and what's a part of the nightmare -- only that we are seeing the first suggestions of a major fracture in our main character's psyche, which only tantalize us to want to see more.

Described as a "horror/adult action adventure", the trailer made a strong impression on Atlus fans, who discussed it wildly in forums.

The development team working on the title said it would be "highly erotic" and character designer Shigenori Soejima has stated that there are some shockingly adult scenes in the game. While most gamers reacted favorably to such a topic being central in an adventure title, most seemed more interested the possibility of a U.S. release than the meaning of the sexual themes shown.

However, voices here and there were picking up on the very things I found most interesting -- not the fact that the game is not afraid to deal with sexuality, but the themes it is mixed with and what they say about the male sexual psychosis.

What's Different Here

Sexuality has made its presence known in much less subtle ways within the games we play. When Fox News caught wind of a sex scene in BioWare's sci-fi RPG Mass Effect, a frenzy followed about the "unsavory nature" of the content. It seems like as far as gaming has come, there is still a gap between "normal" gaming and blatant sex simulators. So to speak, there is no bridge where the two meet -- at least, not one where sex is represented as the multi-layered experience that it can be.

Then, we have Catherine. Vincent, our 32 year old protagonist, identifies as a "herbivore" -- a recently-popularized Japanese slang word that refers to men who are passive and lack interest in sex.

He argues with a woman who he calls "Catherine" in the beginning of the game's trailer who seems to be aggressive in nature, as she mentions dreams of killing others. As the story goes on, we see a man who exhibits signs of terror when confronted with a sexually-forward woman. In fact, we have no proof whatsoever whether Catherine is a real person, or simply a symbol he sees in his dreams that represents a part of his psyche.

It's been a while since I've seen sex in a game and been taken aback, but I was genuinely awed when I realized it was happening again as I watched this trailer. The topic of true sexuality was certainly being addressed here, focusing not only on Vincent's sexual orientation but also the world within his dreams. Whether Catherine is just a symbol or a flesh and blood woman, the scenario being portrayed so far suggests that we are about to participate in a journey through his psychosis to seek the answers -- and that is something new indeed.

Atlus has been poking at the sexuality issue in their games for a while now. Persona 2 protagonist Tatsuya Suou had the option to engage in a homosexual relationship with another character, while Persona 4 famously led the players into dungeons that represented their innermost feelings and explored a blatantly homoerotic dungeon suggesting male character Kanji Tatsumi was suffering confusion over his sexual identification.

Cultural Details

However, Catherine appears as if it may forge a new pathway of the presence of sexuality in games: delving into the role of sexual identity, specifically within the male psychosis. Not just a quick what-bam-thank-you-ma'am either, but a much more developed, multi-layered sexuality. After all, the herbivore man in Japanese culture has essentially chosen to forfeit his sexuality and therefore some measure of his power. Yet in his dreams, Vincent is surrounded by rams, which traditionally symbolize virility, power and force.

In fact, at one point, he wears the ram's horns himself (echoing Shakespeare's horn-wearing "cuckold" men, who accept their wives' infidelities without complaint), but appears uncomfortable and terrified to find them on his own head. In another scene, one ram is wearing a tie, which implies he is a Japanese salaryman (and also perhaps, a sheep in an unending flock which merely do what they are told to do).

Vincent's identification as a herbivore ("soshokukei") may well point to the concept of terror of the feminine. This issue has been gaining presence in Japan as of late, as men in their twenties and thirties are identifying with the term. The idea centers around men do not seek out girlfriends and tend to be a bit clumsy in love, care less about financial matters than the average Japanese, and are more comfortable showing vulnerability.

If the game is localized, these details may be lost on Western audiences unfamiliar with the recent rash of men in Japan that fit this description (20 percent according to pop culture columnist Maki Fukasawa, who coined the term). On the other hand, Persona 4's themes also distinctly addressed issues in Japanese culture such as the contrast between honne (true feelings) and tattemae (public opinions and behaviors), but the game still resonated with Western audiences and was lauded for its presentation of mature themes.

The Balance of Power

We've long seen games that place a central male figure in a position of hierarchical and sexual power, allowing the player to take on those characteristics and feel dominant. Even the simplest games imitate this structure, as Mario and Link save their respective princesses over and over. The theme is the same -- the man is active, the woman passive.

Catherine turns this deeply ingrained societal role upside down, introducing a willowy, frightened man as the character we will play. Not empowering at all, is it? In fact, rather than play a role in which the player is lead to triumph, we are led through Vincent's fear as he becomes a victim of the female object he also longs to possess, as his genetics drive him to.

While males of every species long to conquer, they often also expect the woman they conquer to remain in her passive role, as that was an unspoken part of the deal. Catherine is clearly not that woman ... and neither is the angry woman at the end of the game's trailer who screams at Vincent that she will never forgive him.

Now, we have a theme, with many layers to explore. But how does it make for compelling gameplay? We've seen little so far, although some summaries suggest that the nightmares act as the game's action component. Set in a world with an unending stairway, Vincent has to make it to the top of the stairs, or he will not be able to leave his dreams and come back to reality. If this is in fact true, we can deduce that we will spend more time in Vincent's dreams than we will in reality to further the story, which may leave us with some very dark paths to walk down indeed.

In any action/adventure, you must control your character, so I expect we will maneuver Vincent through some of his nightmares. With a theme as complex as this, the options to use unique gameplay mechanics are vast. For instance, the same design team entertwined dungeon leveling mechanics with real world relationships in Persona 3 and 4, suggesting the connection between physical and emotional strengths.

With such a creative team at the helm again, I suspect we may see something equally interesting in Catherine. For instance, if we play Vincent's nightmares, how will the actions we take affect his day to day life? If we make the right choices within his nightmares, could we "unlock" further parts of his memories, to learn why he feels he way he feels about women? And alternately, if we make the right choices in his real life, will we find some relief from the horrible visions of the nightmares?

Unusual Concepts

The choices a game designer has at hand while designing a game like this are surely more challenging than making another platformer where the knight saves the princess -- although that type of game has earned its place as a beloved part of the culture. However, the more intuitive the gameplay mechanics used, the more we as players can be drawn into a world so human and realistic that we may even feel our character's fear and shame, and therefore push that much harder to transcend it.

While we can only wait to see how the game itself will flesh out the things it suggests, even the things we've already been shown point that Atlus intends to once again use games as a vehicle for commentary on Japanese culture and how its rigid structures are forcing its citizens to create new identities. For the first time in videogame history, we may have the opportunity to peer within the male sexual psyche to a new depth and perhaps breathe in a bit of mingled fear and desire, to feel a moment of the responsibility of being the "pursuer" ... and perhaps understand the weight that might carry.

If the game does in fact explore these issues the way the material we've seen so far suggests, it may mean the first time a door is truly swung open into the world of intelligent, human sexuality in gaming.

And since the games of today aim for a realism so true to form that graphics grow closer and closer to lifelike perfection, it only makes sense that this last barrier should be crossed. Not to explore "fucking" -- that's been done, thank you, Kratos. But to communicate sexuality as another dimension of characters who we've already come to know emotionally, mentally, share in the memories of and more -- why not begin to understand them sexually, too?

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Kumar Daryanani
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It is definitely an intriguing title, and an excellent analysis of the trailer. Kudos!

James Zadic
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Why not release in America. Either way someone will translate it and torrent.

Andrew Calhoun
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Interesting article. Might be worth having a push to have this game translated and sent to the Americas and Europe. The only issues that i can find is here in the USA we have to deal with prudish ideals of sex and people who see even implied sexuality as a permanently scarring and destructive forcer, particularly against young people. However, we have books, movies, and music that are readily available and far more explicit that any non-sex themed game ever could be.

My experience with Japan is they have a far more naturalistic (an essential aspect of nature) view of sex than much of the West, although, most of the progressive western world sees it as natural extension of expression and pleasure. It is primarily in more socially conservative circles that eroticism and sexuality are seen as filthy taboos to be shunned and denied. Though, outside of small, fortified pockets, I believe those barriers are starting to crumble.

Adam Miller
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Herbivore -- that's great.

I would say that, to a less extreme degree, Heavy Rain broke some barriers regarding adult behavior/human sexuality in a mainstream game. The fact that, while controlling a female character, you can take a shower -- and that the act isn't sexually charged -- is pretty radical.

It's been said a billion times, but our relationship with sex (i.e. the body) vs. our relationship with violence (i.e. dismembering bodies) is beyond twisted.

Krishna Israney
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Coming from Studio 4 degrees C I would expect it to be dark subject.

Excellent analysis of the trailer and the hidden ideology.

Erik Foss
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You say that, "While males of every species long to conquer, they often also expect the woman they conquer to remain in her passive role, as that was an unspoken part of the deal." That's not always true from a biological standpoint or a philosophical one. Lots of examples of female dominance can be found in nature. In humans it varies tremendously but is mostly an aspect of society, which of course has plenty of variance itself.

Other than that, great writeup, especially considering we don't have much more than the trailer to go by. I also have a feeling this game will be one to pay attention to.

Matthew Fioravante
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I really hope they release this in the US. It looks very interesting. I've never seen a game that tackles a topic like sexuality in a mature way. Usually they ignore it all together or just show off some tits like in god of war.

Dave Endresak
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I think that this write-up is something of a mixed bag.

Most importantly, this is nothing new in Japanese gaming (or other forms of entertainment, of course). Not just sex, but sophisticated treatment of mature themes, including sex... or perhaps more specifically, romance, including sex. The Japanese have been doing this for decades now, but the English market has (largely) ignored the many excellent offerings they have created. My point is that there is no need to try to paint this as something new and revolutionary, because... it isn't, not in it's native market, and not even as far as offerings being localized for English markets.

Likewise, there's nothing new about having strong females in gaming. This goes back all the way to the 1980s with Phantasy Star and Valis (just to name to major franchises). Ys did not have you playing females, but the females in the game were extremely important and powerful. This is also quite common. Of course, strong heroines of many kinds are standard in Japanese storytelling, and this is not surprising if one studies their mythology and history. Anthropologists such as Joy Hendry have commented on this fact, but it still seems to go past many Western writers and audiences. Langrisser, Growlanser, HellFireS, Alisia Dragoon, Mamono Hunter Yohko, Ghost Sweeper Mikami, Ranma 1/2, Urusei Yatsura, Sailor Moon, Zero/Fatal Frame, Silent Hill 3, Ar Tonelico, Star Ocean, the Tales franchise, Xenosaga, Atelier Iris, Kuon, Cotton... the list goes on and on. And yes, some of those titles started as manga and were made into anime and games, including award-winning titles like Ghost Sweeper Mikami.

These aspects are not even restricted to non-mainstream offerings in the English market. Sure, one can specifically select examples where females are passive, but that's hardly the norm for Japanese games (and other entertainment, since the three forms - manga, anime, and games - are very crossover in Japan). In fact, that is one major reason why I have played so many Japanese games for decades. Like many Japanese gamers, male or female, I prefer playing heroines or playing stories with diverse representations of feminine power. I really do not get that from Western gaming, and other forms of Western entertainment don't do much better for the most part. Instead, I had to get import games from Japan (and later, import manga and anime) to meet what I preferred to experience in my entertainment. Obviously I am not the only one as can be seen from the success of various import dealers through the decades.

I mean, really, an example of sophisticated storytelling with mature themes, including sex, would be works such as Kana Imouto (Little Sister Kana), Private Nurse and Crescendo, just to name three titles. You also have offerings such as Phantom of Inferno, Divi-Dead. and Desire, all of which have very sophisticated plots. Then again, that is a feature of Japanese pop entertainment that contrasts it with much of Western fare, and why it has gained such popularity all over the world. Other megahit works include Tokimeki Memorial (without any sex at all), To Heart (with or without sex... same for nonadult versions of Kana Imouto and Private Nurse as well as many others), and Kanon. You don't get much more philosophical and sophisticated than these products. Even one title I worked on, Critical Point, had some very strong philosophical, existential questions posed for the player to think about.

Now, I've offered examples of a number of titles for anyone who is interested in sophisticated storytelling, particularly titles that have explicit sexuality and complex plots. Not all of the titles I listed have explicit sexuality, but many do, and many have been offered in English, but largely ignored.

I just think that there needs to be an awareness that such offerings have been made (repeatedly) over the past couple decades, and that telling sophisticated, mature, complex stories, including explicit sexuality and exploration of sexual themes (intersexed characters? transgendered characters? yes, all have been done in Japan) is nothing new, at least in Japan. It bugs me quite a bit that recognition for such works is not awarded.

Elliot Trinidad
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You bring up a lot of games with strong female protagonists, but I think the point Colette is making -- one of the unique points of Catherine -- is that the strong female is directly antagonizing the player character. Not as a villain, a narrative threat that happens to be female, but as an embodiment of femininity itself presented threateningly.

Or, to look at it from the other side: how many games put you in the role of an emasculated man? Several stories involve a troubled hero whose weakness is his own psyche, but what's interesting about Vincent is that he's not a hero and, really, I'd say the weakness of his psyche is his defining trait. While we don't know much about the game so far, nothing suggests we're going to be playing as Catherine or any other females; just as Vincent, steeped in fear and frailty; not just unheroic but heavily emasculated.

And you're right that some Japanese games have sophisticated representations of sex, but you're naming a lot of visual novels. The storytelling aspect of visual novels is primarily prose: while they can be considered games, their narrative presentation is decidedly un-interactive; un-"game"-like. Combine that with the fact that visual novels are, even in Japan, a niche genre; and even as stories are leveraged far more to explore female characters than male ones, and I believe calling Catherine unique in its narrative exploration -- presumably featuring interactive mechanics that mirror their storytelling -- still completely stands. I don't think that's a large presumption, either, given their track record with Persona. And while I've only played a handful of visual novels, I think it's fair to say that their representation of mature themes leans more towards soap opera drama than psychological metaphor.

Catherine isn't simply about the reversal of the passiveness of female characters -- because, you're right, it has been done before -- but instead the reversal of the activeness of male leads.

All in all, I think Catherine IS something new... if not for the Japanese game industry, as you argue, then at least for myself, even with all my experience in the same games you list. You're saying that Catherine shouldn't be much more recognized than several other mature Japanese games, but I'm saying that Catherine suggests a whole other level.

Nick Green
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I agree with this article being a mixed bag.

It's always good to see something different in a game. But like you say, this isn't really all that new and for anyone who in any way samples Japanese culture - you actually expect this sort of thing. It is, after all, a different culture.

And the way the author speaks of eg. "the male sexual psychosis", I have to assume they're of a psychoanalytic bent? The symbolism in this game and the psychosexual themes will doubtless appeal to such people because it fits their world view.

But I don't think the average gamer is going to be quite so impressed by those aspects.

Josh Foreman
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"another platformer where the knight saves the princess"

Has there been a game that switched between knight and princess so that there are two active agents rather than one passive and one active? It could be a pretty cool concept with very different experiences and mechanics for each character.

Lance Burkett
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"While males of every species long to conquer, they often also expect the woman they conquer to remain in her passive role"

In my opinion Male Dominance isn't part of nature. Its been put there by 2000 years of bullsh#t predatory dogma.

If it's part of nature, wouldn't it be more probable that the females are more dominant, seeing as how they house the fetus and all.