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Analysis: Atlus'  Catherine  And Gender Stereotypes
Analysis: Atlus' Catherine And Gender Stereotypes Exclusive
September 29, 2011 | By Emily Short

September 29, 2011 | By Emily Short
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design

[Writer and designer Emily Short goes in-depth with Atlus' cult hit Catherine, examining how the game, with all its frustrations, kept her hooked till the very end.]

Catherine is a puzzle platformer cross-bred with a visual novel: half of it is about sliding blocks around to climb nightmare towers, and the other half is about answering text messages from romantic prospects and choosing whom to date.

The puzzle part is hard. I turned Catherine off whenever I found myself yelling at the screen, which broke my play experience up into many short chunks. And that was after I activated the cheat code to put it in Very Easy mode.

It's not that I don't like puzzle levels -- I loved both Portals and played all the way through Braid -- but a combination of features in Catherine made it massively exasperating. Sometimes monsters attacked in ways that were apparently impossible to dodge.

Frequently I couldn't see where I was because I'd wound up round the back of the blocks where the camera wouldn't go, or the camera movement would be taken over by the game and prevent me from looking where I was actually headed. Sometimes a bomb I'd accidentally activated lower in the tower exploded off screen, destroying the ground I was standing on without making it clear what I'd done wrong. I died many many fruitless times. I had conversations with myself that went like this:

Me: Self, are you having fun?
Me: No.
Me: Right then.

But I felt compelled to play the game all the way through to the end, not to find out how the plot wrapped up, but to find out whether it was going to conclude with as disturbingly stereotyped a view of gender relations as the one it espouses for at least the first 2/3 of the play time.

For much of the game, the player character Vincent is harassed by monstrous creations that take the form of the woman he's been dating (Katherine with a K) or the baby she may be bearing. The monsters shout abuse at him about his uselessness and irresponsibility, and show him reproaches and hatred.

At level breaks, he sits in a confessional booth, answering unanswerable questions such as "does life begin or end at marriage?" These questions push his freedom vs. order score in one direction or the other, and it is fair to observe that freedom and order are not logical opposites.

In daylight hours, he drifts passively through his life, apparently cheating on Katherine with the younger Catherine (note the C), unable to come to terms with the idea of getting married or raising his future child or even telling either C/Katherine the truth about the other.

Vincent can never quite remember how he wound up in bed with Catherine, which suggests either that he's drinking so much on his nightly binges to qualify as a full-blown alcoholic, or that she's drugging him. His responses and reactions to the K/Catherines depend on his freedom and order choices from elsewhere in the game.

None of these people are what I would consider functional in their relationships. Vincent is feckless and faithless, and would probably be such a bad father that Katherine would be better off raising her kid alone. He's not even charming or likable, as boy-men sometimes are. His personality is too short a peg to hang liking on. He has no ambitions, no enthusiasms, nothing he's doing for others or for himself. His life is shabby and dull, and he lacks the will to improve it.

Katherine's situation commands some sympathy, but she comes across as bossy and demanding, sometimes babying Vincent and ordering him around, sometimes yelling at him for not being an adult -- but she's never giving him space to be an adult in their interactions. She communicates in the form of demands, instead of expressing her needs and trusting Vincent to find a way to meet those needs on his own terms. Still, she has considerably more focus and drive than Vincent.

I identified more with Katherine than with the other characters, but I was constantly angry at and through her. Vincent was obviously not worth her time, and I didn't understand why she hadn't dropped him long since.

As for Catherine, she's terrifyingly vacuous or else terrifying full stop. One moment she's giggling vapidly and praising the virtues of a free life and no-strings-attached affairs; the next she's threatening to kill Vincent or herself if he looks at anyone else, having somehow gotten into his house when he doesn't remember letting her in.

Quotes and imagery in both the daylight and nightmare mode, and the misadventures of Vincent's friends, also support the idea that this is a tale about why men and women are never going to understand one another, why women are nagging scolds, why men view marriage as an entrapment for the unwary. This view of gender relations always frustrates me when it turns up in popular culture and self-help books.

It's the basis for a load of messaging to women to the effect that expressing what you want is bad, that marriage is something you trick men into, and that it's vital to hurry up and get hitched before the fertile years are gone; to men, that adult responsibilities (whether via marriage or otherwise) are constricting and destructive and that you need to get all your living in before you tie the knot. The idea of a healthy partnership that leaves you both freer and safer than you were before does not conceptually exist in this universe.

This vision of male/female relationships is arguably both misogynist and misandrist, and wholly fails to account for the experiences of happily single, polyamorous, childfree, gay, or trans people. In the end, Catherine doesn't completely commit to this image, but veers away from trying to provide an alternative one.

This is the point where I need to become fairly spoilery in order to discuss in any detail.

For the first portion of the game, there are odd background rumors about unfaithful men dying in their dreams: dreams much like Vincent's. This supplies the game's motivating horror. But there is always also a countervailing implication that Vincent's dreams come from his own psyche, and that everything happening to him has a human explanation imbedded in his own personality.

The eventual true explanation reaches for the supernatural instead. The villainous barkeep, Thomas Mutton, is actually a disguised god, charged with protecting the human "fertility rate" by breaking up couples in which the man is dithering and failing to commit to a woman in her peak childbearing years, so that the woman in question can find someone else more suitable to hook up and form a family.

Catherine-with-a-C is a succubus Mutton has brought in in aid of his schemes, which is why no one but Vincent himself ever sees her. Other demon gods come into the story as well, depending on which endings and optional extra levels you choose to explore; but regardless of those options, the idea is that unhealthy gender relationships are both recognized and stage-managed by eternal creatures.

Late in the game, Vincent does get a line of dialogue about how men and women are more complex than Thomas Mutton and his demonic accomplices are willing to admit. But it's so little, so late. So much of the game has been premised on the reality of those fears and stereotypes. By contrast, little of the gameplay in any way explores how those ideas about gender might be limited and insufficient.

In one late-game level, the player has to traverse a puzzle level as an escort quest with his girlfriend. The AI makes the companion an encumbrance (unsurprisingly): she follows the player and heads up the best path if possible, but otherwise gets in the way or stands around stupidly, unable to make choices for herself. Vincent views the successful completion of that level as a sign of his newly realized devotion to her, but in practical terms it reinforces the idea that their relationship is a burden rather than a healthy partnership. How people are complex, how they transcend the imposed stereotypes, how they can interact as healthy adults, is territory that the game doesn't tackle through gameplay and only barely touches in its narrative scenes.

This is perhaps why I found the endings so dissatisfying. Vincent can win Katherine back and marry her if he asks with sufficient contrition and a history of making pro-order choices -- but it feels as though he's caving to her wishes, rather than developing into the kind of person who genuinely wants to be married and has the skills to be a good partner. The route in which he instead hooks up with the succubus Catherine is even more confused, because he rejects the constraining experience of marriage with Katherine to... instead form a committed relationship to Catherine, and embark on a life in some ways even more constrained, even if it's taking place in the underworld. (Perhaps this is meant as a vindication of the idea that women should pretend to be irresponsible and undemanding in order to trick men into committing to them?) Or Vincent can claim his freedom, marry neither woman, and seek a future of his own choosing... in space.

All of these extreme outcomes reinforce the idea that adult decision-making belongs to the realm of the fantastical and the bizarre. Vincent's dialogue may have undercut the ruthless gender stereotypes of the early game, but Catherine doesn't have any more nuanced human observations to offer at the end.

(Disclosure: I played a copy of this work that I purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.)

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She also contracts for story and design work with game developers, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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Josh Tolentino
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However ham-fisted its take on gender politics, perhaps the best thing about Catherine is the fact that it exists at all.

In an age where critics despair of games ever leaving beyond the stereotypes of being either for murders-in-training or toys for children and social rejects, a high-value, commercially successful production (arguably Atlus' biggest, most expensive game to date) that actually takes on such subjects is to be lauded.

Catherine will hopefully prove a stepping stone to games with a more nuanced take on relationships or even politics without shying away for fear of alienating a more profitable, less discerning base.

Jonathan Jou
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To be honest, I don't know if I'll ever take the plot of a commercial video game as seriously as you just did. That was good, insightful analysis around a game which I actually think wasn't trying to avoid stereotypes so much as it was trying to motivate a bizarre puzzle game.

I haven't actually played the game, to be sure, so I can't comment too heavily on the plot or its portrayal of gender relations, but since you didn't play the puzzler/dating sim for the puzzles, there are actually a sizable collection of dating sims (for women) which I imagine do a somewhat better job of gender relations.

More realistically, do you think the target male audience would have really appreciated the game better if it had included the more subtle, complex, and far more mixed-message world of actual human relationships? If dating either woman was a series of actually *hard* choices it's true that people who wanted relationship turmoil would get what they were looking for. But when you're choosing between a fictional woman and a fictional succubus, and a god-bartender is pulling the strings, I feel like it could be hard to blame Vincent too much for all the goings on.

Caitlin Boozer
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Do you really think that the target of Catherine was men, though? The group of individuals that this game would appeal to is limited enough already for Atlus to not have men specifically in mind when developing the game. I think it's meant to appeal to people who have already played and liked the games Atlus produced that are very character driven. Persona 3 and Persona 4 come to mind. (Vincent even showed up in P3P!)

It might not have been a wholly successful endeavor, but I think the fact that there is a game that is at least attempting to give insight into gender relations as the main plot point is a step in the right direction.

In addition can you cite any specific examples of Dating Sims targeted towards women that handle gender relations well? I honestly have been looking for something like this for a while, to no effect.

Greg Back
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I heard semi-good things about matches & matrimony

Wylie Garvin
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I really like this game, the mechanics are unique enough from most modern games that even jaded hardcore gamers will start out being bad at it and actually develop their climbing skills as they play. I also enjoyed the animation and the story, with one giant exception: Throughout the whole game I wanted to punch Vincent in the face because he was unable to speak two honest sentences to either of the girls.. It feels like his relationship problems are entirely his own fault because of his dishonesty. He behaves like a stupid teenager, and he's supposed to be in his early thirties now. Its hard to feel sorry for him because of the way he treats the women in his life. But other than the fact that you play this flawed and annoying protagonist, I thought this game was great.

Wylie Garvin
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Oh, I should also add that I found the gameplay parts (climbing) to be increasingly fun and rewarding the more I played. After a while you get good at it. The first time while I beat the game on Easy, I did not find it Easy at all. But eventually I got good enough to play those levels on Hard and even got most of the Gold awards on Hard, and now I can breeze through the levels on Easy, and I find the climbing surprisingly satisfying now. Unfortunately, if you just want to play the gameplay parts and skip all of the cutscenes/story (which you'll probably want to do by your 2nd or 3rd time through the game) you still have to wait while each cutscene loads before you can skip it. Replaying the levels from the cell phone is an easy way around this though, and you get infinite continues that way.

Chris Lewin
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"This vision of male/female relationships is arguably both misogynist and misandrist, and wholly fails to account for the experiences of happily single, polyamorous, childfree, gay, or trans people."

I don't really know where to start with this statement. Does every work of fiction dealing with relationships have to tick these boxes? Do you dismiss novels because they don't cover the queer angle?

Emily Short
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But I felt that Catherine -- especially through its questions posed to players -- was making an explicit claim to representing a universal system of interactions rather than just the specific experiences of specific individuals. And if you're making claims about how the whole world works, then those omissions do stand out.

Lisa Ohanian
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Bart Stewart
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Setting aside for the moment the question of whether the relationship elements were too shallow or too bent, I was curious about this:

"[I]t is fair to observe that freedom and order are not logical opposites."

I came to a different conclusion (described at
tyles_a_.php). But that may simply be the result of a different definition for "freedom" or "order." I look at these as innate motivations -- the desire to be free to act is opposed to feeling more comfortable with internal (logical) or external (world) structure.

Is there some way of defining freedom and order in which they're not opposites?

I should add that I don't consider it impossible to live with both of these processes operating. In fact, I even agree with the view that a happy marriage combines freedom and order -- the security provided by a committed relationship creates the freedom to explore aspects of the self that might feel too risky to someone on their own. But achieving a workable and productive tension between these motivations doesn't imply that they're not diametrically opposed ways of understanding the world.

That said, it's too bad Catherine-the-game chose to focus only on the negative expressions of these impulses. It sounds like this game could have felt much more satisfying had it drawn from a more balanced experience of marriage.

Emily Short
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Is there some way of defining freedom and order in which they're not opposites?

I think a freedom/order dichotomy assumes that order must be externally imposed and not chosen (at least, as I read your other article, that seems to be the idea, and that makes sense if we're talking about "order" = "the rules in a Bartle-esque MUD or MMO").

But I think it's reasonable to say that order in a relationship, or sometimes even in a larger society, may be the result of choices made by the participants, not something imposed from outside. Certainly I'd say that a lot of the routines and daily-life practices I follow are in place because they make the rest of my life and/or relationships easier and let me do more of what I want, rather than less. If my life were more chaotic, I would actually be less free.

Mark Harris
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Order is a bound, opposed to freedom. Even order that is self-imposed becomes a boundary that limits the freedom of thought or action. Just because you used your freedom to decide how to limit yourself doesn't change the nature of the limit.

And for clarity, I'm not making a judgement on order vs. freedom, just expressing my opinion on the dichotomous nature.

Jake Beers-Darnell
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I cannot speak fully for the game since I had not had all that much time playing it. However from what I had read here and elsewhere, I can say that I really doubt the characters of Catherine are suppose to be any kind of 'positive' examples, be they of gender roles or social roles or even of the ability to tell that 'freedom' and 'order' are not opposites. In a way it's similar to the early Cookie Monster, in that by showing this example you are not meant to be anything like them.

So the game isn't saying 'oh women, they're so silly for expressing their needs' or 'oh men, they should just left to be men'. Vincent, Kathrine and Cathrine are not suppose to be examples of normal functional people, but they are examples of people who you might find in real life. Even when the monsters of Kathrine or the possible child Vincent would have to face, the game isn't saying 'oh she's such a harpy', she the monster throws insults at Vincent in the dream, it's his mind that's created it. And we already know that Vincent isn't any example to follow just from him blacking out and finding himself with another woman in his bed.

And even with the supernatural influences it does not lessen the analyzing of relationships, of the unreasonable terrors of some men or the women they may be surrounded by. They've examined human psychology through the lens of the supernatural before in the Persona series.

Greg Back
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I felt that the game's surreal and abstract style, along with how askew the personalities of all the characters were made the game more of a mix of fantasy and horror about the possible extremes a bad relationship can go, rather than a game that allowed players to live out relationships as a real partner involved in it. The player does not control the character, but is instead steering a sailboat through a thunderstorm. The hints laid by your own thoughts and conversations with friends is that your relationship with Katherine had been a good one, and although she may have been more dominant in the relationship, it had been positive. The only real problem with it is how dominated and lackluster Vincent has chosen to become. Katherine may seem bossy at times because Vincent is a directionless loser, and their communication has broken down to a series of commands to get him to do anything at all.

The player is dropped into the situation after all hell has broken loose, and for the first few days especially has very little control. The game ends up being less of a statement about relationships, and more of a story of growing up. And, as Vincent begins to awaken more from his shell, first by fear and then by determination, the player gets more control over him as well, eventually making the big decisions that lead to the branching endings.

This is something the game manages through both mechanics and storytelling very well. Up through the first 3/4ths of the game the player gets challenged more and more as the difficult becomes exacerbated and the story traps Vincent more and more in his own lies. But, after that point there is a breaking moment where Vincent finds some hidden strength. All of a sudden, the choices you make seem to actually be affecting your route in life and the difficulty in the puzzles just drops right off. Everything becomes quite easy and even the final boss stages are simple compared to the brain-rending puzzles a few stages before.

Nothing about Vincent's relationships provide much of a feel-good or satisfying vibe, but knowing that you've dragged this character into a new state of self awareness and inner strength made me feel satisfied at the game's conclusion

Brandon S
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Well , it is a “Japanese game “so it designed to appeal to people from Japan and is based on Japanese archetypes related to their culture and not American. Atlus never proclaimed to aim for a global audiences/US audience so gotta respect that it will be different .Vincent is a Hikikomori of some sort .A Hikikomori from what I understand is a demographic of man crushed by the hyper-competitive Japanese systems to such a point they've lost the will to live fulfilled life’s .

In the Confucian’s gender role it is the male that sacrifice pretty much all freedom and personal joy for the honor of society in the public realm.Very different from the American male gender role,the idea of working hard and being rewarded with responsibility as a form of freedom ,power, and social fulfillment . Similar deal for Japanese woman it a form of sacrifice over pretty much everything pleasurable in life for the sole contract of marriage and child care in the domestic home.

So if you want to discuss gender relationships, keep in context that the actual art you’re reviewing is from a different culture. Japan is both a place of a extreme decline in birth rates and a large number of young people who refuse to get married and have lost all will to try to aspire for anything. So the metaphorical prison Catherine describe might be far more accurate than you give it credit for

Also, not ever fiction has to fulfill ever Western political correct criteria of presenting over ever possible viewpoints. These are stories, not a political correct manifesto bible checklist.

In Japanese society if you don't have a job , if you failed the exam, didn’t graduate from the right college your pretty much screwed and will not advance or will occupy a permanent part of the lower caste. There no "Protestant sense of If I keep working life will get better and more democratic !"It a caste systems and your exam score pretty much determine your place in society. Work is defined as form of self-sacrifice and honoring your family name and lineage and finding a clear place in society; it’s very different from the Western abstract individual sense of personal empowerment or liberation in relationships to working a job and participating in capitalism. Also Freedom and Order are opposites in the Japanese cultural context

Order is Sacrifice to the Confucians Society and the State which produces the super-order society you see in modern japan . The Idea via scarf ice one gains public harmony , to have Freedom in Japanese Society is to be without responsibility and to be free of order .Probably has something to do with Buddhism the idea of freedom being a form of being removed from the struggles of life and obtaining nirvana.

The Idea that people marry for purely individualistic reasons and purely for love, is a very Western and very modern idea . Japanese marriage traditionally is about the individual giving up all their freedom to enter into a kind of bondage with the state or their local community. Marriage originally specifically a business contract to take care of kids that did not require there be any real love between the two individual getting married.

Katherine ending makes perfect sense in the context of Japanese culture. She being pressured by her ancestor/relative to get married and Vincent enter into the traditional role of sacrificing his own needs to fulfill that agreement. In many cases it was preferred there be no actual “love” in Traditional Japanese marriage . Since the emotion love, interfere way of the business of taking care of kids. The idea of marriage solely for personal and emotional reason is a very Western Modern idea; marriage traditionally is a social system that dealt with the economics of land exchange, lineages and child care. Now it may not make you feel good about the choices given to the player ,but once again it a different culture and I don’t think it was the intent of Atlus to make you feel good about those choices . From my point of view the idea of him getting enough inner strength to overcome his paralyzed Hikikomori state seems like a great ending to me given the circumstances.

About the Supernatural aspect

The Supernatural aspect make perfect sense, Magical-realist and blending fantastical and bizarre with everyday reality is pretty common in non-Western fictions culture from Japan to Thailand. These stories can be off-putting and bizarre to the average American but relate to there respective culture . Magical Realism conflict with are Secular Entertainment structure. We like are Fantasy over here in a completely separate disconnected obeying a completely separate set rules (Dragon Age) and are realism, hyper serious and dramatic over here in clearly defined boundaries (Heavy Rain ? ) To start mixing fantastical universe elfs and orgs and dark lord with heavy rain would alienate the whole Entertainment market . I’d also argue with Catherine despite the superficial image of Western inspired demons, the figures shown in the story have nothing to do with Judea-Christian concepts of Demons.(Like most things in Anime there generically western ) There Kami fluid abstract energy forces that are said to preside over different aspect of life and can manifest as socially Good, neutral/other or negative. Which is why we see a greater range behavior . Even Catherine not "Completely evil " Crazy sure ,but she not evil even though she a Succubus .Since there no real ontological dualism in Japanese mythology .

Gregory Kinneman
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Thanks for the article. Even though you found fault with the shallow, somewhat artificial constructs of the characters, I feel compelled to give this one a try now.