[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: 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.]