Catherine Analysis: Choice is Yours

The almost universal opinion on Catherine floating around the net right now is that this is a game that does choice right. It sheds the typical polarity that dominates games that utilize morality. Infamous, Mass Effect, and Fable all fall into the habit of creating a situation where, if you don’t commit to your allegiance right from the start, the bulk of the perks and end game benefits are lost. Forcing you to align yourself with a particular extreme, Hero or Infamous, Paragon or Renegade, right from the start. Doing this causes all dilemma that is essential to a game that is trying to challenge your beliefs to be lost. The choices cease to be choices and simply become a strategy based on your particular play style. Catherine does this differently, and succeeds these other attempts by miles.

Again, SPOILER WARNING, these dissections of the story are uncensored so viewer discretion is advised.

For awhile I wasn’t sure why Catherine was classified as “horror,” and after playing through the first few nights I came to see that this game really rides on two separate emotional rollar-coasters that combine into something between fear and anxiety. Catherine doesn’t rely on shock value to get you on the edge of your seat. Instead, the situations Vincent is put into within the storyline, and the nail-biting gameplay itself are what really contributes to the sense of tension maintained through the game. I think Atlus only went with the genre of “horror” because “psychological thriller” is not a recognizable game genre, which is really what Catherine should be.

Catherine, the seductress, puts you in many heart-pounding situations.

The entire story takes place in only a handful of locales. The most prominent two being the Stray Sheep bar and Vincent’s nightmares. The Stray Sheep serves as the mingling spot where you are given the opportunity to talk to Vincent’s friends and the other patrons of the bar. Not long in you realize that everyone at the bar is also suffering from some sort of relationship issue and is appearing in the same weird dream as Vincent. By speaking with the patrons both in the bar and in Vincent’s dreams, you’re able to provide encouragement and learn more about their individual dilemmas. Doing so determines who will survive the ordeal of the nightmares.

Although the story centers on relationships, indeed the abundance of Mars and Venus symbols drills that into your skull, the theme of the game seems to only use the subject of marriage as a tool to explore the deeper concept of commitment, seeing as marriage is one of the ultimate forms of commitment, this makes perfect sense. In line with commitment, indecision, and thereby the inability to progress, is also a heavy theme throughout the game. Catherine does a spectacular job of not only attacking this idea from its storyline, but also from the metaphors portrayed through the gameplay.

Now, full disclosure, I’d settled on these themes a bit before I had actually beaten the game. So it was a shocker to see Trisha, that midnight venus, break the 4th wall and actually challenge the player to consider the metaphors within the gameplay in tandem with the storyline itself. I must admit it kind of sucks the thrill of pinpointing the thematic concepts of a game when the game hands it over to you, but finding out my assumptions were rather accurate was a good ego boost.

This smarmy woman will spoon feed you all you need to know once you beat the game. But you'll probably like it.

Indecision is at the crux of Vincent’s story. He doesn’t feel ready to commit to Katherine, yet doesn’t want to lose her. He regrets cheating with Catherine and yet doesn’t take any firm steps to prevent it. Not only does he not know what to do, but he doesn’t want to do anything. This is revealed later to be the fundamental reason why he and the other young men are thrown into the lethal nightmare.

Now, I have a gripe with the logic behind the reasoning the antagonist provides for subjecting Vincent and the others to their nightly torture, however I suspect this is one of the differences between Japanese and American culture. The antagonist cites marriage as his primary objective, and that indecisive people like Vincent prevent “fertile” women like Katherine from finding men who can commit and raise children to support the population. Now this may make sense in Japan, which is home to one of the fastest shrinking populations in the world, but this translation to American audiences sounds like shallow propaganda. In fact, my first thought was, “wait, we just passed 7 billion people worldwide, how the fuck is procreation an issue?” This is perhaps the biggest flaw this game has, by creating characters so true to life, certain actions by the characters seem oddly out of place for someone not immersed in the culture that the story takes place in. For example, there are a number of conversations between Vincent and Katherine where Katherine asks if Vincent is hiding anything or is having trouble with something. At this time the morality meter shows up as Vincent debates what to say, and in my instance where the bar was deep in the blue “good” area (though the morality meter is a bit more complex then simply good/bad) he blatantly lies to Katherine in order to put her mind at ease.

In American culture this may seem horribly contrary to what a good boyfriend would do, but in Japan, promoting the appearance of a peaceful environment is more important then bringing up most conflicts. Without this perspective, Catherine can often come off as a great story, but with a broken morality system.

Anyways, back to the idea of indecision. There are two key points in the gameplay that address this issue in tandem with the story. The first and most obvious are the decisions that the player must make themselves within both their conversations at the Stray Sheep and the questions proposed within the confessional between levels of the nightmare. The questions presented are not your typical WWJD questions, but rather range from how you handle different relationship issues to your ideas on the philosophy of life. Questions like: “Would you feel worse if you cheated, or if you were cheated on?” or “Do you believe in love at first sight?” are not your typical good/bad morality questions, and when confronted honestly, can make you feel very much like Vincent debating “Which one?”

Not your typical video game questions...

As for the gameplay, the entire nightmare sequence is a literal metaphor for progress. The blocks you climb are regularly referred to as stairs, a classic symbol of progress. The climbing itself is even referred to by Trisha as “A metaphor for progressing through adulthood.” At the end of each level there lies a door, again another metaphor. The common phrase is after all “door of opportunity,” a key aspect to remember is that a door requires the initiative to open in order for progress to occur. Within this, the penalty for indecision is also made clear as the levels below you regularly plummet to the ground. The ability to decide, commit, and progress along a given chosen path is essential to surviving each stage of the nightmare. Indeed, without the pressure of the time limit imposed by the blocks falling below you, all the tension and pressure that is essential to the game’s theme is lost.

Constructing staircases from blocks is the meat and potatoes of this game. Thankfully retries are aplenty, because these puzzles will kill you many, many times. And no matter how good you get, the sound of that bottom rung of blocks falling into oblivion will keep your heart rate pounding until you reach your goal.

Despite the cultural nuances lost in translation, Catherine still manages to get the bulk of its message across. That is, progress is necessary for growth, and to progress you must commit to your decisions. Though the story makes a strong push for progress in relationships I do believe that it manages to convey the idea of progress necessary in any situation. In the end game, it’s reveled that the morality bar isn’t a measure of good versus evil, but of your preference between freedom and order. A life of predictability or a life of impulsive events. Neither is really a wrong way to live one’s life, it’s simply preference. This is best expressed by the mysterious voice behind the confessional who points out early in the game, “There is no wrong way to climb these staircases, so long as you manage to reach the top.”

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Posted on August 7, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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