by Jeff on August 22, 2011 · 0 comments

in Things I Hate

So, Catherine – a quirky mix of dating sim, puzzle action and horror condensed into a bright pink package – is the best-selling game from its publisher, Atlus, to date. Considering that Atlus’s wheelhouse tends to be critically acclaimed niche games that would likely never see the light of day in the USA otherwise, it’s not horribly surprising that a game could move a relative paucity of units (in comparison to a Black Ops or an L.A. Noire) and still be the company’s retail hero, but it is beyond surprising that it is Catherine.  In part because the game is a melange of so many things that don’t traditionally sell well (or, in the case of a dating sim, even appear on the shelves domestically a lot of the time – the last one I remember is Sprung, which was one of the launch titles for the Nintendo DS and was also possibly the worst-received of those launch titles) and also in part because Catherine, like its title character, is incredibly attractive on the surface, but lacks real depth and might be trying to kill you.

Considering the standout game releases this year, 2011 may be the year of the brilliant but ultimately flawed game – Catherine, L. A. Noire and maybe Bulletstorm for example. In Noire‘s case, the innovation in the game design and the huge strides forward in facial rendering were hung on a framework that created too much emotional distance between the player and the characters and, for a game where fucking up the case was supposed to have real, ‘no do overs’ consequences, a seeming lack of more serious consequences. Catherine is similar – its drama is contingent on investing yourself in characters you hate and buying a central dramatic premise that essentially amounts to ‘bitches be crazy’, all while pushing and pulling heavy blocks in what I can only imagine some kind of metaphor for the game’s manchild rom-com view of romantic relationships , since all the senseless manual labor leads to a church and lollygagging means death.

In the game, you play Vincent – a slacker computer programmer who has been dating the married-to-her-job Katherine for the past five years. Pressure from her mother and a pregnancy scare prompt Katherine to essentially level a ‘get your shit together and marry me’ ultimatum at Vincent.

Vincent doesn’t want to do this. The game never really expands on why, except that he loves drinking with his asshole friends and likes having a messy apartment. The game does an equally poor job of explaining why he even likes Katherine, who even at her best seems like a bit of a bitch. In fact, the game seems to program players against Katherine – when Vincent receives texts from her the accompanying sound effect is Katherine’s disapproving sigh, and she and Vincent are never actually affectionate toward one another.

While drunk off his ass and lamenting the end of his life, Vincent has a one-night stand with Catherine, a sexy, vapid and much younger girl who is all about sexting, being cutesy and being a manic pixie free spirit type. Meanwhile, unfaithful men are having strange nightmares and winding up dead of unknown causes.

As the player, you have to pick one of these girls – the ice queen or the Gal. Neither of them are likable – Katherine is a shrew, and Catherine is too shallow and immature. They are the only two female characters in the game (though another does appear in the game’s framing material)*. Your choice is determined over the course of the game by your conversation choices, the way you choose to answer (or ignore) texts and calls and the juvenile quiz questions you are subject to between puzzle stages. There is one obviously good answer and one obviously bad answer and therefore it is easy to pair yourself off with the laughable extreme of your choosing.

The problem, though, lies in the laughable extremes. Catherine is a game of black and white that purports to tackle a richly hued subject matter with honesty. As a result, anything it has to say about love, lust and fidelity lacks the sort of delicate nuance that the subject matter demands. Teen sex comedies approach these themes with more thoughtfulness.

In addition to Vincent’s warring attitudes of “maybe I should be responsible and miserable” and “let’s fuck anything that moves” (as characterized by his dialogue options within the game), we’re also treated to a male supporting cast whose views on love, sex and women in general are colored by their backstories full of abuse of various varieties and their overwhelming feelings of sexual and emotional inadequacy.

There is, of course, a large portion of the game that consists of block-moving puzzles. And a minigame that is also a block-moving game. It’s possible that if this felt more like a fun bit of platforming and not like dragging heavy fucking blocks around, it could make the game a bit more playable. As it is, the core gameplay model stays the same with the occasional inclusion of new heavy fucking blocks that contain some special new method of viciously fucking killing you. To credit the game, it’s not unfairly difficult – as some of its detractors claim – but after the first few boards, it becomes more of a slog than an exciting gameplay experience. It’s possible to die a lot in this game if you’re not careful – it’s possible to die even if you are, too – which makes it kind of funny when the other characters talk about how great you are at dragging these fucking blocks around and climbing up them. There is a level where you have to guide a relatively unintelligent AI along with you, and that level is like being punched in the face by a polar bear over and over and over again. It is not the last level of the game.

Unsurprisingly, the team that developed Catherine is also the team behind the Persona game series. Both Catherine and the Persona games share a striking pop design aesthetic full of bright colors and bold typography. They also share a bent for impenetrable mysticism and strange psychosexual game elements. But where Persona‘s more traditional dungeon-crawling gameplay underscores a complex social web that the player can develop over the course of the game, the more ‘adult’ and ‘realistic’ world of Catherine is insultingly reductive and juvenile. I would gladly take the increased complexity and outre’ elements like a possessed cyborg Hitler over the more accessible product here.

I’ve seen some reviewers review Catherine as a mirror that they can hold up to themselves to learn more about their attitudes toward adult relationships. I feel intensely bad for critics who self-identify with this game too closely, and even worse for anybody with whom they are romantically involved.

It’s like this: Vincent is 32. I just turned 33. I’ve been in a years-long relationship with the same person. This can be me. I should be able to identify with this, right?  Despite what you might think about Garden State, a movie that I dislike more and more as I move further and further away from it, I saw it when I was 26 and feeling kind of groundless and unsure that I had anything to offer. Now, I didn’t have a manic pixie dream girl to solve all of my internal conflicts with her quirky-crazy fairy dust, but I got what was going on in Andrew’s head. I think that, in that quarterlife crisis moment, there’s something identifiable in there with all of the stupid wish-fulfillment stuff. Most of the MPDG film canon, in fact, has an everyman hero that people can paste their face over without too much dissonance. As much as I try while playing Catherine, I can’t make that happen. I am constantly aware of its artifice and, as strong as its composition may be at times, I am never lost in it, never engrossed by it.

Games rely on immersion, maybe more so than films, to communicate their emotional impacts. You, as the player, have dominion over the outcome. When you don’t want the character do any of the things that he’s able to choose from, the game has failed.  Unless, of course, that tension is the point**. There is no indication in Catherine that this is the case.

Shockingly, I cannot say that Catherine is a waste of time. It’s an interesting mess. A beautiful mess, perhaps. Gamers who are drawn to the aesthetic flair of Persona or the other ‘Shin Megami Tensei’ games but turned off by the hardcore gameplay might find Catherine to be a gateway drug. For most, though, it’s likely to be an intriguing if wrongheaded text married to a lackluster gaming experience. The best thing about Catherine, though, is that the development team’s next project is likely to be an improvement.



*SPOILER WARNING: Erica the waitress is, as the game makes fairly obvious around the halfway mark, a transsexual. Normally, I would identify her as a woman, but the text of the game makes it very clear that it considers her a man, which is another area where the game falls flat on its face in gender politics. I am kind of relieved that there aren’t more LGBT characters in the game.

**Look at a game like Shadow of the Colossus, which is also a game about a man in love. It has no dialogue. It has a bottle cast of a boy and his horse for most of its play time. Still, it is able to evoke some mature emotions and thoughts about its subject matter through its ability to make you, the player, reluctant to slay the giant monsters that you need to kill in order to revive the woman your character loves. Silent Hill 2 creates a similar tension by peeling back more and more of the truth about Mary’s illness until the player literally doesn’t want to go any further down a hallway at one point or make the avatar press play on an in-game VCR.

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