To preface this piece, two weeks ago I came out of the tail end of a four year relationship; an experience which, to put things lightly, sucks. Considering I’m hardly quick to update at the best of times, I warned of an impending lack of activity and took off into the snowy wastes to roam for a while; taking some time away from the internet altogether.
As it turns out, ‘time away’ is an odd thing. Alongside the expected mixture of tears and badness, I predominantly found myself thinking about a game I picked up earlier this year called Catherine, and the extent to which it had foreshadowed my recent experiences.
As a quick background, Catherine - released last year in Japan, and this year in Europe – is a quirky visual novel/puzzler from Atlus, the same minds that brought us the Persona series. Catherine‘s story mode, dubbed ‘The Golden Playhouse’, follows Vincent Brooks, a twenty-something office worker in the middle (or, depending on the player’s actions, the end) of a serious relationship with the loving, hard-working Katherine, and asks you to help out. After a few too many drinks one night, Vincent wakes up in bed with the beautiful, coincidentally-named Catherine and – failing to repel her advances – becomes involved with both women at once.
Of course, the world works in mysterious ways, and this interpersonal drama just happens to coincide with a spate of nightmares that turn Vincent into a sheep, forced against his will to fight his inner demons through the medium of block-sliding puzzles. Yup.
There’s a large emphasis on choice in Catherine, and beyond the farmyard shenanigans and inherent Japanese naughtiness, this is where the meat of the game lies. Occasionally, the game will ask moral questions, and give you the chance to compose and send texts to the two ladies, ranging from the dismissive to the downright kinky. Depending on how you present yourself, the game will profile you, and shape the narrative accordingly. Your interactions with the two women will eventually come to seal Vincent’s romantic fate. Knowing this going in, I decided to play the game honestly, and chose only the decisions I knew I would make were I to find myself in Vincent’s shoes.
My outcome was undesirable, to say the least.
Ultimately, following ten hours sitting on the edge of commitment, my Vincent was left broken and alone, having lost both Catherine and Katherine to his own indecision and guilt. Sitting at the bar in which most of the game’s events had taken place; he sank his head into his hands, and simply fell asleep as the screen dropped into darkness. Game over. Credits roll.
It’s not often a game ends with such abject misery, and as such, I’ll admit I felt slightly hollow when all was said and done. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that was the point.
As much as we may like to think videogames have progressed beyond a simple points/reward mentality, it seems the only failure most games will include is death, a fate all too easily undone in anything but the most conniving of rogue-likes. Yet Catherine, as the summation of ten hours of choices, offered me no option to load out of Vincent’s ‘death’, or even to attempt to redeem myself. This was my conclusion, something no subsequent playthrough could change, and there’s something admirable in that.
Given the ways in which my present life has come to imitate his art, I’ve come to see a lot of myself in Vincent. For me, Atlus’ innocent puzzle-platformer holds an all-new significance, and I can look back over key points within Vincent’s tale and equate them to my own experiences over the last few months, wondering all the while how I didn’t realise sooner my love-life, too, had met its own figurative Catherine.
As I’ve come to gather, this game is a litmus test for relationships – the technological age’s answer to couples therapy.
Of course, if I wanted a soapbox to mope, I’d go hunt down my increasingly beleaguered housemates. Luckily for you, this post has a different focus entirely. You see, at the risk of trivialising my own experiences; the writer in me has got to thinking: why are games like Catherine so few and far between?
At the moment, I’m playing through CD Projekt’s brilliant The Witcher 2, and while the game’s major story decisions may occasionally knock me back, it’s all coloured in one big shade of grey. Do I want to bomb the orphanage, or roger my own grandmother? Does it even matter? It’s easy to view the likes of The Witcher 2 and David Cage’s oft-debated Heavy Rain as one extreme where everything gets drafted into grey-scale blocks, devoid of any real moral compass. Decisions are tough, but it’s that very aspect that paradoxically makes them all-too easy: regardless of how far shit goes south, you can always reassure yourself things would have been just as bad on the other side. There’s very little personal accountability – the only person we hold responsible for our outcome is the developer.
Meanwhile, we have the likes of the Mass Effect and Fallout franchises, both of which trivialise major decisions into a fluctuating, almost-cartoonish ‘good’ and ‘bad’ karma scale. Things will only go bad if you want them to, and as a result, these stories all-too-often lose their human element – you’re essentially playing a ground-level game of Populous or Black and White; the characters are simply puppets you can manipulate to shape your desired story, sliding points along a coloured scale. Fall into the positive column and you’re an infallible hero, fall into the negative and you’re a badass anti-hero, and anywhere in between is an admirable neutral point.
As far as I’m concerned, Catherine sits in a prime spot between the two approaches. There’s a firm, in-universe morality applied to your decisions, sure – but while the loyal and the loving will be inexorably drawn towards the ‘blue’ end of Catherine’s own scale, they do so at risk of declaring themselves boring or ‘whipped’. Likewise, the free and rebellious will land resolute on the ‘pink’ end of the scale, but at risk of declaring a degree of infidelity and selfishness. Catherine’s decisions aren’t gray, they’re decidedly drenched in colour, albeit realistically so, a concept so many games fail to grasp.
It seems most interactive experiences tend to present divergences within the narrative simply for the sake of divergence. I’ll be the first to admit there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach (I was huge fan of 2010’s Alpha Protocol, a game practically designed for divergence’s sake), but it’s refreshing to find a game that can readjust your expectations of why and how a narrative should diverge. You simply need to look at the differences between Catherine’s multiple endings to understand any splits in its narrative are made for the sake of the player; in order to accommodate the expectations, fears, and desires of someone who would make the choices necessary to get to that point.
A common definition of ‘art’ describes any work that can encourage introspection within its subject, and for me, Catherine’s narrative managed just that. It presented me with an uncomfortable truth that has only become more uncomfortable over time, and better still, did so knowingly. There are a multitude of branching events and conclusions throughout the story, all tailored to make you think long and hard about why you made the decisions you did.
Take my previously mentioned ending for example. In it, Vincent, having truly cut off all ties with the titular Catherine, met up with Katherine for one last attempt to clear the air, only to be shot down a final time. ‘What you want is excitement’, she stated, walking out of the door. My Vincent was left just as speechless as I was. After a game’s worth of dishonesty towards both women, it was no surprise neither managed to truly understand Vincent’s plight. Or heck, maybe they understood it better than I did. ‘I’m just tired’, Vincent reasoned, before settling down for his fade-to-black slumber. I couldn’t have agreed more.
As an ending, it was the perfect culmination of all of my choices up to that point; Vincent’s reaction an apt representation of my confusion regarding just how everything had ended up the way it did; an experience that would soon resurge again in reality. While I secretly desired another ending, I can’t say I would have preferred one. When all was said and done, this was the ending I deserved, and the only one I could relate to – anything different would have felt forced, and out of place. The developers had done little to guide me into this hole – every step along the way felt like my own, and as such, I found it hard to go back and change a single thing. It takes a special kind of game to make me accept defeat so willingly, doubly so when I know exactly how I was defeated.
This idea, that a game can bend major decisions back around to target –and maybe even hurt – the player, is one that gives me all kinds of masochistic hopes for the future of videogaming. Catherine should be held high as an example of ‘realistic’ decision-making in an interactive experience – ‘coloured’ enough to retain a clear moral scale, but more than happy to play with the methods of decision, and the outcomes and interpretations of just what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ along said scale. It speaks volumes that, regardless of how you play this game, the outcome will always be accompanied by the pangs of regret, a negative aspect pointed not only at Vincent, or the developer, but also the player.
Catherine is amongst the rare few games that have the potential to make you feel bad about yourself. It’s story may not be grounded in reality, or even relate to you at all, but the decisions and outcomes within are intelligent and subtle enough to keep hitting you long after all is said and done. Granted, the concept may not be new. Figures like Peter Molyneux and Casey Hudson have been waxing lyrical about the emotional potential of a player’s decision-making abilities for a while now, but I’d argue Catherine is one of few actual games to have truly delivered on that promise.
To come back around full circle, it probably speaks lengths about just how a personal an experience Catherine became, that I should be thinking of it now, in light of another, much greater personal experience. Choice is the one thing that distinguishes videogaming as a medium unto itself; and in many ways, it took Catherine for me to realise just how powerful that one thing is.