Thursday, 12 December 2013

Well-Rendered's Games of the Generation #20: Catherine

Catherine, Atlus/Atlus Persona Team (2012)

Spoiler alert

The story of a weak-willed man-child who can't be bothered to make decisions and would rather go to the pub, Catherine has an unusual premise for a video game. Its protagonist is Vincent, a software engineer in his early thirties with an over-achieving girlfriend, Katherine.

Katherine won't stop talking about marriage and babies, and as a result he starts spending more and more time in The Stray Sheep, his local bar. There, he meets the outrageously sexy Catherine whom he proceeds to take home for a night of unbridled passion.

That's when the dreams start.

The bulk of Catherine's gameplay takes place in Vincent's tormented subconscious, where every night he must climb an enormous wall of blocks, pushing, pulling, smashing and shifting them to create new paths. All the while he is pursued but some hideous manifestation of his anxiety and guilt, be it a screaming harpy of a wife trying to cut off his legs, a quivering blob of female genitalia threatening to engulf him entirely or a monstrous baby whose flailing limbs come perilously close to knocking him into oblivion. These sections are fiendishly difficult but incredibly addictive, and as someone who doesn't play many puzzle or casual games, they scratched an itch I didn't know I had.

Still, it's the overall ingenuity of the narrative that puts this game on the list. It's a story about weakness, rare in a medium so dedicated to empowerment. When he's not scaling vast geometric mountains in his sleep, Vincent doesn't do much, and a good third of the play-time is spent mooching around The Stray Sheep, mumbling to Vincent's friends, drinking too much, fiddling with arcade games and sloping off to the loo to text one (or both) of his girlfriends.

It's not just Vincent's difficulties that are laid bare; the game explores many forms of male angst, from his embittered friend's divorce to the despair of the other patrons he meets in The Stray Sheep, some of whom are having strange dreams too. For all gaming's unintentional focus on male fantasy, the fears, desires and insecurities that fuel such fantasies are left largely unexplored, making Catherine a unique and much-needed entry into the canon.

The narrative veers off course in the final third as the psychological demons that have driven the narrative thus far are replaced by supernatural ones. The focus also shifts away from the corroding effect of cowardice and into psychologically unsound (and philosophically sinister) territory about the importance of reproduction, and while there are several distinct endings, none really complete a satisfactory character arc for Vincent.

My other complaint is that neither Katherine nor Catherine are even remotely appealing as girlfriends. Katherine is a humourless nag who is only interested in Vincent as a means to achieving her life goals, while Catherine is clearly insane (we're talking Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction) and frequently threatens to harm Vincent, Katherine and herself. Although one potential outcome does see Vincent single of his own volition, for the most part it is hard to identify with a protagonist trying to keep a grip on two such undesirable prizes.

Nevertheless, Catherine is on the whole an effective and ingenious exploration not just of relationships, but of inertia. Vincent and his bar fly buddies are stuck in loveless relationships, boring jobs and cycles of deceit, and their coping strategy - to self medicate and thus postpone a painful resolution - are uncomfortably familiar. The gameplay that takes place in real life consists of doing nothing, while the frantic, terrifying "action" takes place in their fevered dreams.

Catherine may be flawed, but it continues developer Atlus' outstanding work in the field of gamifying psychological turmoil, and for that, it should be applauded.

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