Yet another game I intended to play way earlier. I think there is actually a reason why I rather consistently fail to play any of these more experimental games in any decent time. My gaming is generally directed with various cravings and - here is the reason - these cravings are towards certain types of game mechanics. Experimental games on the other hand are often unfamiliar in this sense - can't crave for something you don't even know to exist. This means that these games get pushed into some unknown future time when I am free of my frequent craving gaming streaks and often when that happens, I start from cheapest games on the list. After all I often don't have any particular preference for any of these unfamiliar games over another, so might as well use availability as a metric.
Enough with the self-reflection though. Catherine was a PS+ freebie last month so I guess it was definitely the cheapest unfamiliar game at the moment. A weird game from the creators of Persona, to me that pretty much makes it a necessity to play. Especially the first trailers raised a lot of questions, but primarily this: what's with all the sheep? If the game would have been less explanatory with what was going on, it could have as well been written by David Lynch. I mean the weird stuff in Lynch's films is usually a metaphoric way to process what is going on in the characters' heads or between them. In many ways, Catherine is like that too, and the weirdness factor is definitely in Lynch category as well. Because of the game's nature, I will once again delve into the story for a bit. So here is your general spoiler warning.
First let's take a look at Catherine as a game. I would draw comparisons to games like Heavy Rain for a couple of reasons: first, both deal with more mature issues that games typically do; second, for different reasons, the both raise the question whether they should be really called games or not. In Catherine this results from the high contrast between the game's two interactive modes. The game mechanic is in a way isolated from rest of the game to the point that it could be anything - although the tower climbing mechanic is a successful metaphor to overcoming personal challenges. This part could be a game in itself so it is definitely interactive.
However the rest of the game is highly non-interactive. A lot of time is spent watching cut-scenes, and hanging in the bar has less gameplay than social links in Persona 3/4. Not that it really matters, a lot of games have their gameplay disconnected from storytelling and I wrote about it earlier. Although Catherine is a puzzle game with heavy storytelling components, it is actually very comparable to Persona. I would go as far as to claim that despite all their differences, Catherine is a Persona with smaller scale. I'll do the comparison to P4. In both, there are two very different modes of gameplay: the nightmare and the bar in Catherine, the TV world and the real world in P4. Both games also have two story layers: one of personal growth, and one of what actually happens.
One big difference is how these two layers interact: in Catherine, the nightmare builds Vincent's values, and they affect what choices he makes during the day. They don't directly affect what the player can do in the bar though - the bar actually serves the same purpose because that section also includes choices that affect Vincent's values. Nothing done during the day affects the gameplay in the nightmare. On the other hand in Persona 4, actions taken in the real world have impact in the TV world, because social links literally strenghten the protagonist. In this sense, the disconnection between the two layers is stronger in Catherine because they do not affect each other in terms of game mechanics. On the other hand though, in Catherine the player's choices affect the story whereas P4 only has one story.
Another aspect that these games also share with Devil Survivor is the protagonist's role as a paragon. In Catherine however Vincent does not really have any special powers, whereas in P4 the protagonist is unique with his ability to use multiple personas. What they have in common however is that throughout their story, they both become a source of inspiration for people they meet. Their influence inspires other people to solve their problems and find their inner strength. Both games also deal with mundane issues, in the real world. Just like in the real world, ultimately even the hero cannot solve others' problems for them because they cannot be solved with any standard issue heroics. Vincent in particular inspires others through his own growth and progress.
Personal growth in both games is heavily related to the other world. In P4, each of the protagonist's allies has to quite literally face themselves. The TV world makes them painfully aware of their darker sides that ultimately manifest as dungeon bosses. In Catherine, Vincent and other men initially don't know why they have been trapped in the nightmare but as they are chased by manifestations of their worst fears, and as they learn the nature of their plight, it becomes a possibility for them to grow. Conquering the deadly tower of blocks becomes a symbol of conquering their own doubts. Through their struggles they come to reflect their life situation, and finally get their life on the right track.In both cases it's both a very literal fight for their lives, and also a fight to gain control of their lives.
If we look at Catherine purely as an artifact of game design, it's not very good. Stripped of everything, you are ultimately solving puzzles to be rewarded with cutscenes and while the story-as-reward is a common trope in Japanese RPGs, it is not a particularly laudable game dynamic. Catherine demands us to look beyond though, because reducing it in this way is a disservice to its true strength.
Catherine is all about the glue. Not the kind you sniff, but the kind that keeps different parts of the game together. The glue in Catherine is the way it has been directed. The game builds suspense with the best of them, and it is a very gripping experience. There are a lot of individual effects I can name, and one of them is the iconic clock that ticks between cutscenes. The audiovisual design of that simple screen is magnificient, and it always feels as if it is foreshadowing something nasty. Of course, the player will quickly make this association because what follows often is nasty. Especially the mornings after Vincent awakens from his nightmare became some of the most dreaded moments. What was the cause of this dread? The fact that Vincent found himself waking up next to a pretty woman. I swear, monsters in games are very rarely this dreadful.
The player bears witness to Vincent struggling in his life, trying to resolve his situation. However it is not quite similar to watching a movie. The fact that player choices affect how Vincent tries to deal with his problems creates a sense of responsibility - is everything going to hell because of my choices? There is never a direct choice involved in the situation itself, the player can only influence Vincent's values by making choices in the nightmare and in the bar. I would probably bash the hell out of this idea if this was any other game, but the concept fits Catherine exceptionally well. The story deals with emotions, where causality is very hard to predict or even see afterwards in the real world, so it is fitting that we cannot predict how Vincent will act either.
It's hard to put a finger to the exact reasons why the game's directing is so powerful. You just know it when your heart leaps every time Vincent gets a text message at the bar, and how hard it is to write replies even though there are not that many options. Otherwise the bar is the most relaxing portion of the game because the player and Vincent can take a break from the nightmare and from the two women who are at the heart of the conflict. Scenes with either of the women on the other hand are sharp like knives and I have very rarely been this anxious while following a fictituous conversation. It helps that all dialogue in the game is written really well, and voice acting is quite solid. Of course, I would not have expected anything less from the developers.
The nightmare is also masterfully directed. Although I do not agree with all the gameplay decisions (more on that soon) concerning it, audiovisually it is very successful. The boss levels in particular are very distressing, with the boss often almost literally breathing down at Vincent's neck as the player tries to find a route upwards in panic. The normal levels are more relaxed, but audiovisually they too are quite disturbing. Even the fact that the nightmare world is populated by sheep somehow adds to the atmosphere. Even tutorials have been perfectly integrated into the game's fiction. Vincent exchanges climbing techniques with other men trapped in the nightmare, which is a convenient time to also show those techniques to the player. Coincidentally the player might just need some of those in the next level...
I personally think of Catherine in much the same way I think of Heavy Rain: I will probably never play it again. It is one of those games that I just play through without expecting any particular outcome. I will take whatever the outcome is, and label the story as my individual experience of the game. I think another run through the game would just break many illusions. I might find out how little the game changes with different choices, and ultimately it would not be able to give me anything that even closely resembles the first playthrough. Although I know there are other endings, I have no real desire to experience them because I kind of what to think of the one ending I got as the "true" ending of the game. I don't even want to go back to try and change things.
3. Dat difficulty
Catherine was notorious by the time of its release. Why? Well, the game was freaking difficult is why! They added an easy difficulty later to alleviate the problem. These days I normally play my games on hard difficulty but after hearing how "well" my friends had fared in Catherine, I chose to start on normal. After a couple of nightmares I switched to easy, which is the first time I've done so in a very long time. I did find the block puzzles quite fun, but the challenge rubbed me the wrong way. It's not that the difficulty itself is the problem, it's the mechanisms that create it. While I liked the time limits in boss levels, they felt a bit artificial in the rest. In a way I understand that having the blocks fall off under Vincent's feet if I take my sweet time does make the atmosphere in the game stronger, but it made the game more frustrating.
One thing in puzzle games I don't like is redoing sections I have already done, because it is nothing more than punishment to do the same work again. The levels have checkpoints, but from time to time they are a bit too few and far between. What makes it even more frustrating is the fact that for some god-awful reason I'd rather not know, there are limited retries. Sure they are given out quite generously but if you ever run out, it's back to the last save point - that's the start of the level, unless you forgot to save. It was actually this that made me switch to easy. Well that, and the fact that the controls are very annoying from time to time. For instance, you can move behind the blocks, but cannot rotate the camera enough to actually see what is there. Dafuq? Oh and when you are behind a block, the controls are reversed. Why?
My final gripe with the controls was one button. It is used for grabbing blocks for pushing/pulling, but for some reason it also causes Vincent to let go of a block when he is hanging. There is also a separate button for letting go, so why on earth another button also does that? Finally, although the audiovisuals were very successful in creating the nightmarish feeling, sometimes camera drives and visual effects made it very hard to see what the hell was going on. This mostly happened in boss levels. Since the game already has an undo button that allows you to take back moves far into move history, the same button could have been used to just return you to wherever you fell off. At least in the normal levels I would have really appreciated this.
4. Chickening out
This here is the major spoiler warning. You will ruin the game for yourself if you read this before playing.
Catherine is a game about problematic romantic relationships. All the men caught in the nightmare with Vincent have one thing in common: they are dealing with emotional damage from their past or current relationships, and somehow that is what brings them to the dream. Vincent himself is dealing with two problems at the same time: his girlfriend is talking about getting serious, while at the same time he finds himself cheating with another woman. We never truly learn how Vincent ended up cheating because that information is kept from us - and Vincent too, because he seems to never remember what happened. He just wakes up next to the other woman morning after morning. The situation is uncomfortable to say the least, because both of the women are emotionally attached to their relationship with Vincent.
Catherine is a compelling human drama with a hint of supernatural. I always find stories involving cheating quite uncomfortable, because I just know that the women (in this case) will eventually find out about each other while the man is lying through his teeth to both. It is uncomfortable because from the start it is clear that at least one heart will be broken, and possibly all three. I cannot speak from experience, but it feels like Catherine does portray the difficulty of such a situation in a very vivid fashion. As I mentioned one part in this is the player's almost involuntary involvement in the drama. The really "funny" thing? At first even I was not able to decide which woman I wanted Vincent to prefer. It is quite common in games with romantic relationships to not know from start which one to go with, but Catherine forces the player into a situation where they are already involved with both.
The last few hours of the game feel a bit cheap though. Up until then, everything supernatural has felt much like the weird stuff in David Lynch movies - a metaphor to stress the gravity of the situation. Towards the end though, we learn that there is actually quite a bit of supernatural going on. The other woman is not real, and was purposefully sent to seduce Vincent because he seemed unwilling to commit to his girlfriend. He was also put into the nightmare to die with the other men. This lifts a massive burden off Vincent's shoulders, and also the player's because they are no longer (fully) responsible of the conflict. Instead we have a divine power - not evil, just twisted - and finally something for the player to fight and defeat to resolve the drama once and for all. Although this turn of events doesn't surprise me, and is actually very well written, it feels cheap.
The reason it doesn't surprise me is that it's actually very consistent with stories in other Atlus games - especially Persona. There is always some higher power that is the root cause of all problems in the game, and defeating its manifestation releases the heroes from their strife. But in Persona it feels much more symbolic - in P4 for instance, what the players defeat is a manifestation of people's desire to hide their selves behind masks so that they never need to face their weaknesses. In Catherine the antagonist is a more direct actor in the events which makes it all the more easier to pin everything on him. His word becomes proof that Vincent did not really cheat on his girlfriend, which dissolves the problem quite a bit and makes it easier for his girlfriend to forgive. This is what happened in my ending anyway, I don't know how things will turn out if Vincent goes with the other woman (or neither!).
Some of the moments during these final scenes were some of the best in the entire game, but I still have mixed feelings about this. Are we still not adult enough to make a game about problematic relationships without having some monster as the cause? At least in this game Vincent not relieved of all burden (after all, he did fail to fes up early).
5. The players
In closing, I want to make some observations that might be entirely inaccurate. The game presents a bunch of questions to the player and afterwards they can see a pie chart of how other players answered on their first playthrough. Although I have no way of knowing why players chose what they chose, there is a very clear preference for the girlfriend on first playthroughs - I think it was about 75 to 80% of players. I can come up with two different explanations as to why it is more likely to choose the girlfriend on the first playthrough. First is the fact that, although they might not have intended it so, ending up with her seems like the "good" path through this game. Even though the choices affect Vincent's preference between order and chaos, visual cues do suggest that going with order is the "good" path.
I don't have statistics, but I'd put my money on "good" paths being generally preferred on first playthroughs. This is in part due to bad design of "evil" paths, which makes the "good" path seem the experience players were intended to have. Many games with alternative paths or endings often do include one that is implied to be canon. As players we often aim for the optimal experience, and because of this history of choices, it is a general assumption that the "good" path is the one we are intended to take. Furthermore, if the player is a completionist and wants to get all eight endings, they have to answer in certain ways throughout the game. You can get three endings in one full playthrough (by altering the final choices), but to do so Vincent's values need to be fully order, fully chaos or fully neutral. Which means you would choose every answer accordingly.
The latter doesn't explain why most players chose to prefer the girlfriend, but it does explain why they would answer consistently after making up their mind. On the other hand, it is also possible players answered based on their personal preferences instead of intentionally trying to stay on the "good" path. If that is the case, it kinda looks like gamers make pretty good lifetime partners because they prefer stability over excitement. I would not be surprised if this was the case actually. Of course it's a bit far-fetched to draw this conclusion from game statistics but it's kinda consistent with real life observations. Enough with the guesswork though, let's wrap this thing up.
This post was a bit weird because there is not that much game design in Catherine to analyse. I have probably written stuff I'd like to take back one day. For the record, I didn't intentionally read any analysis about Catherine before playing it or writing this piece because I didn't want my observations to be affected by someone else's. Which means I may have just written the exact same thing that someone has already written. I think Catherine is a strong argument to throw at anyone who claims that games are not for telling stories. Catherine tells a very powerful story and uses the medium's strengths to its advantage. Catherine the movie would never be as powerful. The game succeeds in involving the player in its drama in a rather clever way, and the entire experience feels very personal.
I am done here.