Sunday, October 23, 2011

My (Late) Thoughts Upon Playing 'Catherine'

Those of you who know me well know that one of the games I was looking forward to the most since the start of this year was Atlus's sexy horror/puzzle/visual novel game, Catherine.  I read all the articles, posted all the major announcements on my Facebook wall, and even downloaded the Japanese demo the night it came out.  Well, the game eventually came out stateside, and I did have a few friends who played it, but even more wanted to know what I thought of the game after I had finished it about a month ago.

The short answer?

I loved the game, but the ending almost ruined it for me.  Almost.

But that would be the easy way out, wouldn't it?  I'm going to keep this blog mostly spoiler free, but when I HAVE to dip into that spoiler territory, I will make sure to clearly let you know so you can just skip ahead.  With that out of the way, what did I think of the game?

My first impression of the game came after immediately after playing this game for about two of the in-game nights-- this game is not for everyone.  It's for a very specific audience.  It's not exactly weeaboos or someone looking to knock their socks off with digital jugs, but as weird as it might sounds, it's very much an intellectual's game.  Most of the gameplay is based on some truly lateral thinking puzzles and adventure-game/visual novel gameplay.  The point of this game isn't to tantalize you, but to get you to think about some interesting social issues.  The game plays with international notions about the roles that men and women play in regards to each other and seeks to really enlist the player's own experiences with relationships... which is where a strange aspect of this game comes into play.  

A lot of how you will perceive the narrative will come from what sort of pre-gained experiences you have with relationships and sexual quandaries in the past.  The irony of this all is that if you have little to no background with that sort of thing, the core themes of the game may go a bit over your head.  That is probably most of all where this game is definitely a "mature" game.  The way the game portrays the relationship between Vincent, Katherine, and Catherine is definitely dramatized-- in real life, there would be very little to commend main character Vincent for, as he is highly irresponsible and reckless.  The game would like us to think all this has been thrust upon him, but that only serves as an excuse for a lot of his, frankly, irrefutable behavior.  But more on that later.  I've heard many different responses from people on what elements of the story they carried away with them based on the sorts of relationships they had in the past.  Those with rocky relationships or reluctant lovers noted how they could see elements of their past in the way that Vincent and Katherine interacted.  Admittedly, I found Vincent relatable in how his own anxieties were giving him stress in both the real world and world of his dreams.  That sort of feeling of suffering silently, but almost for no good reason.

The gameplay itself was actually very solid.  If you don't like puzzle games, or are bad at them, you will not like this game.  Seriously.  I am the kinda guy who whips out Puzzle Fighter on the bus to kill time and spent a Summer two years ago playing Tetris long into the wee hours of the night.  I love puzzle games.  I remember a lot of reviews claiming the game was too hard on Normal mode and often unfair... that it was even still too hard on Easy at times.  Aside from a single stage in the middle of the game where a pressing time-limit is given, the game never got so hard that I needed to run for a strategy guide or rage quit.  The game does a good job of subtly showing you what you need to know to figure out the best ways to get up the stages.  If you're not talking to the other sheep inbetween levels, you will not get any better at this game (when you play it, you'll know what I'm talking about).  The bits in the Stray Sheep bar are a little two-dimensional, though.  These parts are less like a dating-sim or an adventure game, and more like a visual novel.  The interesting points though, come in the choices that you have to make within the dialog in responding to the regulars in the bar and giving advice.  Often, your choices aren't black and white, which I really appreciate, and more often than not, I was surprised with how the game gauged my choices.  In doing this though, it can feel a bit like the game is tricking you into picking the "wrong" choice, almost like "hey, you THOUGHT you were being good, but you're actually being evil, you sick bastard!"

Now, as I reached the end game, there was a certain thing that really did bother me, and that was in how the game chose to wrap everything up.  And in case you were wonder, yes--


Now, I've noticed a rather consistent trend in a lot of major games these days.  Narratives can be incredible, with fantastic writing or superb presentation.  But somehow, the best of the best always seem to trip at the finish line.  You know exactly what I'm talking about.  It happened to BioShock and Arkham Asylum, and dammit, it happened to Catherine.  This genuinely bothered me as, here was a superbly written game.  Sure, the characters fell into anime archetypes, but their interactions were very genuine.  This is why is felt very real when Katherine left Vincent (I don't know if this element changes based on the ending).  I found myself wondering where the game was going to go from here, as it only made sense that no matter what, Vincent's charade had no way to end well-- he was in too deep.  Then came the "twist" in which Catherine began to disappear from existence.  Not only that, no one had ever even seen her before.  Was Vincent hallucinating?  Did he see another woman as his own dream woman?  Perhaps she was a panic-stricken manifestation of what Vincent really wanted in life-- not to be married to Katherine, but to have the playful sexual stability of a teenager.  No, turns out she was just a succubus.  And admittedly, I would've accepted this.  I mean, up until this point, the game did have a slight touch of the supernatural, a staple of most Atlus games.  Heck, their surgery game is about a doctor with the ability to stop time, so I knew what I was getting into.  But that's when Atlus committed two of the cardinal sins of not just video games, but of story telling in general.

First of all, they pulled a twist out of absolutely nowhere.  Don't get me wrong, a twist can be done right when set up properly and grounded in the logic of the world presented.  There was a time when came-outta-nowhere twists worked-- when that gimmick was new.  That's why nobody respects M. Night Shyamalan any more.  And frankly, by claiming that entire cause of everything in Catherine was the work of the half random quote, half tutorial guide bartender.  I want to meet the gentleman who found the bartender a memorable and interesting character throughout the entirety of the game.  Seriously.  He had nothing to offer conversation-wise or gameplay-wise.  Plus they play him off as that sorta "he is the way he is just cuz" character you see a lot in anime-- in American terms, this would be a MacGuffin.  "Why does the bartender wear those sunglasses?"  "That doesn't matter, he just does.  Don't worry about it.  Really.  Don'y worry about it.  Why don't you go talk to that couple over there, instead?"

Even worse is that they use this as a way to negate everything that happens in the game.  Based on the ending I got, by claiming Catherine was a hellspawn, her appearance was intended because he had cold feet, and just about everything that happened was just an elaborate staging, Vincent is officially off the hook.  Forgetting the fact he was sticking it to a blonde bimbo for a week straight and explicitly hid her from her girlfriend, she wasn't really real, so he still deserves to go back to Katherine.  It's okay, cuz it never happened, right?  If that's so, what did my past few weeks of gaming contribute to?  Why is adultery okay if it technically didn't happen?  Vincent was still dishonest enough to go through with it in the first place-- you're going to just completely ignore that he ever did that?  If there's one thing you never want to do to a gamer, it's to tell them that the time they spent playing your game was useless.  Games are a huge investment in time and it can be incredibly satisfying to experience a good narrative and gameplay to back it up (or vice versa). It vindicates why you play a game and gives the game value.  I stopped playing Grand Theft Auto IV because I wasn't getting any of that-- my time is too valuable for that.  So don't tell me I've used my valuable time doing absolutely nothing.  If it weren't for the fact that I did want to see the game to completion, I would've stopped right there.  And I've heard many people give the excuse that "it's just a game" or "it's Japanese" and you shouldn't have to settle for that.  No way!  In a world where games with complete narrative structures can and do exist, why should we give a game a free pass, especially when it was good up to that point?  The games will never get any better if we do that.  Writing is one of the weakest departments of gaming right now as there is no formal training for games writing quite yet.  But we are getting there.  If we let developers get away for always going for the epic conclusion rather than the satisfying one, the correct one, games will never evolve.  They will just get larger than life and almost become self-parody.  It happened to comic books, and video games always tread on that thin line.


I promised myself I wouldn't let that turn into a rant on that bit, but it just did.  It really makes me that angry. I guess this game was the last place I expected that to happen.  Especially since the first 80% was presented as well as it was.


Aside from that one little niggling factor, Catherine really was a unique game experience that easily ranks among one of the top of my year, and easily one of the best of this generation.  It was refreshing to not only see a game that had the respect to treat the player maturely, but to focus itself around a topic that was, and still is, considered too taboo for video games-- sex.  The game doesn't hit on any profound truths, but it certainly does make you stop once or twice and question how you really might feel about something.  Some the questions really had me stop for a minute to think about how I honestly felt about what it was asking.  And the reveal of what exactly those questions were leading up too does end up to be a rather satisfying element.  Playing the game a second time with that in mind will definitely make it clear what the game, especially the bits in the Stray Sheep, was trying to get you to understand about yourself.

I still stand by the fact that the game is for a very specific audience.  The biggest part of it is just being willing to try something new and different for once.  Catherine isn't exactly going to burn any bridges, but it will definitely go down as one of the most socially important games in the industry-- not only as a game that seemed like it would never come out in the states, but for being one of the first games to take itself 100% seriously and produce an interesting product as a result.

PS - I swear my next blog entry won't be as angry.

PPS - Unless that's the sorta thing you guys like.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Sometimes, You Gotta Let a Series Die: Why I Don't Care For the "Ratchet & Clank Future" Games

I've always felt that unless you've got a truly timeless property on your hands, it's best to end a video game series with the (used to be) standard three games, and maybe a spin-off, tops.  Trying to keep a series alive and fresh has unfortunately ushered in the decline for some of gaming's greatest franchises-- Sonic the Hedgehog, Metroid, Crash Bandicoot, the list goes on and on.  This doesn't necessarily mean that the newer games are bad (usually it does), but that the way the games were just might not fit in with the current gaming climate.  Changes have to be made and cornerstones must be sacrificed to ensure that the game can turn a profit and score highly on review sites.  I've seen many of my personal favorite and inspirational games head down this route in the same decade.  The three I listed above are just a handful of them.  But recently, none of them have hit any closer to home than the Ratchet & Clanks series.

The newest game, Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One has just been released today, and features the same trademark gameplay, except with four player co-op added to the mix.  And for the longest time, I was actually looking forward to this.  The Ratchet & Clank games were some of the most well-designed games I had played on the PS2, literally inspiring me to want to make games myself.  I had only played the first next-gen Ratchet & Clank Future game, and I honestly didn't like it.  While the game was gorgeous, the artistic direction was bland and the game felt like it was trying to adapt to the climate of popular shooters by getting rid of creative weapons in lieu of your standard pistol, shotgun, rifle, etc.  In short, it was the most "average" game I had ever played.  But many people (most of which had not played the PS2 games) told me that the last release, A Crack in Time was much better.  That it was great game that hearkened back to a simpler time.  Imagine my surprise when I picked it up about a month ago only to find the exact same thing.  The game was way to easy, the NPC character designs looked like they could've come from any generic game, the weapons were boring, and the sense of humor felt too forced.  This was not the Ratchet & Clank I had come to love.

With the original Ratchet & Clank games on the PS2, I felt like it was a natural progression for the developer, Insomniac Games.  They had done everything they could with the Spyro series, and it was refreshing to try something new from them.  The first Ratchet & Clank definitely had echos of Spyro in its gameplay and level design, but it was fresh, creative, and a good game all together.  With the sequels on the system, it became evident that Insomniac was having a field day designing these games.  Stages were gorgeous sci-fi vistas with a unified enemy design and natural creatures.  Each planet felt like it had a history. And the weapons.... goodness.  It never came down to a tactical strategy for what weapons to use, just a matter of "which weapon have I used the least?"  The games were a perfect culmination of late 3D platformers, early shooters, and that magical element of video game exploration.  So what happened?

I think the times eventually caught up to Ratchet & Clank.  The games reflected the types of games on the market just due to the fact that the Future series is more third-person-shooter than it is platformer.  Unfortunately, that sort of cartoony/kid-friendly aesthetic doesn't lend itself to particularly deep shooter gameplay.  With other game like Uncharted and Gears of War doing the massive scale of being in the middle of a war pretty much perfectly, it felt a little too lighthearted for Ratchet & Clank. With the core focus of the games being on the platforming elements, the giant shootout setpieces came down to nothing more than "hold down the fire button, then move around so you don't get hit."  This would be fun if I had multiple ways of going through it like in the node sections of Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, but when the only weapon that's good or simply just made for mid-range tactical gunplay is the generic pistol, it gets old very fast... kinda how you could blow through the first Uncharted using only the pistol from behind the furthest cover (a problem they amazingly remedied in the sequel, I might add).  

After a week of playing the game, I was about 6-8 hours in and decided to just call it quits.  Nothing was really drawing me back to the game.  The narrative elements had fallen flat with a story that written as well as a standard Saturday-morning cartoon and the humor was way too forced this time around.  Maybe it was just the fact that "funny games" have higher expectations now or the fact that Insomniac was trying a little to hard to deliver the "like a Pixar movie" experience with the Future games, but I laughed as much as I did when I somehow saw Shark Tale about eight years ago.  When I thought it was maybe just me, I went back and played the original games, I still found myself compelled to experiment with the gameplay and laughing at the game when it was legitimately funny.  The bit in the beginning of Going Commando where you fight through the mall still gets me to this day. 

So it goes without saying I don't think I'll be picking up All 4 One as my interest has more than waned in the series.  But it isn't the first time this happened to me. I haven't been excited for a single Sonic game since Sonic Heroes.  I have some expectations for Sonic Generations after playing the phenomenal 2D demo, but I still don't like the direction that Sonic Team has chosen to take with most Sonic games these days.  I suppose solid platforming doesn't sell like it used to and it takes unnecessary speed and extra characters to make the games look cool to the new generation.  I dunno, I just don't get it.  Admittedly, I don't even have a problem with a company handing off a game permanently to another studio so long as the original one still chooses to build off what they learned from past games to make new ones.  I haven't played it yet, but I've heard that the Resistance games do a very good job of retaining that element of dozens of creative weapons that was half of the foundation of the Ratchet & Clank games.  But do you think companies like Insomniac and Sonic Team would still be putting out new and interesting original games if they let their previous awesome titles die once they reached the apex of quality with them?  Hell, I'd have been willing to live a decade without Sonic if it meant we got to play with the long-forgotten Ristar just a little bit more.  Since Insomniac has reach a conclusion with Resistance and has definitely done everything they could with Ratchet & Clank, it'd be great to see them try something else.  But the same can be said for many companies.  

Once again, I'm just starting to ramble, but it makes me sad that I can't enjoy a franchise that I loved from a company that I really respect.  It'd be one thing if these were third party games, like the two PSP spin-offs, but I expect more from both Insomniac and Ratchet & Clank.  The Future games are still really solid titles, and more power to you if you can enjoy them in a way I can't, but at this point in my gaming career, I guess I would just like to see something new.  That's how we even got Ratchet & Clank in the first place.

Just something to think about, I guess.

Monday, October 17, 2011

You Should Be Watching "Gaming in the Clinton Years"

I don't know if I'm simply late to this party or if this series just got passed over when they were handing out memes, but Gaming in the Clinton Years is one of the single best game review shows I have ever seen... in that it is the single worst game review show I have ever seen.  The National Academy of Video Game Testers and Reviewers, or NAViGaTR for short, has collected and archived all these game reviewing segments from a late 90's public television gaming show called Flights of Fantasy.  These segments are hosted by a man named George Wood who was probably considered to old to be playing with games for the time.  His reviews were hands down the best bit of the show, as he often described each game with the fervor of a ten-year-old boy, but with the intonation of a 36-year-old man.  He also often tended to get off-topic with lame asides and bizarre jokes.  He also had a penchant for ragging on the graphics of a lot of games, often comparing them to the two shining pinnacles of computer graphics for the time, Toy Story, and The Mask.

The reviews are bizarre, and he often has the opposite opinion from what most gamers thinks today (he just doesn't "get" Goldeneye, for example).  Unfortunately, the page where all the episodes were cataloged about four years ago is no longer up, but NAViGaTR has them all up on their YouTube page, where it's definitely worth your time to sit down and watch a few.  Below, I've included what is arguably the best of his reviews and definitely the most indicative of the style in most of these things.  I don't know if this series was ever a big thing, but it definitely needs its time in the sun if it hasn't gotten it already.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Variety is the Spice of Video Games

As a gamer, I have amassed many different gamer friends over the years with many varied tastes.  One of my favorite things about video games as a medium is that a massive audience can enjoy titles for their own personal reasons, but still come together for it.  And that could not be any more true than it is right now.  I've said it dozens of times, but video games have never been any better than they are today.  Developers are always doing new interesting things with original concepts that play off the conventions of what we've established as an industry thus far.  This is why I write today with a message for some of you out there today—go try to play as many new and different video games as you possibly can.

Within my own experience with other people, I periodically come across some who absolutely refuse to even try some types of games.  Most commonly, it’s first person shooters and most often it’s gamers who align themselves with the house of Nintendo (I mean no offense or bias, I was once one of you too).  Usually the major complaints I hear are that they can’t get used to the controls, they aren’t fans of “hyper-violence,” or that they just aren’t good at them.  Sometimes these complaints are valid, but usually they’re just excuses for beating around the bush of trying something new.  First person shooters are mainly a recent invention (in the world of console games), and for the most part, if you didn’t jump on that train early on, you probably aren’t playing them now.  The same thing goes for other genres that have only just started to blow up in the past decade or so—role-playing games, strategy games, rhythm games, and fighting games just to name a few.  For newcomers, sticking to the most popular games may prove daunting and unappealing.  After all, who actually enjoys failing any Guitar Hero song they try or getting beaten in 15 seconds in Marvel vs Capcom 2?  But for every mainstream game like that you can name off the top your head, I can name two in the same genre that have a much lower entry barrier.  But for now, let’s stick to shooters as an example.

Alright, so you tried to play Halo and you didn’t like it.  At all.  That doesn’t mean you hate all shooters.  Before I started playing more modern games on the PS3 and PC, I was the exact same way.  I abhorred the rubber-banding gameplay of Halo, it was more sport than game at a time when I wanted more game than sport.  I was convinced I didn’t like shooters at all.  Then I discovered Star Wars Battlefront, a game I immediately fell in love with.  It was a spinoff of the popular Battlefront node-based shooter that used the famous battles of Star Wars canon as setpieces for the game.  It  was a third person shooter, but also offered a first person option, which I eventually tried out of curiosity.  I was amazed to discover that I still enjoyed the game this way, perhaps even moreso.  It was more intuitive and immersive, a potential benefit of many FPSes (but not all!).  Eventually, more shooters made their way into my life like TimeSplitters and the Metroid Prime games.  It wasn’t until I picked up a PS3 that I learned that while FPSes were some of the most major and interesting games out there right now.  Every time I hear someone complain about the state of first person shooters in the world of modern gaming and how contrived they are, the first place I direct them is towards the games of Valve.  Portal 2 takes our prior conditioning with FPSes as a basis for the control of the game, but the focus is so strong on character and narrative with absolutely none on gameplay that one is tempted to claim it isn’t a first person shooter… but it is!  Valve has a strong focus on design and narrative rather than the adrenaline fueled rush that comes from virtual gunplay.  It makes for emotionally rewarding moments that are up there with the most memorable from games like the Zelda franchise.

Now, there’s no point in trying to play a game that you have zero interest in—I hated the original Uncharted from start to finish.  But always keep an open mind and be willing to try a game that does something well or different—Uncharted 2 is one of the finest action-adventure games I’ve ever played, and appealed to me much more.  In general, games are in the starting stages of some of the most defining stages of becoming an artform.  There’s nothing wrong with buying the games you like to play and those games aren’t holding back the industry at all.  But by shunning away games that choose to dare to even try something new just because of pre-conceived notions, you may be missing out on a good time.  Sports games have absolutely no appeal to me, so it comes as a surprise to people that I love NBA Jam with a burning passion.  And I would’ve never discovered that if I didn’t give it a shot regardless of how I felt about games revolving around throwing a ball back and forth.

You might always have an excuse to avoid playing a game, but there is almost never an excuse for turning down a worthwhile new experience.  Video games have never been any better than they are today, and that’s solely due to the sheer amount of variety they now offer.