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.

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