Usually, after I’ve completed a video game, I mull over what I’ve just experienced.
I examine what I think and feel about the game I’ve just completed and then try to
work out my reasons for doing so. I then either eject the game (mostly) or play it
again – as I did in the case of say, BioShock or Mass Effect 2.
I didn’t do that with Catherine. Instead, I immediately ejected the game, glared at
my reflection in the surface of the disc, laughed maniacally, placed it back into its
packaging and announced to the world – well, to my living room – that I would
never ever play Catherine again!!
I briefly considered throwing the box with the game in it into my back garden, to teach it a lesson. Then I remembered that I’m not four-years-old and that video games aren’t sentient beings. For a few moments I deeply resented both of these facts. So, I made a cup of tea and slouched down on the couch.
Then I mulled over what I’d just experienced.
If you’re in the dark about this game, here’s the juice: Catherine is a rather zany
offering made by Japanese developer Atlus, the team behind the excellent Persona
titles. If you zip along to Metacritic you’ll see that it’s currently sitting with a nice
round 8.0 overall rating. You may also note that its salacious box-art jars rather
interestingly with the positive reviews it’s been receiving, which praise the way the
game takes an unblinking look at romantic ennui.
Catherine tells the story of Vincent, a 30-something child who has been dating
his girlfriend, Katherine, for so long he can’t even remember when they first got
together. As the game begins, she tells Vincent she feels that their relationship
doesn’t really seem to be moving forward and then mentions the word all men
apparently fear above ‘castration’: marriage. This causes Vincent to head to his local
bar with his mates and get absolutely banjaxed. He wakes up the next morning to
discover that he had a one-night-stand with a giggly young airhead with a penchant
for wearing clothes that look like slightly less revealing lingerie called Catherine.
Thus, the stage is set of Vincent’s week of hilarity in which he needs to untangle
his feelings about the women in his life and (perhaps even more terrifyingly)
decide what he wants to do about them. Oh, did I mention Vincent starts having
nightmares? And the nightmares Vincent experiences involve him clambering up a
series of towers while demons chase after him? And he meets talking sheep in his
dreams that remind him of people he knows in the waking world? And that several
of those people turn up dead on the news where it’s reported they passed away in
No? Well all these things do happen, and it’s a very good thing too, because if they
didn’t, the gameplay in Catherine would involve nothing but watching cut-scenes,
bothering strangers and interacting with the odd gizmo in the game’s environment.
Playing through these sections is like watching an unfunny romantic comedy
populated by bland characters, while checking your phone for texts. I have to say
I’m not the biggest fan of Catherine’s main story, although I also admit it’s hard to
dismiss out of hand. I found the characters and story impossible to care about and
the dialogue bowel-clenchingly bad. However, I do think Atlus deserve credit for
making a genuine attempting to examine a stalled adult relationship even if they
use broad brushstrokes to do so. Then again, it wasn’t the story-based sections of
Catherine that made me want to snap the disc in half.
This urge was prompted by the game’s main – and only – challenge, which involves
having to solve a series of towers made out of movable blocks that are steadily
collapsing. The player’s tasked with reaching the top of each tower by pushing
and pulling the blocks to build makeshift staircases before the ground literally
disappears under Vincent’s feet. As the game progresses, players encounter blocks
that try to impale Vincent on spikes, gobble him up, fling him into the air and send
him sliding along a surface of ice. They’ll also run into giant bosses based on his
fears about commitment, such as a skeletal bride with a knife or a baby with a
massive chainsaw for a hand.
It was during in these Nightmare stages, which constitute the bulk of the gameplay,
that the blood temperature of yours truly began to steam and then boil. You see,
Catherine is very, very hard. The speed at which players need to construct Vincent’s
staircase up the tower, the number of techniques and tricks they have to keep in
mind while doing so, and the way in which pushing or pulling the incorrect block
just once or twice spells certain doom combines to create an experience that’s teeth-
gnashingly difficult – even on ‘easy’ setting.
But it’s not just the level design that sticks the boot in; the controls for Catherine’s
block-pushing puzzle stages are also frustratingly hinky. Players will lose count of
the amount of times they move to push a block, and instead mount it. They’ll lose
track of the number of instances Vincent overshoots a staircase and pushes a vital
block out of position. And on the umpteenth time a boss skewers them because
Vincent climbed off the ledge of a block, rather than over it, they’ll probably use
language so foul it’ll cause their next door neighbours to spontaneously combust.
Alongside the imprecise controls sits the annoying fact that, while Vincent can
clamber around all four sides of each block in the tower, the camera only allows the
player to see three sides of it. Oh, and the developers thought it’d be a good idea to
reverse the controls when Vincent is on the side of a block that puts him out of the
player’s view. To top it all off, these Nightmare levels are scored by a frantic, driving
score that ratchets up the tension significantly.
Combine all of these aspects together, and playing through the Nightmare levels of
Catherine is like trying to do a crossword puzzle with a pen that’s almost out of ink
while a nutter screams into you left ear that if you don’t finish it within the next five
minutes, you’re dead.
As I progressed through the game, Catherine’s gameplay peccadilloes conspired to
instil in me a white-knuckled tension level that refused to abate. This meant that
whenever I failed a level, palpable rage was almost always and an inevitable side-
effect. Because Catherine’s mechanics, controls and music succeeded so thoroughly
in cranking up ire so thoroughly, there were more than one or two instances I had to
slowly count to ten in order to calm down.
But what it also meant is that whenever I was able to succeed in solving Catherine’s
puzzles at the frantic pace it demanded, and in spite of its shonky controls, the affect
it had on me was almost euphoric. I would guide Vincent up the side of the tower
as the pounding piano-led music heralded my imminent victory and all thought
was banished from my head, except for the fact that I was winning! I was winning!!
The only moment in gaming I know that is comparable to it can be found in Peggle,
where each cleared level rewards the player with a rousing rendition of Ode To Joy,
making them feel like they’ve just accomplished one of the greatest achievements in
the history of mankind.
I thought about all of this as I swilled my tea and mulled over Catherine. Then I
thought about something Walt Williams, the head writer of Spec Ops: The Line had
said to me in an interview the other day.
For years, he said, games developers and gamers have been laying claim to the idea
that games are an artistic medium. However, the moment outsiders claim games
have a detrimental affect on their audience, there’s a collective washing of hands as
we all claim that games – principally violent ones – don’t really affect anyone.
“Now, I’m not saying violent game make people violent,” said Williams, “but, at the
same time, you can’t say in the same breath that we are art and we don’t have any
affect at all. To be art, you have to be affecting.”
I sipped more tea and thought about this in light of what I’d just experience with
Catherine. This was a game that had provoked a very instinctual and emotional
response from me. It was an experience that, while it had vexed and frustrated me,
was something I had felt compelled to return to in order to see it through. It had
prompted me to vow I was done with it on completion, yet the gaming highs it had
offered pretty much guaranteed I’d return to it at some stage. And while its story
didn’t speak to me personally, I could appreciate that it contains substantially more
depth than its lurid box-art may hint it.
My problems with Catherin are legion, but as affecting entertainment, I have to hold
my hands up and admit it’s a piece of art that deserves to reach the widest audience
possible, because it’s almost certain to provoke a response in players. Even if that
response is the desire to fling it into your back garden to teach it a lesson.