Catherine is a new story driven, puzzle based game from Atlus. It is being advertised as a mature game that discusses adult relationships including the issues surrounding cheating, love, marriage, and commitment. It is told through the eyes of the male main character, Vincent Brooks, and deals with his anxieties and experiences with his long time girlfriend named Katherine and a new women he just met named Catherine. I wanted to know if this game explores adult relationships or if is just an excuse for cutscenes with sex and cheating. After finishing the game I have mixed feelings about its success. There are definitely some positives, but there are also several strong complaints that I have with both the content of the game and the advertising surrounding it.
Note: This post will be done in two segments, the first will cover general comments about the game and the marketing while the second half includes late game story spoilers. I will warn before entering the spoiler section so those that people can easily avoid them.
I had plenty of fears about this game before release date. Most of them are a direct cause of the marketing campaign. Based on the imagery I imagined a story in which an overbearing girlfriend “forced” Vincent to cheat because she made his life so miserable. I was worried that she would be painted as a nagging, cruel, and overbearing partner. For Catherine I was concerned that she would be a temptress presented as an opposite to Katherine: where one is sexual the other is not, where one is kind and free-spirited the other is cruel and overbearing. The sheep made me think of these men as lambs sent for slaughter and I imagined Catherine as nothing more than the temptress/shepard leading men to their doom. With the images of Vincent running from a monstrous version of a baby or of his girlfriend Katherine I envisioned him as a caricature of a man afraid of commitment in his relationship, which is a an often seen trope in media. I did not want to see men painted as immature and afraid of relationships and women as either smothering, overbearing figures or reduced to just their sexual appeal. The largest problem for me with Catherine is that while it is not the game that I feared, it did not break through those stereotypes and instead relied on them to create drama in the story.
The Deluxe Edition “Love Is Over” version of Catherine comes with the following extras: a T-shirt similar to one worn by Vincent in the game (it says Empty and has a row of hearts with only the first few hearts filled in), a pillowcase with the game logo and an image of a sprawled out Catherine in her lingerie-like outfit, a cardboard pizza box with the logo of the bar “Stray Sheep”, and a pair of boxer shorts similar to the ones worn by Vincent during the game’s nightmare segments. This deluxe edition of goodies is aimed at male gamers. The boxer shorts and the large shirt will either not fit or be worn by a significant percentage of potential gamers. The pillowcase specifically is a nod to maturity meaning nothing more than sexuality. The art book included with the game has an image of Catherine eating a slice of pizza. This image was also used in early advertising of the game and it is very sexually suggestive. Catherine’s box art itself was also deemed too risque by some stores. The original versions of the art were cropped into alternate covers which are now being sold by many retailers. This advertising and art design reduces the game’s Mature rating to code for BOOBS! Boobs! Boobs!! Sex! Boobs! That does a disservice to a game that Atlus claims is about the mature themes of relationships, commitment, and desire. With so much of the advertising focused on the sexual imagery, it makes it difficult to take the claims of maturity seriously.
Purely in terms of Catherine as a game, I really enjoyed it. The puzzles were challenging but fair. The undo button was a nice addition after complaints of high difficulty when the game was first released in Japan. Save points before every puzzle made it so that losing progress was never an issue if a specific puzzle was extremely difficult. There is also a Very Easy mode that can be unlocked in the opening screen of the game for players that have trouble with the high speed and intensity of the puzzles. With both Vincent’s cutscenes and the tales of the patrons at the bar I wanted to see where the story would go next. But at Border House we look at more than just if a game is fun and it is with the story of Catherine where most of my complaints are found.
Vincent’s actions often feel inconsistent with his stated desires. He claims several times that he wants things to stay the same in his life, which should mean that he wants to continue a relationship with his long time girlfriend Katherine. Yet his affair with Catherine is in clear contrast to this desire for things to remain unchanged. My annoyance with this is increases when I felt a lack of control over Vincent’s actions. He continues to make choices that seem to contradict how I answered the questions during the nightmare sequences and the responses I gave for the text messages on his cellphone. The only effect those choices have on Vincent are his thoughts during the cutscenes, but the major actions and decisions around those scenes are largely unaffected by my choices. This player lack of control mirrors Vincent’s perceived lack of control in his own life. He acts as those the relationship milestones and issues with Katherine are things that are happening TO HIM rather than something in which he is an active participant. In much of the game we see Vincent reacting to events in his life rather than taking responsibility for his decisions and their consequences.
One of the things that is done exceptionally well in the game is the voice acting. I especially like the voice work for Katherine. My initial worry of her being painted as nagging or angry was mostly erased through the wonderful voice work. At times there are lines of dialogue or segments where she is upset or angry but for the most part the acting did not steer her toward the stereotype I had feared. It feels ambiguous enough that the player can decide for themselves how they perceive Katherine.
A general complaint from the game is that it is primarily a male centered story. It tells the tale of a 32 year old guy and his worries and anxieties. The other sheep in the nightmare segments are also male. The majority of bar patrons are male. As a whole it feels like a game about men, for men, written with the male point of view in mind. Even when adding the stories of the other bar patrons and their anxieties the game lacks a greater diversity. It is mainly a tale of heterosexual men hanging out with other heterosexual men in a bar.
Now is when I now need to discuss some of the detailed story elements of the game. Spoiler territory ahead! Turn back now if you don’t want to read it.
Not only is this a game about men it is also extremely heteronormative. As the game progresses it is assumed that the men dying in their sleep are all heterosexual males who have been having affairs. The very end of the game reveals that this is not the entire story. The antagonist of the game is one of the most heteronormative figures I have seen in recent games. It is revealed that this force making men undergo these nightmares is a god who explains his goals in the following terms: “Wasting a woman’s time of greatest fertility is a hindrance to the future of the species. So, we separate these non-fruitful couples and redistribute the women to men who can follow the natural order, you see.” This is an antagonist who literally sees women as nothing more than baby incubators. Through these nightmares and the help of Catherine he puts men into situations where they will cheat and therefore allow the women in their lives to move onto other men so that they can procreate. His argument reduces both men and women to their biological functions and says that this is the sole purpose of humanity. Love, compassion, and partnership are never mentioned because all this god cares about are people having children.
Luckily, Vincent disagrees with that narrow view of humanity. He yells back at him “Look men and women… they’re more complicated than you think!” and “Despite what you think, we don’t need any herding.” and finally, “But I AM human! And I’m free to choose how I live!”. Sadly, this is not fully explored within the game. Throughout most of the storyline we see Vincent fear commitment, fear having a baby, fear taking responsibility, and fear talking to either woman about his true desires. Rather than being a complex character he is the often the stereotype of a man who cannot take a relationship seriously. His relationships with Catherine and Katherine are full of complexity but he chooses to not deal with either of them. He does not discuss his fears and anxieties with the women in his life and instead spends his time drinking at a bar with his friends. He is avoiding making a choice and living with the consequences of that decision. Men and women are more complicated than the god claims but Vincent shows little of that until he finally defeated the god at which point the majority of the game is long past. It is only at the end of the game that he begins to make conscience choices and live with the consequences of his actions.
Another revelation is that the blue/red scale used to gauge text message responses and confessional booth answers within the game represents Freedom versus Order. Choices that lean toward selfish desires or Catherine are Freedom, and those that care about the needs of a partner or favor Katherine are Order. This just adds to a false dichotomy presented with Catherine/Katherine. Early on during their relationship Catherine she tells Vincent that she is happy to be his girlfriend but only if he never cheats on her. That comment mirrors Katherine’s desire for monogamy in a relationship. So both women want that “order” in a relationship yet Catherine is seen as Freedom whereas Katherine is seen as a restrictive Order choice. Instead, I saw both women as similar in some ways. While they may dress differently and have different physical appearances both women care about Vincent, want to spend time with him, contact him frequently by phone, and want a monogamous relationship. I have a difficult time seeing the two women as complete opposites like the game suggested with the Freedom versus Order dichotomy.
One large disappointment with the game came from a revelation surrounding Catherine. We are told that, “She is a succubus. She appears at will and seduces men under the curse by appearing as their ideal woman.” She is that shepard leading sheep/men to their slaughter. The overt sexuality she exhibits and the clothing that hints at lingerie exists because it is Vincent’s true sexual desire. Which means that the two main women in the game are portrayed as either coercing Vincent into commitment or as little more than a personal seductress. This reveal made Catherine a far less complex character and turns her into a pawn in the antagonist’s game. I am currently replaying the game and will be trying to choose Catherine as Vincent’s end game partner. I am unsure how the game will deal with this decision in light of the fact that she is not a real person. One small positive is that when discussing the affair with his friend Orlando, Vincent says that he knows Catherine would not be “his type” and he knows this because she is Vincent’s “type”. This bit of dialogue shows an understanding that sexual preference is varied and individual. While Catherine is Vincent’s personal ideal he knows that this would not be true for everyone.
After learning the truth about Catherine it becomes obvious that the affair is not physical, but rather something that likely only occurs in Vincent’s mind. There is no physical Catherine and thus no physical affair. The only person that ever saw Catherine was Vincent, even when they were supposedly sitting together in the Stray Sheep bar. Yet Vincent said the following to Katherine in my game, “It may have been fake, but in my heart I was still cheating on you…. I’m sorry. I know you can’t forgive me for what I’ve done… I finally woke up.” His understanding that he did have an affair, even without the physical contact, was a high point in the game for me. He is in a monogamous relationship and therefore his belief that he is having an affair with Catherine and his lack of desire to end that relationship is a betrayal to his pledge to Katherine. That discussion showed a level of maturity and care for his relationship that the rest of the game was lacking.
Finally, I cannot discuss Catherine with talking about the character of Erica Anderson. She is the waitress at Stray Sheep. She is cheerful, friendly, flirtatious, and has known Vincent and his friends since they were young. Toby, a younger friend of Vincent’s, has a crush on Erica. As the story progresses the two of them date and have a sexual relationship which is significant to Toby in part because it is his first sexual relationship. At the ending scene in my game Erica walks over to Toby to give him a hug but he pushes her away and says, “The guys knew you as Eric back in school. I want my damn V-Card back!” She replies with “Sorry, but once that hole is punched, there’s no refund!”. That short scene informs the player that Erica is a transgendered character and there are both low and high points to how this is portrayed within the game. During the entire game Erica is referred to with female pronouns. In the art book and in the game guide her description also uses female pronouns. Sadly, there are several instances where Vincent’s friend hint that Erica isn’t a “real woman” but they could be easily overlooked at the time as them teasing a friend, but in hindsight they seem cruel. I did find it as a positive that they never tell Toby about Erica’s past throughout the bulk of the game. I saw this as a sign of acceptance of Erica by her friends. Therefore I am quite upset at Toby being told of Erica’s past at the end of the game by his friends because that is information that should be disclosed when Erica felt comfortable doing so, not given away as gossip. A further striking choice was made by Atlus when they decided that Erica would undergo the nightmares along with Vincent and the other men. I assume that she is having the nightmares because she is not able to procreate, but since only men are lured into that dream world it hints that she is not truly female, at least in the eyes of the god controlling the nightmares. That decision gives license for players to also not see her as truly female and that is the biggest failing in her portrayal.
Overall, Catherine is a game that fails to shatter stereotypes. In its attempt to tell a mature tale about adult relationships it thrives in cliches. Vincent wants everything to stay the same yet he fears a permanent commitment to his relationship. The idea of a having a child causes him great anxiety, so much so that a child is the boss in two separate nightmare stages. When he is unhappy with his relationship, rather than talking with his long time girlfriend, he instead sits in a bar getting drunk with his friends. Vincent’s “ideal” woman is a blond, blue eyed, younger woman who is sexually bold and wears provocative clothing. This is a set of over used cliched that are never shattered. Vincent’s conclusion that people are complicated creatures is never fully explored by the game. In the end, I wish Catherine showed more depth and examined its adult themes with more care. For games that do these things I recommend some previous titles by this team: Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 and Persona 4. In fact, Catherine alludes to those games several times with images of characters or icons from the Persona series scattered around the Stray Sheep bar. Personally, I am thrilled that an Atlus game sold 200,000 copies in the first week but I wish it had been one of those two gems rather than this latest project. The Persona games handle complex character stories much better than Catherine and I would recommend those games for players interested in mature themes that really do mean more than just boobs and sex.