You've heard Catherine's premise already: Commitment-phobic, indecisive Vincent must choose between marriage to longtime girlfriend, Katherine, and the allure of a sexy affair with a younger girl, Catherine. You already know is it's bizarre and surreal, and that the narrative's interspersed with tough puzzles.
You've heard it's supposed to be an "adult" game, a story about relationships. But what we haven't discussed much of yet is how well that story works — and how well it achieves its promise of a mature narrative.
One of the things gamers wanted from Atlus' Catherine was for it to deliver on that promise, and one of the consequences of that wish was some mulling on what qualifies "mature". Although the game got audience attention for its suggestive visuals and sexual themes, the things that were mature about the game had little to do with sex itself (Catherine alludes to, but never portrays sex directly). Ultimately, Catherine aims for maturity by portraying relationships between adults.
How well it succeeds is a matter for debate, but it's certainly an appreciated attempt. Most hero games portray a solitary character whose romantic relationships are plot dressing, secondary to whatever world-saving mantle the hero or heroine must assume. In particular, Japanese games of the mould from which Catherine is loosely cut generally focus on the lives of teens and early twenty-somethings, and Catherine is refreshingly different, a story of working adults of marriage age.
Actually, that the adults have reached marriage age is the precursor to the game's primary conflict. Here's something I've started learning myself, lately: The twilight of your late twenties into your early thirties represent a sort of shift in the substance of your life conflicts. You start migrating from a focus on "learning experiences" into a kind of anxious limbo that echoes the one you went through after high school. You know, it translates to I'm done with this bit, so what do I do now, and am I doing this 'life' thing right?
All your life, you'd been taught to be independent, that you shouldn't throw your life under a bus for love. All your life you'd labored under the expectation that you should always want to do better and be better than you are, and that eventually you'd arrive at that perfect love, that final permanence with the "right" person, ride off into the sunset, fin.
Then you hit 30 and you realise you're not really into riding off into the sunset after all — that some parts of your life are actually just beginning. You realise that with actual adulthood has come your unbridled freedom to do whatever you want without fear of judgment — and now, really, is supposed to be when you tie yourself to someone else and make yourself subject to their judgment? Really? Even if you had, all your life, wanted some kind of home, family, commitment, how do you know that you've found the right one, when so much of your life sprawls like an unfarmed plain in front of your newly minted grown-up eyes? And should it mean you have to give up things like drinking late nights with your friends, or — dare we wonder — attractive younger sex partners? Forever?
There are actually a lot of extremely complex life issues that Catherine-this game about block-puzzles and yes-or-no answers posed by mysterious voices — pivots on, even if it paints them in broad strokes and not in the sort of lifelike nuance we expect from late-night Emmy-winning dramas or life-changing independent films.
It seems Catherine's been hard for some people to get their heads around because it's so stylised, featuring anime art and a surreal narrative that plays with concepts of a man's disassociation. Part of that stylization is just game design logic: It's a choice-based game, and yet the choices the game offers are more about leading toward one of eight endings than affecting the material fact of the gameplay itself. Thus it's beholden to a certain vagueness, because it has to "work" no matter what the player chooses. The game's dialogue and events are only subtly and occasionally influenced by how the player chooses to live as Vincent; the presentation of choice in the game seems more geared at encouraging the player to think about him or herself, and of one's own views of relationship, commitment and moral rightness.
Catherine should be praised for its grey areas. If you ask someone whether cheating is good or bad, you create a black-or-white binary. But if you ask someone, as this game does, whether they should preserve their individual freedom or sacrifice themselves for others, you inherently create a much broader spectrum of nuance.
The game won't answer these questions for you; it has no message. All of its characters are frankly despicable: Catherine is clueless, manipulative and overbearing; Vincent is mop-headed, frog-eyed and dull, floating passively along the river of life into whatever choices are easiest or create the least conflict, and Katherine is judgmental, shrewish and unforgiving. As a player, you can experience attempting to actualise idealistic relationship values in a world of grey areas and difficult people just as surely as you can experience the disheartening conclusion that nothing you want is without trade-off, that no one really knows what they want.
As an example of a "mature" adult narrative, Catherine certainly has its shortcomings — spiralling off into clear-cut fantasy right when the interpersonal conflicts reach a fascinating fever pitch, for one. But probably the only way for me to illustrate why Catherine is, in fact, a game that speaks to real-world issues for people on the verge of adulthood is to get slightly personal. Sorry.
When I started playing Catherine, what I immediately understood is that Vincent is the kind of guy a girl can meet in a bar anyway; the one that when you ask him "do you wanna hang out sometime," he says "OK" not because he likes you, but because he can't think any further than a couple of days ahead. He says "okay" even though he's still "kind of" involved with his girlfriend. You don't really find this out about him until later. Lest you think I'm bitter, this isn't some great crime that's been done to me once; sometimes that's just how dudes are, in a city where everyone's trying to make it, where everyone's just basically curious about what's in front of them right now after they've had a few rum-and-diets and everyone is making friends.
I recognised in Vincent all manner of guys I've been out with, who have a woman at home that they're just a little bit hesitant to talk to me about. Because they're weak or they're lazy at best, or at worst because they're all-consuming and manipulative. I actually felt a little sorry for Catherine — even though she's temptation incarnate, home-wrecker incarnate. Even though choosing Catherine for Vincent, over Katherine, was probably the quintessential, immoral selfish thing that I as a gamer could do, I did it. Because I knew it was the wrong thing for Vincent to do; because I knew he'd be punished for it, and part of me kind of wanted him to. For myself, you know?
I've since talked about my choices in Catherine with a number of my friends — from the happily-married men who've never been tempted to the girls hoping for a commitment from their mop-headed, sleepy-eyed boyfriends and beyond. And the fun thing I found is that everyone had a different perspective; everyone evaluated the video game called Catherine differently depending on their personal experiences.
The result is a widely variant opinion on whether Catherine succeeds or fails as a highly stylised portrayal of the issues men and women alike face when they realise they're on the verge of adulthood and don't want to be alone, and neither do they want their lives to be effectively "over" in terms of fun and excitement.
But what's most interesting to me is the fact that we're talking about it, that this Japanese puzzle game catalysed these discussions. What does it mean for a narrative to work — do we learn something from it? Are we talking about important things because of it? That's good enough for me. That's what maturity means to me.
How about you? How did you play Catherine, and why? Did it have to do with your own life experiences, your own loves? Are you mature yet? Are any of us?
Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra, author of the Sexy Videogameland blog, columnist in Edge Magazine and games editor at Nylon Guys, in addition to freelance reviews and criticism to a wide variety of outlets. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.