Catherine: Full Body's Successes Make Its Reductive Gender Tropes Sting So Much More

“It’s aged nicely, with a sensual flavour, not unlike a fine wine,” purrs Trisha in Atlus’ Catherine: Full Body while sipping a glass of red, describing the “program” on the analogue TV on the bar next to her.

A gentle haze of golden sparkles twinkle around the gigantic red afro puffs bouncing on either side of her face. She’s “the Midnight Venus,” our “guide for the night” through the Golden Playhouse Special Feature. That special feature is the story of Vincent Brooks, Catherine’s protagonist.

The opening scene is the first in a parade of aesthetic flourishes and unwavering camp that made this game stand out. It’s disappointing, then, that Catherine: Full Body — the 2019 remix of the game that first came out in 2011 — not only fails to fix some of the narrative issues with Catherine but also adds to some of them.

In both the original and updated versions of Catherine, protagonist Vincent Brooks is a 32-year-old man who’s fallen into a comfortable routine with his longtime girlfriend, Katherine McBride. He’s shaken out of his complacency when Katherine brings up the subject of marriage, which deeply freaks him out.

On top of that, another woman named Catherine suddenly appears in his life; he meets her at his local hangout, the Stray Sheep bar. After a night of drinking, he wakes up in bed next to her but has no idea what happened.

Around that time, he also begins having nightmares during which he has to climb a gigantic tower of blocks, nightmares that he forgets every morning but which seem to be connected to a growing trend in his waking life of other men dying suddenly and gruesomely in their sleep.

The game is split between these nightmares and Vincent’s time at the Stray Sheep, where he can drink, text the women in his life, and talk with other patrons, some of whom appear in his nightmares in sheep form. The choices you make during these interactions, particularly the text messages, move the dial on a metre that affects some of Vincent’s interactions in the short term and determines the game’s several possible endings in the long term. It’s a dating sim with puzzles, basically.

The original 2011 version of Catherine is a cult classic, but it doesn’t go down without a few eye rolls. While the game halfheartedly tries to make its characters more complex, Katherine is often portrayed as a shrewish would-be wife to Vincent’s clueless sitcom spouse archetype, and Catherine is all titties and giggles when she’s not showing her violently threatening jealous streak.

Catherine’s mood swings are made even worse when you remember that the entire game takes place over the course of about a week. Side characters range from wildly sexist pigs to men with mummy issues, often played for laughs. “Men who want to control women tend to have a desire to be controlled by them. It’s the truth,” one character opines.

The game became a cult hit because the core gameplay of puzzling and decision-making is compelling, but also, it’s hard not to get caught up in the campiness and surreality of its narrative style at moments.

It’s full of predictable tropes based in reductive assumptions about the supposedly wide gulf between men and women, but it’s also got some moments that are actually funny and relatable. This new remix of Catherine keeps in all of the good and bad from the original. It also adds in new narrative paths, which — similar to the original — have their good and bad moments.

The game still works surprisingly well, a testament to Atlus’ talent for making games greater than the sum of their parts thanks to aesthetic flourishes and attention to detail. Throughout the game, for example, a “Golden Playhouse” logo appears during cutscenes, reminding you that you’re watching a program.

Whenever you finish a drink at the bar, a smooth voice chimes in to give you real, actual fun facts about alcohol. There’s a text message Vincent receives from his phone carrier about online storage with the subject “Attachment Issues.” Loading screens feature quotes from all sorts of real-life artists about love and dating and life.

Vincent looking at his phone in a bar and trying to open a photo that turns out to be an unexpected nude leads to the familiar reflex of having to quickly and shamefully hide the screen from others; you can only actually open it in the bathroom.

Using the framing device of the “Golden Playhouse” program, Atlus has seamlessly incorporated Full Body’s new additions as though they are also part of the show. The most notable difference is that there’s now a third woman to expand Vincent’s messy love life, Rin (thankfully she doesn’t go by her other name, Qatherine).

The story is told with a mixture of smooth, late-night-jazz-radio-style narration, dialogue, and anime cutscenes, drawing on influences from romance, horror, sitcoms and even literature. As Vincent drinks and dreams his way through a whirlwind week of women, wine, and wumbo-size trouble, I find myself wondering how a game could at once be so out-there and charming while also bafflingly leaning on some of the worst tropes of the discourse it draws upon.

Catherine presents ideas about men and women and dating through the lens of a bunch of hapless adults trying to figure their shit out. The game is full of stories that delve into the complexities of adulthood and gender, and its moments of cleverness in this area make its missteps feel all the more frustrating.

While there are some pretty ridiculous views about gender in the game, many of them are very clearly framed as the asinine ramblings of men navigating a sexist society. There are worthwhile conversations to find in the game, and the general interrogation of monogamy was refreshing. Full Body more prominently introduces the idea of love transcending societal boundaries like gender, which was also pretty cool at first.

Ultimately, though, Full Body failed to do these topics justice.

In both its original form and its remix, Catherine attaches the idea of polyamory to a maniacal succubus. The True ending to the storyline in which Vincent chooses Catherine, the blond bombshell who shakes Vincent’s life up, involves him becoming a demon and leading a life of wild sexual escapades. And there’s nothing wrong with becoming a demon if that’s what you’re into, or whatever, but in a broader thematic sense, the ending is an extremely flat and sex-obsessed way to think about polyamory.

On the game’s choice metre, which is presented as Freedom vs. Order, it’s the Freedom option. Despite the fact that in real life, polyamory often introduces yet more moving pieces to manage, the game treats it like a disordered free-for-all and frames monogamy as a sure shot for stability. Neither is true.

Full Body continues Catherine’s trend of trying to meaningfully interrogate social taboos but falling short. First, there’s Rin, whose storyline gets folded into the narrative smoothly but still has a host of its own issues.

First off, there’s a strange white knight vibe between her and Vincent that’s supposed to be sweet but comes off sort of creepy. In their first meeting, Vincent saves her from a stalker, then learns that Rin has amnesia. He then helps her get a job and an apartment… right next door to his.

She appears young and innocent, and while I don’t get straight up underage love affair vibes from the situation, her sheer naiveté makes moments like Vincent noticing her bare skin and zipping up her hoodie while blushing feel a little gross.

Then there’s Rin’s central conflict. Late in the story, Vincent sees her naked; the player doesn’t see what Vincent sees, but he reacts with shock when looking at her genitals. He freaks out, slaps her hand away, and runs out the door. After this, other characters arbitrarily start calling Rin a man and using he/him pronouns to refer to her.

Later, Vincent explains that he doesn’t know whether Rin even thinks about gender in such a binary way, which may be true, since in an earlier scene she explains that she doesn’t see what the big deal is with the gender of people in love. But for some reason, Vincent still finds issue with calling her a woman, despite the fact that one of his closest friends, Erica, is trans.

He also doesn’t go so far out of his way to correct other characters when they call Rin a man. “Woman might not be the best word,” Vincent explains to Katherine in an ending where he chooses Rin. “They must be really special,” Katherine responds.

Erica, who is clearly hurt by Vincent’s behaviour, scolds Vincent for reacting to Rin so poorly. After this conversation, Vincent gets over himself and decides to apologise to Rin.

Speaking of Erica, her and Vincent’s old high school friends, Orlando and Chief, constantly make snide comments about Erica’s womanhood and continually warn their younger friend Toby not to date her (he does anyway). Toby notes that when they eventually have sex — Toby’s first time, by the way — “there’s something weird about it.”

In one ending, Toby even asks for his “v-card” back after finding out Erica is trans. These depictions play with dangerous ideas about disclosure and the idea of trans women “trapping” men, which is a nasty stereotype.

Also, the moments when Vincent’s friends are being transphobic douchebags aren’t really pushed back on by other characters in the same way that a lot of other silly dating ideas get debated and pushed back on in characters’ conversations in the game. Vincent’s bigoted friends don’t get any flack for comments like this: “No matter how cute, the kid’s packin’ heat, man.”

For a game that’s about conflicting opinions and learning and growing, the transmisogynistic moments are given a lot of breathing room and seem to be played for laughs at trans women’s expense.

It’s unfortunate, because Erica is otherwise written as a plucky, interesting woman with a lot of empathy for her friends. But a reasonable character in an absurd story can easily end up looking like more of a footstool for other characters’ growth than a real person.

Some of the new additions to Catherine work better than others. The new ending for Katherine shows her coming into her own in an awesome way and leaving Vincent in the dust, which I found refreshing. The new ending for Catherine bafflingly erases the transition of Erica, its first trans character, with no explanation, which I found infuriating.

The addition of Rin excited me as a nonbinary person until they handled the language around her so poorly — not to mention, she ultimately ends up revealing that she is an alien. This reveal meant to be a fun upturning of the fact that Vincent thought her whole “secret” deal was being trans, but it’s kind of a silly way to address that for a game that started off so deeply entrenched in banal gender essentialism.

In the end, Rin’s addition made Vincent much more compelling than he seemed in the original. Preceding his blowup in Rin’s apartment, he isn’t a ball of speechless nerves around her like he is with the other [-]atherines, instead showing an actual gentle side that makes it less baffling for Katherine and Catherine to have liked him in the first place.

Between his irresponsible binge-drinking and superhuman displays of indecision, it’s pleasant to see Vincent be a functional person for once. Some of the newly added scenes have made the rest of the game stronger as well. Sweet, early glimpses of Katherine and Vincent’s relationship make her seem far more relatable and less cartoonishly shrewish.

But the game continues to hamstring itself with the way it balances Vincent’s supporting characters, especially the ridiculous portrayal of Catherine. Full Body is certainly less flat than its source, but for a game so lovingly detailed in its weird, sexy execution, its missteps are hard to ignore.

“Men and women. They’re more complicated than you think!” a triumphant Vincent exclaims toward the end of the game as he surmounts dream-world obstacles to reach self-actualisation.

It’s hilariously on the nose, and at some point, maybe in 2011 when the game came out, it probably seemed like a good thesis for an edgy game about sex and lust and love. But it also encapsulates the game’s issues: Gender is more complicated than just men and women, just like human relationships are more complicated than the binary of freedom and order.

For all its navel gazing, Catherine never quite breaks out of those restraints.


Comments

    As much as I disagree with this article. I respect it for being written faithfully.

    Unlike some others who have just said: " Catherine is transphobic REEEEEEE censor the game!!!"

    I like articles (Whether I agree with them or not) where they just critique the game without demanding the game be censored.

    Bluntly speaking regardless of your stance of transgenderism, not being up front about such things in a relationship isn't going to end well.

    People want different things out of a relationship and sometimes they will feel betrayed if that stops being possible. for instance most people do in fact want to have children. that not being a possibilty might be a massive problem in the relationship.

    You can have whatever opinions on these people you want but, being surprised and perhaps feeling betrayed or lied to because one side of the party didn't make clear what differentiated them from the norm people expect is a perfectly reasonable reaction.

    People don't have to be rude or incendiary about though regardless of their opinions on the matter.

      The fact is that typically a lot of males go above and beyond in their need to be rude and incendiary on the topic of transgenderism. It's almost like their masculinity is something very fragile which they have to overcompensate for (which in this day and age is actually true, but that's something we all need to work at - please don't take it out on us trans folks!)

      Thing is, guys can be into casual sex, can screw sex dolls, apple pies, water melons, their hand, heck even a commenter below suggests they want to screw this game... there is a subset of men who are DTF with trans women. But they feel a need to pass themselves off as the ones who don't, often by going really OTT with the trans hostility.

      Don't be fooled. No trans woman is trying to "trap" a man. We know men are balled-up hand grenades of sexual frustration. But honestly, if you slept with a trans woman, and regret it, are you really "trapped?" Or is it possible to just maybe decide it's not your cuppa, and smash with someone else? Hmm.

      'one side of the party didn't make clear what differentiated them from the norm'
      sounds like a scintillating first date...

      Anyways, this isn't really an issue that's specific to transgender peeps. Infertility can happen to anyone, and it doesn't prevent you from being a parent anyway - non-biological parents are still parents.

        sure, that's mostly my point though. if there is something like that about you, then making it clear early on can save a lot of heartbreak. Infertility may not be anyones fault. it could be the fault of a miscarriage anything, but for some people it might be a deal breaker.

        You need to be honest from the start or you are going to have problems later on.

    I think it would have been far too much of a task for the issues listed by the author to be fixed.. by what is essentially in visual novel terms an append disk.

    Perhaps if the rin route was handled differently it may make some improvements but you are already burdened with an existing and flawed story and characters from the articles point of view and no amount of band aid can fix that unless you do a full rewrite... something usually not possible on story heavy games.

    I wish I could criticise the article without seeming like a toxic male gamer, but it's not worth the risk. Truth is, Catherine is a JAPANESE game. Those folk still have lolicon and 80% of their erotica is rape fantasy. This is good start.
    Also, the game is so good that I want to have SEX with it.

    The author might be in a state of denial, but where I was at my point in life when I played the original, I'd had my experiences with Katherine archetypes. Just as I've in the past been (and in some ways still am) a Vincent, and see others that are caught in his loop. I'd describe my older sister as very much a gender flipped Vincent.

    In regards to Toby/Erica, we're missing a lot of the context of those screenshots I think we need to really see what Toby is saying to get those responses from them, since it sounds like they're trying to give a subtle heads up to their clueless romantic friend that the girl he's gushing over isn't just the pretty looks he's gushing over. That they're also Erica's friend as well is missing from the context of them apparently never saying anything bluntly, leaving it up to Erica, which apparently only happened after he and Erica had sex.

    From the pre-release chatter, Erica reconsidering in the past isn't a mysterious thing, but a result of Future Vincent having a talk with Eric, who decides not to transition, to love the body he's in and just be himself, including chasing romantically Toby still. It reflects another reality that doesn't always fit the narrative people with agendas push, in that not everyone who transitions is happier afterwards, and that they might have regrets.

    Of course, I haven't played Full Body (I'm waiting for the PC Port) so whether that is the case, or if it ends up being a case where part of the original story has been 'improved' by localisation, but it certainly justified why Eric was listed in the credits in that one ending.

      Oh lord, another Agenda-bender.

      There's nothing I love hearing more than some gullible alt-right crud sucker who bought the idea that trans people are a huge con. Transies advocating for their peers offends you, WE GET IT.

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