Published Aug 22, 2011Though the average-gamer age grows ever older, games themselves often feel trapped in arrested development, rooted in violence and sexism. Catherine, an unusual Japanese game from eccentric Japanese game publisher Atlus, is the kind of work that pushes the entire medium forward, in this case into adulthood via romance. But it's no dating sim.
Catherine could perhaps best be described as a puzzle-horror game, because the main character Vincent finds himself in a recurring nightmare in which he ― as well as other local men, who appear to each other as sheep ― must ascend a series of towering staircases, manoeuvring blocks, dodging traps and escaping fright-show monsters to avoid falling to his death. But the real horror, and the real puzzle faced by 32-year-old Vincent, is how to grow up.
As the game begins, our slacker office drone has been in a long-time relationship with Katherine, a businesswoman looking to extend her workplace success into her home life. After five years she's getting antsy so when Vincent ignores her wanna-get-hitched hints (muttering "sometimes easy's best, right?") she steps up her game. While hanging at his local dive bar, the Stray Sheep, with his high school buddies, Vincent gets a text message from Katherine who is off having dinner with her own friends, most of whom are married and having kids.
"Maybe it's time for us to get out of our comfort zone, too," she writes, sparking a quarter-life crisis that rolls out via gorgeous anime cut-scenes following a branching player-driven storyline. Burying his indecision under alcohol has an unintended consequence when Vincent meets a pretty young thing named Catherine... and soon wakes up beside the blonde, and surprisingly jealous, bombshell in bed. Now he has to figure out which girl he wants to be with while keeping them apart even as the game goes back and forth between these daytime romantic entanglements and night-time torture sessions (rumoured to be supernatural punishment for infidelity).
Vincent's nightmares are the embodiment of his waking insecurities and fear of commitment. The dreamtime puppet master, in his symbolic confessional booth, even asks if marriage is "the point where life begins, or ends?" (The answers to these questions, seeded through the game, are anonymously shared and three-quarters of respondents said "begins," which says a lot about who's playing.)
Other games have addressed love, of course, dating back to the text adventures of the 1980s and the eternally unconsummated relationships between Mario and Link and their ever-kidnapped princesses Peach and Zelda. Certainly the chaste relationship between the titular horned boy and the wispy princess Yorda in Ico boasted a surprisingly emotional depth despite, or perhaps because of, their interaction being primarily holding hands.
Games as disparate as the sci-fi epic Mass Effect 2, RPG franchise Final Fantasy and the serial-killer thriller Heavy Rain have incorporated love and romance into their storylines and even game play. The Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series, made by the same team behind Catherine, also included daytime dating amidst the nocturnal dungeon crawling, while the Fable series boasts of the ability for the player to get married (hell, you can even be a lesbian bigamist).
A love story is not an easy thing to write, especially in a medium that inherently prizes action above all else. It tends to be used as shading at best, without the necessary character development to make us actually care, or as an offshoot plot irrelevant to the overall game. Where Catherine succeeds beyond its predecessors is that it goes beyond two-dimensional relationships while extending its focus into the anxiety and confusion surrounding such concepts as monogamy and marriage.
Catherine is adamantly adult not because of the scantily clad digital dames (though, being a Japanese game, there is that) but because it's a story about adult concerns that forces you not just to think about esoteric logic puzzles but realistic emotional ones. It's about the challenges of life, not rescuing distressed damsels, and should make all but the most heartless gamers fall in love with it.