Games

'Catherine': A Screwfly Box Puzzle Solution

Today we look at Atlus's idiosyncratic new puzzle game about relationships, Catherine, and an unexpected parallel to be found in science fiction.

This discussion of Catherine includes major plot spoilers.

Atlus games rarely make any sort of practical sense, but they at least possess an internal logic. Towers must be ascended, dungeons must be traversed, and walls must be climbed, if not to thwart ancient eldritch horrors then to peel back the psyche of the self. In this respect, I find that Catherine performs quite admirably, even if it doesn't venture quite as far in as I might have preferred.

Catherine, designed by several of the same people behind Persona 3 and Persona 4, including director Katsura Hashino, explores masculine anxieties in such a distinct way that I suspect I'll never quite be able to relate to it in the same way as a man. Its delivery in the final act is both more deft and more trite than I expected, and I could certainly have done without Midnight Venus's explication of the game's already more than obvious metaphor, but where Catherine really threw me for a loop is when it revealed just why these nightmares and deaths are happening to the game's characters: humanity is being domesticated.

Dumuzid (a shepherd of pre-Christian mythology) and Asteroth (the chief inquisitor of Hell), the major antagonists of the game, both rely heavily on Catholic imagery with the central fixtures of the church pews, confession booths, and distant Cathedral. All of these are beset with the Greek astronomical symbols for Mars (masculinity) and Venus (femininity), further playing on themes of (a rather false) gender and sexual binary. Nevertheless we are never given a definite answer of where Dumuzid and Asteroth come from or on whose behalf they act, whether they are actual folkloric beings or metaphysical agents or simply appear in that form for the sake of human comprehension. But there is something deliberately inhuman about them all the same. So much so that my immediate impression on reaching this twist in the game's story was not to think of horror or fantasy, but of science fiction.

"The Screwfly Solution", written by Alice Sheldon, an author better known under her male pen name James Tiptree, Jr., depicts humanity in the midst of being violently wiped out by an invading alien race, not through war or disease but by a genetic modification to male sexual behavior. This alteration, named for similar practice introduced to screwflies to brutally reduce their population in a few generations, causes heterosexual men to develop an irrepressible homicidal urge toward women. By the end of the story, women are on the brink of extinction and our protagonist Anne happens upon a surveying alien agent:

I watched it, sitting under my rock. It didn’t move much. It sort of bent over and picked up something, leaves or twigs. I couldn’t see. Then it did something with them around its middle, like putting them into an invisible sample pocket.

[...]

Barney dear, good-bye. I saw it. It was there.

But it wasn’t an angel.

I think I saw a real estate agent ("The Screwfly Solution", Analog, 1997).

Dumuzid's "plan" for humanity in all its gender essentialism and animalization feels as coldly clinical as the work of this alien prospector. The no-nonsense way in which Dumuzid and Asteroth refer to their subjects as they would livestock to be selectively paired up and bred is rightly unsettling.

Of all people, I did not expect Catherine's protagonist Vincent -- who I found rather unrelatable and loathsome for most of the game's story -- to be the one to lay out the platitude with which Dumuzid and Asteroth's plans are undone: "Men and women are more complicated than that." In fairness, as someone who has long been biased against this title as potentially gynophobic, perhaps my expectations were set spectacularly low. That said, Vincent's emotional maturity feels organic enough that this statement of his doesn't come out of the blue. He's seen that people are indeed complicated. They don't (dare I say it) fit into neat little boxes. And it's a damn good thing he says it, for otherwise the gender binarism and theme of human domestication transcends simply "unnerving" into "sickening."

(Especially when one considers Erica, a transwoman, whom Dumuzid condemns to the same murderous nightmares as unfaithful, uncommitted heterosexual men apparently for not fulfilling her prescribed biological imperative to get a woman pregnant. Again, sickening stuff, but at least this time the transfail comes from a clear antagonist.).

Despite this being central to his final bargain, we get no firm indication that Vincent really manages to end Dumuzid and Asteroth's work. Instead we get the impression that these are two among many individuals covertly shepherding humanity. Dumuzid in particular seems incapable of even considering a reality where fertile heterosexual couples are matchmade through whatever deadly means necessary. In the ending that I achieved, at least, there is an underlying grimness to Catherine much like that in "The Screwfly Solution": humanity is not saved, and indeed doesn't have the power to save itself from manipulation. From a director who in the past has allowed players the opportunity to punch out Death, this is a rather chilling conclusion to arrive at.

I'm still in the process of replaying Catherine for the other endings, so my impressions may still yet change about the game as a whole. But it's definitely more thought provoking than I expected it to be, something that is noteworthy in itself. Feel free to share your own experiences below.

 

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