On the Clock: Narrative and Gameplay Tension in ‘Catherine’

This discussion of Catherine includes some mild spoilers concerning a few of the game’s early game plot twists.

Quite a few reviews and discussions of Catherine have criticized Atlus’s new title for a disconnect between its gameplay and narrative. Indeed, a review in Game Informer called the game’s block puzzles “shamelessly gamey and [also] out of place in the narrative” (Phil Kollar, “Catherine”, Game Informer, August 2011, p. 108).

Some criticism of the gameplay is unexpected, especially given Atlus’s fairly firm commitment to RPGs (thus, a puzzle game may come as a surprise to fans). Additionally, this game, which has so intrigued gamers and the gaming press since screenshots began surfacing of the Japanese version of the game, is one that also was greeted with some concern when discontent grew among those same players and journalists about the idea that this was just some kind of “box shoving” game.

Which, more or less, it is. Nevertheless, to write off Catherine’s gameplay as somehow disconnected from the sexual politics that is the central concern of the game’s narrative is to miss the most obvious metaphor that the game is interested in generating between plot and game.

It is very hard to miss the notion that Vincent’s nightmares (which form the settings of all of the puzzle solving gameplay in Catherine) are intended to represent the protagonist’s concerns with his relationships throughout the story (indeed, at the close of the game “The Midnight Venus” explicates this metaphor in a rather obvious way). However, the strength of these sequences in supporting the plot of the game aren’t merely representational. The most clever thing about them is the way that they allow the player to not merely “get” what Vincent is going through but to put the player in a position to feel something quite akin to Vincent’s discomfort about what he is going through: a sense of the pressure of time itself.

When the game begins, the player is introduced to our hero and slacker extraordinaire, Vincent. Vincent has been working and drinking his nights away since high school and now the 30-something salaryman finds that his carefree and lackadaisical existence is threatened by his girlfriend’s insistence that marriage (and more horrifically, perhaps: responsibility) are something worth considering in the near future. The very near future. The very, very near future.

Having dated Katherine for five years, Vincent finds that Katherine feels that the clock is ticking, and it is about time for a deadline to be put in place to move their relationship forward.

That this demand becomes fuels for Vincent’s nightmares and Catherine’s gameplay becomes, as I noted before, a rather obvious metaphor. In Vincent’s dreams, Vincent finds himself trapped in a vertical space that is rapidly dissolving beneath him. His only hope of survival, of maintaining his own existence, is to climb a wall of blocks as fast as possible. The complication that the path upwards towards “freedom” is not laid out in a straightforward way, that the player has to push and pull blocks frantically to make a way for Vincent’s ascent before the ground is literally ripped out from under the man places an intense time pressure on the player. These segments are less “fun” than they are mentally and emotionally draining, exactly the feelings that the character of Vincent is experiencing in the plot.

In his review, Kollar explains his feelings about traversing these levels: “Finally figuring out how to survive a horrific boss after 20-something deaths never grants you a sense of accomplishment, only relief at the temporary reprieve”. This complaint about the challenge of and nature of the gameplay is a perfect description of how Vincent feels in the plot concerning the time sensitive decisions thrust upon him by his lover, Katherine. Vincent might be playing the “relationship game”, but he is having no fun doing so. Each plot complication (such as the surprise that Katherine may be pregnant) in the story bring him no sense of accomplishment whatsoever. Instead, Vincent only finds temporary reprieves from his own terror at the idea of facing responsibility in the arms of his lover, Catherine, and the bottle that he nurses nightly with his old high school buddies. In other words, Atlus uses the gameplay to create a kind of empathic experience between the player and the main character.

Frankly, such a move makes enormous sense since sympathy with Vincent is extremely hard to achieve given his arc as a character in the story itself. As an irresponsible slacker, drunk, and cheater, this is a character that is tremendously hard to like or feel any kind of sympathy for. His desire to run from a possible pregnancy is not one that an audience is likely to applaud. Instead, any kind of feeling that we might have for the character is understandable because the notion of the clock ticking and the world dissolving is one that the player shares with Vincent. We may not sympathize with his reasoning in the plot, but we empathize with his experience of terror as we are chased ever upwards to achieve temporary reprieve from nightmare puzzles that don’t require thoughtful analysis to resolve but the sense that time and space are constantly running out.

Vincent’s (and the player’s) seeming only reprieve from ticking clocks are his experiences outside of the nightmare at the Stray Sheep bar where the player is allowed to interact with the other characters in the plot. Time literally stops in some sense in the bar. Some activities continue to produce time pressure as talking to characters moves time forward, allowing characters to come and go in the bar or allows them to have new ialogue options. Relationships in the game always feature time constraints, and if too much time is spent doing other things in the bar, Vincent may fail to foster relationships with some patrons, losing the opportunity to resolve some of those characters concerns. However, the game explains that there are some activities in the bar that do not move the clock forward. Notably and ironically, one of these time stopping moments is playing a video game.

Rapunzel, an arcade cabinent that serves as a game within a game, can be played by Vincent, and time within the bar will stand still as he does so. Interestingly, Rapunzel, which in essence is mostly a simplified version of the “game” that Vincent plays during the nightmare sequences (though its goal is to ascend a tower to reach a woman — the opposite of what Vincent normally does in his nightmare, flight upwards away from the kind of responsibility that women represent to him), lacks only one real gameplay element that defines the normal play in the game proper: time pressure. The blocks that the knight in Rapunzel uses to ascend are not constantly falling away beneath him. Instead, that game world — a reprieve from reality — can be played in relative “normal” puzzle-induced repose. While turns in the game are limited, the player of Rapunzel is allowed all the time in the world to pause to consider his next move — unlike our hapless slacker hero in the game that we, as players experience. Also interestingly, Rapunzel, while more like the “fun” that we are used to experiencing in games, is a lot less interesting than the game that is played in the nightmare. It lacks the narrative complication of that “game”.

This does raise the question of whether or not games should be “fun” by definition. Most leisure activities and entertainment are perceived to exist for the sake of blowing off some steam or evoking some such pleasure. That being said, much of storytelling in any medium forces its audience to confront uncomfortable situations and circumstances. I can’t think of much that is “fun” about the film Hard Candy, for instance. However, I think that it is a film worth experiencing, despite the incredible discomfort I myself experienced when viewing it.

Video games in the vein of Catherine bring the viewer into a potentially even closer relationship to experiences that may be uncomfortable and off putting by putting us into circumstances that cause us feelings that may be very similar to the character themselves, not merely witnessing and interpreting the feelings of a fictional character. To me, that Catherine is able to do so in support of its own themes is an achievement. That it can do so to offset some of the distaste that I would otherwise feel for a character in a story told in a non-interactive medium is an accomplishment and as intelligent a use for the medium of video games than I have seen in quite a while.


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