The puzzle metaphor (as given) may be broken, but it's still useful for displaying the anxieties that Vincent represents on behalf of his target audience.
Platforms: Playstation 3, XBox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Release date: 2011-06-24
Catherine has the particular distinction of being the only game besides Bayonetta that I prepared myself to hate well in advance. Everything I heard and saw about it rubbed me the wrong way, particularly the mainstream press's use of the word "mature" to mean "boobies" and not the even-handed, cerebral storytelling our medium quite frankly requires. I volunteered to review the game for PopMatters largely for the fact that negative reviews are more entertaining to write than positive ones.
I'm a feminist. Which means, among other things, that I don't particularly care about distorted hypersexualized bodies in revealing clothing; I'm concerned with the personalities behind them. But I'm not an apologist either. I look at both Bayonetta and Catherine and see games designed by heterosexual men for heterosexual men with little to no regard for women beyond the roles of decorations and obstacles, so any discussion of "empowerment" and "subversive feminism" is largely irrelevant. Portal 2 is a game that cares about feminism. Bayonetta is just boys being boys as usual.
But Catherine, oddly enough, surprised me.
Catherine is certainly a game written by men, for men, but it is hardly your typical game fantasy narrative. This is the story of Vincent Brooks, a 32-year-old software designer who becomes overloaded with anxiety when his girlfriend suggests marriage and he falls into a drunken affair with a young woman that he meets at the bar. He's soon plagued by nightmares of walls made from movable, scaleable blocks, and anxious, guilt-ridden anthropomorphic sheep who shriek about being cursed by a "witch." To climb the tower of blocks all the way to the top is to win "true freedom," though Vincent is much slower to acquire agency in his waking life, filled with unsympathetic friends, an exhausting job, and an apparent alcohol problem.
The first game that I thought of while playing through Catherine was not Dead or Alive, Leisure Suit Larry, or Bayonetta (as expected), but instead Heavy Rain. Like Catherine, Heavy Rain speaks directly to adult men and anxieties of fatherhood, something that I in my perspective as a single woman can only observe from an academic distance. Among all of gaming's fantasies of free-roaming space marines and intergalactic playboys, Heavy Rain makes a genuine attempt at maturity. Catherine exists in some interim space between this mode of adult sobriety and playful, adolescent gaming. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the juxtaposition between Vincent's real-world conflicts about commitment and the puzzle levels of his nightmares, where success is awarded with trophies and cheers from the audience. The epilogue goes out of its way to explain these puzzles as a metaphor for life (something which hardly counts as a spoiler, as obvious as it is) but doesn't dwell at all on the more cynical side of its representation, which is that we can only long for life to be so simple and incentivized, but it doesn't really exist in that way.
The box puzzle metaphor (as given) may therefore be broken, but it's still useful for displaying the anxieties that Vincent represents on behalf of his target audience. In a play-within-a-play device, there is an inner minigame called Rapunzel that mimics the larger puzzles of the game's stages and to which all the resident unsettled men of the Stray Sheep Bar are addicted. Vincent, an overgrown child himself, struggles to be assertive in life but thrives in nightly puzzle solving. Yet games can't help him sort out the real problems of his life: he agonizes with change, dreads commitment and fatherhood even more, and quickly becomes a victim of his own id. While the Catherine of the title is more of an idea than an individual (as I feared), Vincent's girlfriend Katherine is a far more self-possessed individual who won't wait around for Vincent forever. She has her own anxieties, as do the rest of the cast who aren't infernal beings, and the game's cutscenes are far more deft at handling these than I expected.
Sadly, if "better than expected" is the best praise that can be afforded to a game, something is still deeply wrong -- or rather, several things are. Chief among those is the profound level of disconnect that persists between gameplay and cutscenes. Fun and tricky as they may be, the puzzles are so blatantly "game-y" even the tutorial level goes out of its way to poke fun at this abuse of physics. There is no real rhyme or reason to the puzzles, just a series of obstacle courses with evenly spaced "boss" confrontations offering up manifestations of Vincent's fears. The rest is conversation, only sporadically punctuated by a text message or dialogue option. Oh, and loading screens. So many loading screens.
Ultimately, the most that can be said about Catherine is that it is fun to play. I found the game especially pleasurable playing for one of the three Chaos endings, which have the silliest cutscenes this side of a Rumiko Takahashi (Ranma ½, Urusei Yatsura) sex comedy. Otherwise, the game has the dubious distinction of not being as misogynistic as I feared, although that isn't to say that its gender issues aren't frankly appalling at times. This is especially true of its trans character, whom the villains punish apparently just for not conforming to heteronormative sexual and social roles. It creates a curious dichotomy, as it could be considered bold of Atlus to include a trans character to begin with, but the game blithely treads over LGBTQ sensitivities in favor of corny platitudes about heterosexual romance all the same. We get a single line in defense of diversity but even that comes framed in a gender binary. Disappointing, although not entirely unexpected.
While short for an Atlus game (average playthroughs seem to run 15-20 hours; my two were 13 and 10 respectively, played on Normal difficulty), Catherine does have a certain charm that is underserved given all its imagery of imperiling blonde temptresses with their evil vortex vaginas. Women gamers can rest assured that despite all its various attempts at alienation, the game itself is in general open for all, and perhaps even a little better written than one might expect (something for which I suspect we should be thanking the localizers). That said, it's far from perfect, either on the level of design or the writing, and the treatment of its trans character in particular leaves much to be desired. Hardly a Duke Nukem, but a sophomoric effort nevertheless.