Games

Sheep Men: Choice and Individuality in 'Catherine'

From the depiction of cursed men as sheep to revealing confessional statistics, Catherine attempts to dismantle individuality, insulting and devaluing the player in the process.

While playing Catherine the much anticipated erotic-thriller from Atlus, the occasional loading screen will feature a famous quote or saying appropriate to the game’s themes. Most of these quotes pertain to marriage, what it means to be a “man” or a “woman,” or relationships in general. During a particularly trying period for Vincent, the game’s often pathetic protagonist, words by the famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson grace the screen: “We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables.” Such an isolating belief, reflected in Vincent’s paranoia and solitude, stand in stark contrast to the game’s persistent references to widespread and shared decisions and mistakes. From the depiction of cursed men as sheep to revealing confessional statistics, Catherine attempts to dismantle individuality, insulting and devaluing the player in the process.

No matter how many minor decisions that I make throughout the game, Vincent will always be a selfish and incompetent boyfriend. I usher Vincent through poorly crafted lies and watch as he tunes out Katherine, his partner of roughly five years (Vincent cannot quite remember how long it has been), to manage one of his many panic attacks about a future he refuses to confront. Rather than deal with his emotional baggage, he drinks with friends and avoids dealing with the growing dilemma that is the coquettish Catherine and his cheating problem.

Numerous other men share Vincent’s deep character flaws. As Michael Abbott rightly points out, “Vincent is one messed up dude, as are nearly all the men present as NPCs. To Catherine’s credit, it shows us male characters that we seldom see in games -- vulnerable, damaged, self-loathing -- all gathered in a freakish final-exam-nightmare purgatory.” (”The Catherine Masquerade”, The Brainy Gamer, 9 August 2011). Indeed, nearly every NPC wrestles with the causes and consequences of his personal neuroses. Across the board, the cast of Catherine are painfully flawed.

The men trapped in cursed dream-scape appear as sheep, their behavior seemingly the result of their inability to escape the flock of other self-destructive men. The doomed herd reflect what G. Christopher Williams describes as Catherine's “distrust of men’s seemingly innate irresponsibility.” (”The Taming of the Dude”, PopMatters, 10 August 2011). In most cases, this irresponsibility seems predetermined. One NPC’s relationship troubles stem from an unsatisfying relationship with adoptive parents and a competitive schoolyard experience from grade school. Another character’s dilemmas come from a career mistake that indirectly led to an innocent woman’s death. Fathers are also to blame, as well as cheating and dispassionate wives.

Ideally, the men of Catherine ought to break out of the flock and avoid the mass phenomena of succumbing to one’s baser desires and personal failings, to overcome the path set by our parents and the history of mankind. As Vincent, the feeling that players can break the mold is illusory.

The game’s “morality meter,” in this case measuring the player’s tendency towards “Chaotic” and “Lawful,” reveals Catherine’s incoherent take on personal choice. Although numerous decisions affect Vincent’s alignment, the confessional questions are the most provocative contributions to the morality system. In the transition between puzzle segments, players are asked a morally ambiguous binary question. The answers contribute to graphs shown during the load screen that reveals how players voted during only their first time voting (presumably making the assumption that players will generally answer truthfully on their first run).

The often inane confessional questions are judged by some unknown standard. Liking quiet over noise earns players a Lawful judgement. Although being more nervous in the company of others rather than being alone is deemed chaotic. According to Catherine, a lawful individual should prefer older partners and detest cosplay in the bedroom. Chaotic players likely prefer boxers over briefs and would rather have their cheating partner break off their tryst than to dump them immediately.

The strangest aspect of the confessional is not that Catherine judges players by some hyper-moralistic rubric but that it recognizes how little these decisions matter en masse. The player consensus goes back and forth on confessional questions, with more than a few instances of graphs showing a player-base that leans chaotic over lawful. Often the disparity is small, with a good number of players joining whichever decision you make.

Catherine touches upon the mistakes of men, lovers, friends, and parents. Rather than reflect Emerson’s poetic thoughts on being alone, Alexander Pope’s words more closely represent Catherine’s strongest message: “To err is human.” Why, then, am I always being judged, both as Vincent and the player? Vincent’s greatest flaw is his inability to confront his mistakes and speak up for himself, and Catherine forces us to share this same irritating trait. Vincent’s character flaws are made insignificant in light of widespread human frailties, and his growth is both shepherded and ridiculed by the game’s morality system. In many ways, it feels as though Catherine talks down to the player in much the same way that Katherine talks down to Vincent. It may or may not be intentional, but it certainly is unsatisfying.

 

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Music

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(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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