Constructing Community in ‘Catherine’

I recently loaned my copy of Catherine to a friend, who has kept me aprised of her progress through text messages. This week she texted to vent that the puzzles were sometimes so difficult that they were driving her insane.

“Switch to a lower difficulty!” I suggested.

In my mind, there was no shame involved in this, as a lot of very accomplished adult gamers had also played on Easy mode, and it was basically the acknowledgement of the game’s designers that they had made the thing too hard. And while I had managed to beat the game twice on Normal, it didn’t mean I expected anyone else to.

But my friend wasn’t having it. She described lowering the difficulty as “giving in.”

I told her the Easy mode is designed for Americans, which may have been an overstatement but is broadly true. She insisted this was a matter of girl gamer empowerment. That, finally, made me smile and caused me to drop the issue. As recent discussion on Gamasutra and elsewhere has highlighted, gaming while female is never about taking the easy road. There is already so much stigma attached to being a woman involved in this hobby, I couldn’t really fault my friend for believing that she had to work three times as hard in order to prove herself. It saddened me, but I understood it. I face it every day.

“At least look up tips and some videos,” I said instead. This seemed sensible. For a game so largely about technique, skill-building is important. But even that qualified as “cheating” for her. Being a visual person, I could hardly give her stage advice over the phone, and living 60 miles away from her, popping by on a moment’s notice wasn’t happening. She had to seek out online help or continue beating her head against the wall of blocks until inspiration struck, and (forgive my pettiness) I didn’t want my copy loaned out indefinitely. So, exasperated, I replied, “But the game is about teamwork!”

Which is not entirely true. Catherine is “about” several things, not all of them handled as deftly as we might like. But community and camaraderie, even as brusquely defined along gender lines as the game renders it, is most certainly a central feature. The sheep in Vincent’s dreams — who are, of course, the other male bar patrons — quickly gather together to discuss climbing techniques, draining much of the life-or-death harshness out of the levels, as even the characters begin treating them like a challenge. That is: a game. We hear their disembodied cheers at our progress, and presumably, it’s their applause that we receive when we reach the stage exits, which is what led me to describe the game’s stages as akin to a Japanese game show on our recent podcast. And then, of course, there are the polls.

These loading screen statistics that show up between stages are also a major feature in Catherine‘s community building, which is something first observed by G. Christopher Williams during the podcast. It was I who noted the implicit male-normativeness of this “community” that he was describing, as the game is very clearly geared toward men and the poll questions (though posed in gender neutral terms) often appear to favor various stereotypes and cultural assumptions about masculinity — most prominently, that men fear marriage.

Its short-sightedness aside, however, the polls are an interesting take on indirect community building. The game shares answers from other players that are posed to them in the context of a trial for which Vincent and the other sheep have been singled out to take part in based on a perceived failing of their masculinity and fidelity. It isn’t long before the sheep start to share their anxieties with one another. Several of the more proactive climbers are also the most spirited about overcoming their troubles by discussing technique — and so camaraderie and communal skill-building come full circle. Catherine is a game intended for discussion that discusses itself.

Was the male-normative aspect of Catherine what put my friend off from seeking online resources? No, I’m convinced it was mainly pride. But not only that. I suspect it also bears upon an assumption that the game is an isolated text, which is as untrue of Catherine as it is for many modern games. This is hardly a recent phenomenon, mind you, as arcade culture documentaries like King of Kong and Chasing Ghosts can attest to. The champion players in those films frequently describe the collective skill-building that they undergo to become masters, in the process of which overcoming intense isolation and physical distance to create a social network in a time before web-based connectivity.

But the communal aspect of arcade games is by and large incidental; Catherine writes community right into the text. This is a gaming experience that you are sharing with other people. It is a game solved with other people. Just as (for better or for worse) the likes of Twin Peaks and Lost often relied on their online fanbases to decipher their texts, Catherine takes as a given the interconnectedness of its players.

That isn’t to say it can only be beaten by asking for help. And it’s fair enough if my friend wants to solve Catherine‘s puzzles with no assistance from anybody. But I’d love to disabuse her of the assumption that going to find a video or a forum thread is tantamount to cheating. That is, and always has been, a feature of gaming communities. And Catherine itself is fully aware of that.


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