Hitting Close to Home: Relating to Catherine's "Family Values"

What's worse than enduring Catherine's selfish, unlikeable characters? The fact that I found myself relating to them.

Spoiler warning: This post contains details about Catherine's plot points and ending.

In many ways, Catherine is a game that speaks directly to a social subsection in which I find myself: a group of childless men straddling the divide between Generation X and the Millenials, trying to sort out their personal and professional lives in an uncertain world. Many folks have written about Vincent's generally unsympathetic character traits and the game's clumsy handling of player choice. I agree with these criticisms, but most of my discomfort with the game stemmed from broader, more personal issues.

Keeping up with the Herd

Like many folks, I was looking forward to Catherine's plot. It's not often that a game ventures outside the "save the princess" mindset when it comes to exploring relationship dynamics. When it was eventually revealed that the game's sheep-laden block pyramids were more than metaphors, I took it in stride. I have no problem with a little supernatural fantasy mixed in with my symbolism, even if such fantasy has a contrived, JRPG aura.

I was fine with the Boss outing himself as Dumizid, an ancient god dedicated to facilitating human procreation. He's an interesting villain with unique motivation. As the "shepherd" of the human race, he makes sure "unproductive" sheep are culled from the herd. It's a mission that is particularly resonant to someone like me: a childless man in his late 20s.

If Dumizid actually existed, I suspect my dreams would be full of sheep. By the time that my Grandfather was my age, he had three kids. Whenever I venture onto Facebook, I am greeted by old faces from high school surrounded by their ever increasing broods. Although I got married last summer, I've been living with my wife for years. By the sheep-god's measurements (as well as his Leave it to Beaver view of marriage), both Vincent and I aren't doing our parts.

Dumizid personifies a host of outdated social rules and sexist stereotypes that still hold sway in our daily lives. He is the nagging feeling in my head pushing me to the conform to the idealized life of a post-war man. Go to college so you can work at a good company. Find a nice girl to settle down with. Make a lot of money so you can buy a big house and start cranking out kids and raise them until you retire. Watch as they repeat the cycle.

Dumizid's plan ignores the fact that for most people, life doesn't work out this way, but this doesn't make it any less terrifying or insidious. Working from sexist assumptions, he judges people based on a subjective definition of men's and women's roles. Men need to be forced into commitment, women all want marriage and babies, and there is no room for variation when it comes to sexual preference or gender identity. Erica, the game's male to female transgender character, is subjected to the nightmares as punishment for being herself. It's a truly villainous way to treat somebody.

The scariest thing is that I sometimes find myself absentmindedly holding myself to Dumizid's standards. Even though my parents met and were married years before having kids, I feel a pressure to conform to some Hollywood-manufactured blueprint for life. Perhaps the greatest trick Dumizid ever played was convincing us we want to be part of the herd?

Why a Wedding?

That being said, it probably won't surprise you that my game ended with Vincent and Katherine getting married. Although this was supposed to be a "good" ending, I couldn't help but feel uneasy about the happy occasion.

I dislike the way that Vincent initially handles his relationship with Katherine, but I can understand it. Being monogamous without being married was familiar and easy, so why change? Vincent never fully addresses this question, and instead rambles on about how Katherine gives "meaning" to his life and how he needs to be with her. The question remains: as a young, educated, heterosexual person, why should you get married? It's certainly not for tax purposes.

The answer will differ depending on who you ask. My wife and I, it was about declaring publicly the commitment that we had already made to each other privately. It was about legal privileges and acknowledging how lucky we were to enjoy them. It was about putting on a ceremony that could be spiritual rather than religious. It was an excuse to throw a great party and share our short time on Earth with friends and family. It was about respecting tradition while doing our part to modernize the institution. When you're basically already married, there must be some reason to go through the official ritual.

I was looking forward to seeing Catherine address this issue, but Vincent and Katherine's love is never expressed in anything but trite platitudes and puzzling exchanges. Ultimately, even though Vincent frees himself from the herd, he seems content in following a path similar to the one that Dumizid would endorse. Vincent and Katherine go through the motions of the wedding, never discussing exactly why they are doing it or how they are personalizing it. They're simply following the next step towards some vague concept of "adulthood."

Everlasting "Emerging Adulthood"

Of course, Vincent can also end up with Catherine, an immortal succubus who represents an alternative to a normal human life. If marrying Katherine represents a slavish dedication towards responsibility and adulthood, tying the knot with Catherine demonstrates the opposite.

In the most extreme version of this ending, Vincent and Catherine enter a state of hyper-adolescence as prince and princess of the underworld. Catherine's father, the demon king, woefully endures their irresponsibility as well as their presence in his castle.

Seeing Satan as an overwhelmed father is a humorous way to end the game, but Vincent and Catherine's stagnation should hit a nerve with a number of my fellow 20-somethings, or as some might categorize us, "emerging adults" (Robin Marantz Henig, "What Is It About 20-Somethings?", The New York Times, 18 August 2010). Through some combination of culture, politics, and economics, adults in their 20s living in the U.S. and other post-industrial nations are increasingly reliant on their parents' support. Vincent and Catherine take this to the extreme, eschewing work and living on the back of Catherine's dad, slowly degrading both his patience and power.

I always feel a twinge of guilt whenever my folks pick up the dinner check or buy me an expensive birthday present. What makes me even more guilty is that little selfish thought in the back of my head: the one that wishes I could just be like evil Vincent, mooching and slacking my way through life.

One is the Loneliest

Of course, you could always get the ending in which Vincent loses both Katherine and Catherine. This results in him drinking himself into a stupor or getting hit by a car.

In the U.S., there is growing concern that society is biased in favor of married people (Tara Parker-Pope, "In a Married World, Singles Struggle for Attention", The New York Times, 19 September 2011). It looks like "singlism" has also crept into Catherine. When Vincent involuntarily ends up without a partner, his fate is worse than bad, it's banal.

The New "Me" Generation

Finally, Vincent can also choose to strike out on his own and "invest in himself." The game considers this the "freedom"-oriented ending, which makes me wonder if something got lost in translation. What Vincent does is as accurately described as "individualistic" as it is "free."

Throwing responsibility and caution to the wind, he pressures the Boss into a no-collateral loan and bets a huge amount on female pro wrestling. In the more absurd outcome of this ending, he uses his winnings to leave his life behind and move onto a space station. Like the demon ending, it's somewhat humorous and absurd, but it also carries similarly ugly implications about Vincent.

Vincent's parting thought "Why live a life without doing what you want?" represents the worst of our society's hyper-individualistic, instant-gratification tendencies. Like a desperate lottery player, Vincent tries to buy his way out of a situation and succeeds. His version of "freedom" is little more than a lack of responsibility and accountability. He leaves all his problems on Earth not by working hard or improving himself, but by simply abandoning him.

Why live a life without doing what you want? Today, everyone curates a personalized information network dedicated to themselves: services like Twitter and Facebook allow us to broadcast our feelings without having to find someone who wants actively listen. Instead, people flock to each other's web streams to watch one another "do what they want," and then comment on it. If you're lucky, you can get rich, famous, or weird enough to get a cable show dedicated to letting people watch you "do what you want."

In this scenario, Vincent ends the game exactly as he started it: focused on himself. The only difference is that he is embracing selfishness. I can look down on him, but who am I kidding? I'm a Twitter-using, Facebooking, blog-post writer who would love to visit outer space. How much money would it take for me to consider sacrificing my responsibilities to family and friends? How much you got?

Vincent can either marry Katherine or be ejected from the gene pool, two outcomes that basically play into Dumizid's eugenic schemes. If he winds up with the demonic Catherine, he joins the ranks of those who -- either by choice or by circumstance -- find themselves a burden on parental figures well into adulthood. Foregoing romance and achieving the "freedom" ending means swapping an ethos of responsibility for narcissism, a trade that hardly seems like an upgrade.

All of these endings are depressing, not only because they revolve around stagnant, unlikable characters, but because they hit close to home. After playing Catherine, I noticed the whiny, selfish, fearful little voice inside my head that personifies my weaknesses sounded a lot like Vincent.


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