Morality in videogames, one of the more popular trends of the last five or so years, has always been presented in relatively binary terms. Pick good or pick bad. Help people or hurt people. InFamous and Mass Effect have walked fairly clear lines between good and evil. Fallout 3 chose a similar course with more grey matter in between, but often revolved around a personal decision to do good or be bad. Morality is a role to be played and mechanic to be exploited based around fairly common Western values of good and evil. This isn't necessarily true of Catherine.
Catherine is one of the few videogames to offer legitimate moral complexity. Its protagonist, a man in his early 30’s named Vincent, is apparently content with a long-term relationship with his girlfriend, Katherine, but succumbs to infidelity when he winds up getting plastered and taking a young, blonde, and beautiful Catherine home from a bar. Catherine could have taken the easy route and constructed a game around Vincent getting his act together, but instead it opts for a design far more subdued, one that seems more interested in seeing how far down the rabbit hole goes rather than a preoccupation with escaping it.
The crux of Catherine's argument is Vincent's investment in and obligation to Katherine versus a viable and interesting alternative in Catherine. A taut moralist would obviously do everything in his power to correct the situation, but Vincent's life isn't so simple. Through a series of conversations with friends (and himself), it's suggested that Vincent might not entirely be content with getting married and living traditionally - a path that Katherine is pushing him toward. Catherine presents an escape, and often a compelling case to the contrary with reasonably sound logic. Katherine versus Catherine is order against freedom...and, well, a bunch of demons trying to kill you in your sleep.
Catherine's structure is about as untraditional as its drama/puzzle concept. Ostensibly eight days long, day portions play out in either anime or in-engine cut scenes and conclude with some interactive bits at Stray Sheep, a bar frequented by Vincent and his friends. At night, Vincent is perpetually tormented by a nightmare that involves him ascending a tower of cubes in his underwear, often on the run from vague allusions from his subconscious. This arrangement isn't entirely dissimilar from Persona 3 and 4 (the development team’s exceptional previous efforts), which balanced high school life by day and dungeon crawling by night. Catherine matures in not only the age and social problems of its characters, but also the methodology behind it's opposite half; yes, they’re basically puzzles, but they’re as sharp as nails.
Months ago, I was disappointed when I discovered the most interactive bits of Catherine would play out under what appeared to be a box pushing minigame. Pushing and pulling cubes in a myriad of ways to ascend a tower seemed better suited as a diversion rather than a core. Over time, and with a rapid injection of new properties and challenges at every level, cube-ascent revealed itself as deep and complex as any puzzle game. It's climb or die, and the desperation associated with rapidly trying to figure a working arrangement to ascend the tower could be as complex and exhilarating as any potential substitute.
In fact, Catherine’s puzzles aren’t as divorced from Vincent's waking life as a casual observance might imply. Contextually, they are an allegory for Vincent working out his subconscious demons in an abstract fashion. It's a struggle, even agonizing at times, but so is dispelling his real-life problems. I had to bump the difficulty from normal to easy by the fourth level, and even then reaching the top remained a significant undertaking. It wasn't necessarily unfair, often the source of my peril was a failure to "spider" across a cube properly or employ some other dormant technique, but it was considerably more difficult that the cupcake rubbish that so often masquerades as a challenge these days. I could appreciate the difficulty but I have a sneaking suspicion less patient or more casual players might be turned off by Catherine’s staggering challenge.
Each floor or level is separated by a landing, which is where all the other sheep hang out. Some are terrified and helpless while others are confident and accepting, and a good portion of them are sheep-versions of people Vincent meets in the bar. They look like sheep, but they're all real men dealing with similar issues of infidelity. Your actions at the bar directly correspond to their presence and demeanor in Vincent's dreams, and if one or the other is neglected you might see them dead on the news the next day.
Nightmares are the main course, but the bookends holding it up are the most interesting portions of Catherine. The Stray Sheep bar, in particular, is about as removed from traditional game fodder as you can get. Vincent will discuss Catherine and Katherine with his close friends over a few beers, but is free to get up and walk around the bar to mingle in the lives of others. A set of twins ripped from Twin Peaks offer provocative clues toward the larger narrative, but everyone else there seems to be dealing with similar relationship issues, and it’s Vincent’s choice to empathize with or rebuff their problems. Conflict must be present in any form of fiction, but I can't remember a single videogame that focused its tension around the consequences of (or freedom from) infidelity. In this regard, and many other, Catherine is wholly unique.
Texting was another unexpected avenue of consequence. Selecting sentences line by line (it’s somewhere between a word bank and Mad Libs), Vincent can choose to trade messages back and forth with Katherine and Catherine while at the bar. Interesting mind games were afoot here; at first I felt like not responding to Catherine's lewd overtures - but then I considered the effect; this girl is crazy, and offending or ignoring her might cause her to expose my infidelity right away. Whether Catherine was actually capable of this or not didn't matter, it sold me on the illusion and I bought into it without hesitation.
The questions asked of Vincent are designed to feel out the player's preference for order or freedom. Sometimes they're vague, asking the player whether they prefer golf or baseball, but others offer surprising depth; could you date someone who was already married, and if you met someone that was every quality you looked for in a mate, and you found out she was a robot, could you still marry her? A (largely unnecessary) meter that bounces a devil toward freedom and angel toward order is present to measure Vincent’s ongoing alignment.
It’s in this manner where Catherine runs a clinic on how to properly handle cut scenes. Both Japanese and Western games have tried to fill the gap between narrative and gameplay with quick-time events or other half baked instances of interaction, but Catherine actively undermines that traditional marriage with a clever hands-off approach. Vincent gets himself into incredibly intense situations, and when the moment of conflict arises a devil or angel will whisper in his ear and he will respond accordingly. Whenever this happened I had trouble personally managing the suspense and defaulted to a death grip on my controller while hoping to god Vincent was going to say the right thing. I did not have control over the scene at hand, but I had previously determined, through seemingly unrelated questions, the eventual course of action. This not only keeps the player honest, but provides an incentive to maintain an active interest in otherwise non-interactive segments.
Longtime MegaTen composer Shoji Meguro returns with a less poppy soundtrack for Catherine, but still every bit as impressive and distinct as hit recent offerings. Mechanically, the visual package feels like it should operate a few years behind the current standard, but Catherine's great art direction conceals lapses in animation. It's highly stylized but entirely believable, allowing Catherine to feel both solemn and mischievous at the same time. I honestly didn't care for the anime cut scenes as much as the in-engine stuff, but clearly the character models weren't going to cut it for some of the more action oriented sequences.
If there's any fault to Catherine, it's that it left me wondering what could have been possible with a proper budget. It's no secret that Atlus' in-house development is usually a late bloomer, and what they've managed to accomplish with Catherine is quite impressive, but it's easy to see room for improvement if the team had the resources necessary to flesh out the daytime portions of the game. The Stray Sheep is a wonderful setting (and a natural evolution of the dorm and Junes locations of Persona 3 and 4, respectively), but the mind can't help but wonder how far Catherine could have gone had Vincent had access to an entire street's worth of locations.
The appreciation I developed for Vincent's nightmares wasn't completely error free. After I had beaten the game I never wanted to do those portions again. Ever. The challenge was worthy of respect, but it's not especially inviting for repeat customers. It’s a bummer because I really want to play the game again and push Vincent toward Catherine, but I’m not sure if I can stomach those puzzles a second time without the complete mystery behind the narrative. I also didn't understand the limitation on continues, other than to perhaps add incentive to going out of your way to collect more while climbing the tower. Easy difficulty tosses them out like candy, but it they felt a bit archaic. Still, these issues feel like minor squabbles in an otherwise stellar package.
You wouldn’t expect beers with friends and the moral complexity of infidelity to be suitable for an interactive medium, and you certainly wouldn’t anticipate marrying those concepts to a box pushing puzzle game to materialize into anything remotely interesting. And you would have been wrong. The elevator pitch for Catherine sounds like a joke, but it’s actually one of the most thought provoking, challenging, and legitimately interesting experiences out there.