Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week sees the Japanese re-release of a strange one-off title that captured the hearts of its players. For this remarkable game we are trying a new format—with Damien and Daniel trading the story back and forth.
#46. CATHERINE, by Damien Lawardorn and Daniel Pereira
Damien: Catherine was one of the most surprising games not just of 2011, but of the whole of the previous console generation. The team behind the Persona series opted to cut its HD teeth on something smaller than the massive RPGs it is best known for, with the result being a bizarre hybrid of puzzler, platformer, and visual novel.
Perhaps on paper, the game should not have worked, but the disparate elements were woven together into an unexpectedly cohesive whole thanks to an uncompromising vision of infidelity that dares to question the nature of virtue, while also presenting a bildungsroman narrative that skews older than the YA audiences and characters common to the genre.
Daniel: Though Catherine manages to combine elements of different genres into a cohesive experience, everyone’s initial experience with Catherine will feel unique and personal. As a game directed towards a niche audience, Catherine holds a lesson to be found by anyone who attempts to climb its towering story.
Those who walk into the in-game locale of the Stray Sheep Bar for the first time may expect an experience similar to Catherine’s Persona relatives, only to find that the gameplay requires more thought and skill to accomplish its puzzling challenges. Players who are able to overcome the nightmare are treated to a narrative that overreaches its supporting cast and communicates directly with its audience.
Damien: Where most games are entrenched in their fiction, inviting players beyond their fourth walls only through control, Catherine goes further. Between levels, Vincent—and by extension the player—receives questions designed to test his moral judgement: do you focus on personal happiness, or are you willing to sacrifice that in service of a perceived greater good?
Vincent’s long-term girlfriend Katherine desires marriage, but the commitment-phobic man is unprepared to take that step. At the same time, the young temptress Catherine appears to test his fidelity. With the character torn between these two lovers, the player’s beliefs—as well as the actions they push Vincent to take while in the Stray Sheep Bar—will determine the path he takes and the outcome he earns.
Daniel: The moral conundrum that Catherine asks the players to participate in is important because it represents the real-world implications that Vincent’s struggle holds. While far from perfect, Vincent finds himself in a situation that questions the morality around desire and virtue. Although the entirety of the narrative is bound within the context of the gameplay, the situations that patrons of the Stray Sheep find themselves in are reflective of a subsect of society at large.
Part way through the game Vincent realizes that the other sheep he encounters within the nightmares are fellow men in the real world. While he does not necessarily recognize them, the player can connect the dots with each sheep’s confession of infidelity with the problems faced by the patrons of the Stray Sheep Bar. This important plot-point of shared stress in Catherine’s narrative symbolizes the reality that many members of society face. The concept of being shunned by your peers due to straying from society norms is a reason why many individuals, Vincent included, create their own falsified public persona.
Damien: Is life—or at least the state of living—then an illusion? Catherine never seeks to answer or even directly ask this question, but it nonetheless looms large over the narrative. The threat of death as a result of falling from the tower may be real, but the nightmare setting lends Vincent’s plight something of the uncertain. Are the dreams intrinsically connected to his duplicitous waking life or are they mere manifestations of his fevered fears of commitment? Both possibilities are equally viable, as the monsters that pursue him draw inspiration from both Catherine’s and Katherine’s words and actions.
Furthermore, through discourse with fellow Stray Sheep patrons, Vincent (and, by proxy, the player) learns that each man faces unique nightmares based on their own situations and histories, which further brings into question what deeper meaning, if any, the dreams might possess. However, the most prominent questions pertaining to reality stem from Catherine herself. To Vincent, she is the perfect woman, yet she is capable of the impossible. Without fail, she appears in his bed every night, even when Vincent has not seen her in his waking day. This cycle is what brings to Vincent his moral crisis and the nightmares.
Daniel: Vincent’s nightmares reflects the guilt and burden of shame he carries around each day. Vincent’s inability to escape his inner demons causes him to experience the nightmares every time he falls asleep. Within the constant nightmares, Catherine presents another metaphor to be found within society. Even when awake, Vincent is haunted by his actions as they begin to eat away at his psyche. Regardless of whether he survives the nightmares in bed, during the day he will encounter more as he continues his masquerade.
As a species, humankind is driven by the desire to be socially accepted by others. This often results in the masking of one’s personality to reintroduce a persona that is more accepted by public eyes. As a result of his actions, Vincent feels shame, preventing him from being completely open towards anyone else but his most trusted compatriots. The ever-ensuing nightmares are a result of Vincent’s refusal to address the problems he has created, insinuating that his torment is a product of his own volition.
Damien: What torments! What nightmares! The beasts that chase Vincent are manifestations borne out of his subconscious, amorphous in nature but always reflective of his waking life. Over these twisted forms, the player’s actions have no influence, but nor should they. Catherine tests Vincent, while Catherine tests the player: their morality, honesty, and, of course, their skills. This latter aspect takes up the bulk of the play time, challenging the user to clamber up a disintegrating tower, often while thinking laterally about the placement of blocks.
In a way, the game owes a debt of gratitude to Tetris, but inverted, and those inspirations are folded into a character platformer. Combining this already odd coupling with the horror and life-sim elements results in an experience that remains almost unmatched in its novelty and oddity, even now eight years on from its launch. Nonetheless, that uniqueness could never last forever, yet few could have predicted that Catherine would be matched only by Catherine, as the game returns this year in a new, expanded form.
Daniel: Catherine is truly a unique experience. Despite its stylistic barrier to entry, the journey that Catherine asks players to witness speaks volumes towards societal standards and the vices found within them. Perhaps the greatest flaw within the game is how players are asked what they would do in each situation, then reminded that Vincent is a man of his own actions.
Catherine: Full Body is set to relieve some of the frustration of falsified agency, as it adds an additional K(C)atherine into the mix referred to as ‘Rin’. Those who experienced the original love triangle with Catherine will find that Full Body’s introduction of Rin has the potential to either alleviate some of Vincent’s stress or cause even further chaos. The PlayStation 4 version of Catherine: Full Body will be released in English later this year, with new interactions, gameplay features, and decisions to be made with Rin. The introduction of a third love interest for Vincent will provide players with enough new material to prove the relevance of Catherine’s convoluted narrative within today’s society.
Thanks for checking out this soon-to-return cult classic. Next week, we discuss another game from a fantastic developer whose work has already featured in our list once. For more single player games content, keep it locked to OnlySP and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.