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January 12, 2012

Dat Curly Hair


It’s been a few months since I beat Catherine.  Fun game, that.  And I’d say that my 15-or-so-hour run with it has been harder than four years of college.  At least when you’re in class you don’t have to worry about climbing a giant tower while dealing with murderous sheep, all while pushing around blocks to build a staircase to freedom, all while making sure not to step too carelessly on ice blocks, monster blocks, those jackass crumbling blocks, or blocks that suck you into a black hole.  I felt like crying a few times.  On the plus side, this is one of the rare circumstances where you can say “I escaped from a buttfaced monster” with any sort of viable context.

But still, there’s something weird about that game.  Not the aforementioned gluteal beast, or the fact that the main character’s insecurities in life are trying to slaughter him.  It’s the fact that, even after all this time, I’m still thinking about the game.  I’ve beaten my fair share of games, mind, some of which are much harder than Catherine ever was (Sin and Punishment: Star Successor will leave you a callous, soulless husk if you allow it).  But Catherine is different.  For all our love of epic tales and mighty heroes, that game felt -- it FEELS -- like it matters.  Almost like it’s talking to the player, engaging with him or her.  Much like the conflict of the story, it makes you care about what matters most to you.

And to think, mothers the world over think video games are just kill-simulators.  Ha!  They’re only half-right, at best!

"Fuckin' blocks!  I'm gonna climb the shit out of you!" --Actual dialogue



For those who haven’t heard, Catherine is a puzzle game released by the niche Japanese company Atlus this past July.  It stars afro-headed everyman Vincent Brooks, a guy short on funds and big on hitting the bar who finds his simple life growing more complicated as his girlfriend Katherine starts grilling him about marriage; she even goes so far as to say she’s carrying his child.  Vincent proceeds to freak out (with no shortage of EXTREME gasps and jaw drops), but finds solace in the hands of Catherine, a blonde coquette who seems to offer him a chance at solace.  Unfortunately, that’s about the time when the nightmares begin…aaaaaaaaand cue buttface monster chasing you up a crumbling tower.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m an Atlus zealot.  The company had been good to me in the past, with much-adored yet oft-overlooked gems like Persona 3 and 4, Devil Survivor, Devil Summoner, and even a bit of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls (the games’ utter hatred of the player notwithstanding).  I’m sure that I’m not the only one out there; whenever there’s an announcement from Atlus with good news, web-goers will scream in droves “Shut up and take my money!”  While there’s only a dedicated few, their love is almost palpable; many of us have practically gnawed our fingers off waiting for news on the inevitable Persona 5.  Catherine only served to keep that passion alive.  It showed that Atlus -- more specifically, the team behind Persona -- are more than capable of doling out an HD hit with their signature style.  And the fact that Catherine was one of their most successful releases ever (in spite of being a Japanese game not featuring hulking gunmen in brown battlefields littered with short stone walls) means that they’ve got all the reason they need to bring the goods to the west.

Deadly, swirly, murderous goods.

There’s a reason why people spent as much as a full year hoping Catherine would come to America.  Not just the inherent Japanese weirdness -- an automatic plus in the eyes of many.  The faithful knew what was coming: a fascinating, original story with plenty of likeable characters.  Even a stodgy skinflint like me had every intention of buying the game on day one, at full price if need be, for a chance to get in on some of that hotness.  Hotness, on multiple fronts: the female leads, Catherine and Katherine, both bring a lot to the table in terms of eye candy (in spite of the game being relatively lax on throwing sexy-sexy time in the player’s face…again, buttface monster).  But really, it was a chance to solve the mysteries of the game.  Who is Catherine?  How do you save Vincent from the nightmare world?  Who’s really behind all this?  And most importantly, do you choose Katherine and side with the forces of order?  Or do you decide to become Catherine’s mate, and embrace a life of freedom?

In retrospect, Catherine is a game about possibilities.  Ignoring the fact that there are eight possible endings, how you play the field determines whether you come a step closer to freedom or go ker-splat against a pile of fallen blocks.  You have to use every bit of intelligence and ingenuity to build a path to the top; you need to use your items judiciously, or find yourself in an unwinnable situation; you have to keep in mind the “techniques” that characters in the game teach you, so you won’t screw yourself over just using the same pull-this-block-now-that-one formation.  The road is long and hard, but if you keep your wits about you, you’ll manage…provided you do what I did, and amass about seventy retries to make yourself effectively immortal.  Here’s to exploiting constant failures!

But as I said, Catherine’s narrative offers several ultimate outcomes.  Eight different endings await players, based on choices they have Vincent make in-game, from texts to Katherine and Catherine, to conversations with bar-goers, all the way down to questions from disembodied voices (“If you found yourself naked in public, what would you do?”).  It determines whether Vincent is lawful or chaotic, and of course whether he goes for his girlfriend or his mistress.  More subtly, it affects his inner monologues whenever he’s in a tight spot, and helps players identify where he’s leaning -- marriage, or a life of wild shenanigans with a drill-haired lady of the evening.  You could accuse the game of misogyny and misandry, sure, but as an eternal optimist I see Catherine as an examination of characters in certain situations regardless of -- or maybe, because of -- gender.  I'm not here to argue or discount other opinions...at least, not in this post.

But no matter what the case, no matter what ending Vincent’s headed for, no ending is inherently good or evil.  The fact that the alignments are called “order” and “freedom” in the endgame is pretty clear in that regard; more importantly, the ending you get is the result of your actions, so there’s no room for blame or disgust.  Vincent’s fate -- your fate -- is in your hands.

All this is the culmination of what I’ve realized after some soul-searching.  You see, my brother Rich -- thanks to being feverishly dedicated to adding another notch onto his gamer belt -- cleared the game in a few marathon runs.  I wasn’t there to see it happen, but when we discussed it one morning, he seemed pleasantly surprised with his ending.  “I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but Demon Vincent is kind of badass,” he declared.  “He’s got a sword and everything.”  I was a little skeptical, since this was the same guy who thought that lime green pants were hip; still, Demon Vincent?  How and why did that happen?  I’d scoffed at him for choosing Catherine on his file, but in lieu of his virtual cheating he came out on top.  If that was the case, what would become of my Vincent -- the one firmly rooted in Order?  I could only play the game and find out.

And so (after several bouts of game over-fueled depression later), I cleared my file.  The end result?  Vincent is freed from his nightmares, shenanigans are had, he seals the deal with Katherine, and finally the two of them are married in a scene that gives every major character the narrative closure I’d been seeking.  It even ends with a very heartwarming cut to black, featuring Vincent calling out “And I love you, Katherine.”  It wasn’t fancy or offered any prospects of godhood, but I enjoyed it.  And I probably would’ve enjoyed it even more if said brother wasn’t in the room, chanting “BOOOOO-RING” at every opportunity.  Apparently, happy endings have no merit if anyone but him profits.

I didn’t say anything to him because I didn’t feel like getting into a big argument or trying to understand why he elected Catherine over Katherine.  So I kept my thoughts to myself; I reasoned that my ending -- the “True Lovers” ending -- was the canon ending.  It saw Vincent and Katherine in the ending I envisioned, with all the loose ends tied up and all the characters coming together for a few cheery snapshots.  Out of curiosity, I hit YouTube to see Rich’s ending -- the “True Cheaters” ending -- and outside of a few funny moments there wasn’t anything too phenomenal about it.  Sure, Vincent becomes a demon, but what happens to his friends?  Did he just abandon them?    And he’s married to Catherine anyway, even though the crux of his character development was deciding whether or not to get married?  And he’s surrounded by demon wenches?  And using another demon as his throne?  What happened to the milquetoast who spent most of the game super gluing his jaw back onto his face?

Vincent starts every morning by eating an ostrich egg.

It didn’t make sense to me at first, but looking back, I may have made a bigger mistake than he ever could.  The point of the game was making choices and never looking back; who was I to think myself and my ending the superior, or the true path?  The moment a writer starts to limit his mind is the moment he starts to fail; the same applies to gamers as well.  I might not have understood his choices or his outcome, but I could sure as hell respect them -- even if he didn’t understand mine either.   Maybe it has something to do with the fact that this is as close as we’ll ever get to discussing our plans for marriage.

Undoubtedly, playing Catherine has had the same effect on other gamers that it’s had on me: forcing us to take a good, hard look at ourselves, and what we want to do with our lives.  I used to think…well, I still think that I’m not ready for marriage; I’m in no position to ride in and sweep a lady off her feet (I don't even have a horse).  I believe that I don’t have anything worth offering to a lady that someone else can’t do several times better.  Whether or not that holds true is up for debate -- but after playing Catherine, I can’t help but wonder if I’m as hopeless as I make myself out to be.  Much like Vincent, I’m nobody special, physically, mentally, socially, and especially economically.  But Vincent’s character arc throughout the game has gotten me thinking: if some mass of polygons can go from slumped-over just looking to survive to a man that stands on his own terms and chases after what he really wants, then maybe I can too.  Maybe I don’t need money or a blessed gene pool to be desirable, or even capable of love.  Maybe all I need is the same willpower that Vincent manifested throughout the game.  Maybe that, more than choosing your path in life -- marriage or flirtation, order or freedom -- is what Catherine is really trying to teach us gamers.  If I may hearken back to a previous statement, moms the world over need to learn that video games can actually turn their children into responsible, passionate adults.  Most of the time.

Given this little revelation, a question remains: given the chance, would I play Catherine again?  In a word, no.  In two words, hell no.  I’m not about to subject myself to that pain and insecurity all over again, and I doubt there’s much more I could accomplish outside of a few missed events with other characters.  But more importantly, I feel good about the ending I got.  Maybe it’s a symbol of the potential road that awaits me; maybe it’s just a proof of what I can achieve if I put my mind to something.  Either way, Catherine made me happy -- satisfied, even -- in a way I would have never thought possible from a game.  It’s intellectually stimulating, and asks the players to evaluate their choices beyond mere means to an end(ing).  One way or another, it’ll make you feel the love.

But given that, I wonder -- is my brother destined to become some sort of sword-swinging incubus?  Only time will tell…

...Then when you move the boxes, then you get the women.

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