Catherine: How Scoring Systems Kill The Mood

You sure it was the scoring that did it, Vincent?

by Ed Smith

Each of Catherine’s two distinctive gamescapes are quantified by a visual scoring system. By day, as Vincent Brookes lounges in The Stray Sheep bar with his bummed-out friends, right and wrong conversational choices are represented by an on-screen dial, which fluctuates between a red zone (good) and a blue zone (bad) depending on the humaneness and kindness of our chosen dialogue. As he sleeps, we play out Vincent’s recurring night terror, in which he’s forced to navigate a complex tower of moveable blocks. Fail to reach the summit in time or fall off in the process and Vincent will be killed both in the dream world and in real life. Upon leaving the nightmare, you are awarded a numerical score based on your speed, efficiency and use of special abilities. Catherine also presents you with a trophy of either gold, silver or bronze, depending on your performance in each puzzle section. As such, our experience as Vincent is constantly monitored, numbered, and scored.

This system upends each and every one of Catherine’s themes. Where Vincent et al. are mystified at the prospect of love, women and fatherhood, we as players are shown in very clear, graphical terms exactly how each of these experiences are meant to be handled. Our conversations with Katherine — or Catherine — which exasperate and unnerve Vincent are, to us at least, reduced to easily comprehensible numbers and charts, eliminating any need for ambiguity or apprehension. Vincent bumbles his way through confrontation after confrontation, never sure or comfortable with himself; if we pick the right thing to say, it is confirmed to us. The gravity of Vincent’s predicament does not translate to us as players, who, unlike the canonical Vincent, confront his problems with the fail-safe of impermanent consequences; if we say something wrong, we’re made immediately aware of our mistake and are permitted to correct ourselves by loading up and retrying.

Though we’re encouraged to answer Catherine honestly, our responses are instantaneously characterized as either wrong or right, without any ambiguity or reflection. The natural prompt, then, is to mislead the game into awarding us a higher score by not answering honestly. Our predilection toward the acquisition of points will lead us to pursue the game’s more tangible rewards (achievements, trophies) as opposed to the more significant aesthetic promise of a personalized playing experience. Naturally, we play to win – if “winning” is given as an option. In the case of Catherine and its trophies, meters and charts, that means answering “correctly” as opposed to honestly.

Because of a meaningless feedback system, the abstract dream-logic of Vincent’s nightmares is also compromised. Dreamscapes, generally governed by their lack of realism and unpredictability, become controlled competitions due to the systems of the game. Where we, as players, are expected to share in Vincent’s horror and confusion, the formulaic, comprehensible puzzle sections portray a cool and mathematical sense. We are constantly privy to our nightmare’s mechanics; certain regulations and boundaries dictate the course of Vincent’s subconscious terrors, leaving us with a certainty of dominion as opposed to our avatar’s characteristic vulnerability. Like the digits and graphics that qualify each of our social behaviours, Catherine’s computational puzzles reduce our emotional relativity. Scenes of unreality are often shown as breaking a games’ logic, as in Max Payne, Silent Hill 2, Uncharted 3 and Heavy Rain. However, in Catherine, moments of dream logic proceed via a traceable, quantifiable puzzle logic, diminishing our empathetic connection to the main character and his plight.

These controls are in place to measure our skill and decide our reward. Every puzzle concludes with the aforementioned final score and trophy, congratulating you on having a gold/silver/bronze nightmare. It may not necessarily be the case that we always play with these awards in mind, but Atlus certainly intends them to be earned; certain achievements can only be unlocked once you acquire X amount of gold trophies. Even if we do not pursue these “badges of honour,” they sever our connection to Vincent. We don’t share in his jubilation once he reaches the end of his nightmare, because while he survived, we got a low score. It strikes me that this is not only counter-productive, but also cynical, suggesting the idea that players need to be constantly reassured and congratulated.

It would be naïve to expect anything more from Catherine, a game populated by one-dimensional archetypes who spout sterile, immature sentimentality. Though many other reviewers enjoyed Catherine as a procedural and unique exploration of Vincent’s (and the player’s) subconscious, it is ultimately just the numeric system that is explored. Equations and gauges quantify our decisions much more than any truly clastic text ought to. Reminded of the omnipresence of rules, we’re encouraged to approbate rather than communicate, rubber stamping the decisions of the game. Our relationship with thematic conceits is damaged by the fact that the player is enclosed within a rigid system that reduces complex moral decisions to mere numerals along a slider. Where choice, honesty and self-reflexivity could have manifested within Catherine’s days and nights, we’re confronted by intransigent, non-discursive and just-plain-archaic scoring systems that render what could have been an emotional trip into a coldly rational and calculating one.

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  • duwease

    I’m glad I’m not to the only one who found the morality slider takes away from the experience (in this and other games). Some games are now trying to take storytelling to a new level while presenting complex choices — but even when they succeed, it’s shoe-horned into a value up or down the “good/evil” scale, which unnecessarily quantifies it and removes a lot of the complexity.

  • CPW

    Game developers seem to struggle with the compromise between narrative, role playing, and game design. They are trying to make games, systems that typically have win/lose binaries and/or scoring systems, that also include narrative and choice, which are things that don’t make sense with either scores or winning.

    I wonder if this is something that will be worked through or is simply an intractable problem of game design that includes either narrative and choice.

  • Joseph Hilgard

    I like what you’re saying here. I haven’t played Catherine, but it goes back to what I’m arguing about trying to make games about human relationships: games have rules and strategies. Like a friend pointed out to me, when you “gamify” relationships, you make them solvable. You reduce people to problems to be solved through a combination of correct things to say at correct intervals, like some kind of Pick-Up Artist.

    In the example you provide here, the thing that makes it a more playable game (clear and consistent feedback) also makes it a poorer experience of the aesthetic it’s trying to provide (bewilderment and exhaustion).

    Is it necessary to perform well in conversation to make it through the game? If conversation didn’t influence your ability to survive, it could still be an adequate sort of interactive fiction experience…

    • Douglas Scheinberg

      Your conversation choices has no effect whatsoever on your ability to survive. The main effect of the “order vs. chaos” morality meter is that it determines which ending you get.

      • Joseph Hilgard

        Hmmm. Provided that either ending is roughly equally attractive to the player, it’s really puzzling that they decided to put that meter in. You’d think it’d be a lot more effective to let players stumble through the conversations & end up with an ending “organically”.

  • EzequielAlvarez

    I agree, Atlus is, in general, guilty of doing both almost-games because of relationship elements, and almost-fiction because of game elements, usually failing simultaneously.

  • Urthman

    If video games are often a power-fantasy, maybe this game is fulfilling someone’s fantasy of having human interactions that are logical, predictable, make sense, and that the player can navigate successfully?

    It’s no less realistic than double-jumping, or carrying 10 guns around and shooting demons.

  • Julian Wasson

    Not sure why anybody reading this would care at this point, but note this post might contain some mild spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

    Apparently it was a mistake for the game not to explain the dialogue slider earlier in the game. I enjoyed the sensation of slowly realizing that it was a chaos/order exis instead of a good/evil axis or right/wrong axis, but the very presence of a meter seems to have turned off some players before they had the chance to understand its nuances. There are eight possible endings, and the only two I’d consider “bad” in a sense of leaving Vincent or the player unhappy are the ones where you try to pick a lover for whom you are incompatible. If you’re chaotic and try to stay with Katherine or lawful and try to go with Catherine. The only way to get an unhappy ending is if you answer with what you think you should say instead of what you actually want to say.

    Also, I think that, given what happens late in the game and given my impression of Japanese culture, the scoring and the rule-bound nature of the game is not just a relic of gaming’s arcade roots, it’s a meaningful choice. The villain is trying to enforce an abstract morality, and much of the last part of the game centers around Vincent’s rejection of that morality. This is theme of overbearing pressure to conform to an inflexible social structure is a common one in modern Japanese media. The game actually subverts those rigid systems by showing you that the only bad choice is to fail to be true to yourself.

  • Mike Walko

    Given, I finished the game, but they weren’t right/wrong choices. They were order/chaos. There weren’t any wrong answers. Was that not obvious?

  • Joel

    Should we always assume that developers missed what they intended, when it could be that they have only missed what we wanted? The article reads as “Catherine SHOULD have been (x), and it failed in these ways: (a,b,c)”

    To what’s actually in the game, the Chaos/Order system is as reductive and sophomoric as the characters, but it’s not a scale set between success at one end and failure at the other. Your “score” is essentially the absolute value, with rewards going to the extremes and less interesting results in the middle.

    Vincent’s discussions with other inhabitants of the Stray Sheep revolve around lack of ambition, failure, and resignation. Parallels are frequently (and ham-fistedly) drawn between the climbing mechanic and real world aspiration.

    If the game aims to bring the player into the experience being Vincent in his world, it’s a failure. If instead it’s trying to tell players who associate with Vincent to set goals and, whatever those may be, work tirelessly to achieve them—the answer may be different.

    The opportunity to create or play a game that actually stumbles feverishly through the life and dreams of a character on the brink of mental collapse is still on the table. Catherine didn’t do that, but Catherine did do something. Your words are all about the game Catherine isn’t, not the game it is.

  • Durandal4532

    Eh, I don’t know if I entirely agree with the assessment. I’d laud the destruction of “morality sliders”, because that sort of information does tend to detract from the fun of making decisions. I’m fine with the under-the-hood events just dividing me into “nice/neutral/mean” or whatever, but it’s so much cooler to, say, have another character comment on what a hardass you are if you get to think of it as a response to your terseness with lower-ranking personnel than as a reflection of your +15 on the Renegade slider.

    But I did like Catherine’s at least somewhat nuanced take on the choice points presented.

    Vincent isn’t being “good” or “evil”, he’s deciding whether a steady monogamous relationship is important to him right now, or not. I’d say it’s heavily weighted that the “good” thing to do is to maintain the one he’s in (I mean it’s blue and all), but it’s equally valid to read this as a story about a man realizing his girlfriend, or monogamy in general, isn’t right for him. I guess until that last weird bit. It’s not perfect, but the point is it does try a bit.

    Also man I liked the characters. A bit one-dimensional but fuck at least they were one-dimensional working-stiff barflies. I want more games in this sort of setting.

  • Alexander Timofeyev

    This reminds me of the Light / Dark Side indicators on dialog in The Old Republic, which you can thankfully turn off. I like that games are getting more into morally ambiguous decisions, but how is anything supposed to be morally ambiguous when there’s an indication of what is “good” and what is “evil”? Even with the indicators in SWTOR turned off, getting a score update at the end of the conversation (“You gained 100 Light points”) really rips you out of the immersion.

    On the one hand, I understand that players want to understand the systems that effect their character, so if they have 1000 dark side points, they’ll know where they came from. On the other hand, I think that this kind of mentality is a gaming relic. Do you really need to know how your character scores on the good / evil, light / dark, paragon / relic, chaos / order scale? Can’t you just play the character naturally? You know if the choice you’re making is a good or bad, or how it’s justified in your mind, so why do we need the game to re-affirm that our choice fits with the game’s defined morality?

    I hope more games follow the example of The Witcher and Heavy Rain by just giving us choices without judgement or rating, and then giving us consequences for those choices.

  • Branden Bean

    I can see where you’re coming from, but I think that there are a few problems with the article. If I had to sum it up, I’d say you didn’t enjoy the game because of misplaced expectations and incorrect assumptions.

    First, the “dial” which is shown after conversational choices is NOT a continuum from “good” to “bad”. The game intentionally doesn’t explain the meaning of this dial until after you have beaten the game, and to what I think is great effect: you know that your answers are being criticized, but you don’t really know how they are being measured. I think this is incredibly effective in Catherine, which attempts to explore issues with relationships where things aren’t nearly as black-and-white as traditional choices in games.

    One could argue that potentially they could have not included the meter at all, and that thus we wouldn’t see ANY feedback, no matter how vague, while simultaneously assuming that the game was using our answers for SOMETHING…but I think it was far more effective the way it ended up. As I played through the game, I answered questions in accordance with how I actually thought. Sometimes I hesitated, knowing that the game was going to judge me…and then was surprised when the needle went one direction instead of the other, shattering my hypothesis regarding how I thought the meter worked.

    And if all you’re really interested in is maxing out your blue or red, I would say that you’ve stopped playing that part of the game. Rather, you are just telling the game what you think it wants to hear, without any confidence that the game will use the answers that you give it to good effect. I’m guessing you’ve been burned by games on this before, and that this is a learned behavior on your part…but if you want to get the most out of a game, you have to meet it halfway and give it your trust. Try to cheat it, and you’re really cheating yourself out of whatever goodness it has to offer.

    The metaphor in the above paragraph is quite apropos, though I want to clarify that I don’t mean an ounce of it in jest.

    The actual continuum represents “order” and “chaos”, while the magnitude of distance from the middle of the continuum represents “freedom” as opposed to “commitment”. Thus, unique endings are available not only for tending towards one direction or the other, but for remaining fairly neutral as well.

    As far as the horror goes, I think you’re suffering due to misplaced expectations. Catherine is a creepy game, but I don’t think anyone would expect us to be scared of it. The gameplay is all about fairly simplistic, grid-based block puzzles, and regardless of the scoring system, I don’t think it was going to be a scary experience. Stressful? Probably, but not SCARY.

    I also think it’s unfair to suggest what a “dreamscape” can and can’t be. I’ve had dreams where, nonsensical as they may have been, I somehow “knew the rules”. And given the cause of the dreams in the game (did you beat the game? Your article gives me the impression that you didn’t), I think the recognizable and coherent systems in the gameplay make more than enough sense to satisfy me.

    I don’t think the game expects us to feel like we are Vincent. Vincent is very confused about relationships and not at all proactive about solving his problems (until we’ve guided him to the end of the game), while most players probably come to the table with their own powerful opinions about what should or shouldn’t be done in any of the given positions he finds himself in.

    I think this article is a great example of how drastically an experience can be changed depending on what we’re expecting it to be.

  • Curtis Urbanski

    I see you’ve completely missed the point of the “scoring” in Catherine. It isn’t a good vs bad choice, it’s an order versus chaos choice. Are you choosing the safe, boring options that will lead to a stable, but possibly unrewarding “life” or are you opting to take the more dangerous, but generally more interesting view of things, to “go out with a bang” as they say.

    Your grasp of the entire concept of this game, boiling it down to nothing buy a morality meter and puzzle game is just embarrassing. You should probably just stop writing reviews altogether.

  • Burnside2

    I really like how many different characterizations there are for the morality bar. The author sees the bar as “good” vs. “bad” — and sees red as good, blue as bad. The first comment (at the time I’m posting this) suggests that blue is good and red is bad, or at least that blue is closer to “good” than red is in some sort of “objective” morality. Another poster considers either side okay, but both superior alternatives to staying neutral and being in the middle. I find that really interesting.

    Personally, I totally see the order side as “good”.

  • Jonathan MacDuffie

    I dunno, you seem to have completely missed the part where the options are not “good” and “bad”, but rather “responsibility” and “freedom”. Treating the choices as right and wrong is the real blunder, I think. Reloading the game just because you made a “wrong” choice is dumb, anyway. Catherine is a game about deciding upon a lifepath; some grayness and indecisiveness not only are expected, but should happen.

    Also, I fail to see how the inclusion of a score makes the nightmares less terrifying or freaky. Yeah, there’s a logic to it, but it’s still twisted dream logic, where things can be supported without having something underneath them, just to begin the list of unnerving aspects to the dreams. (Also, if there wasn’t an inherent logic to them, the game would be unplayable, making the point moot anyway.)

    Normally I agree that morality sliders are weak and should be avoided, but your arguments are a little haphazard.

  • Julian Wasson

    You aren’t punished for staying neutral. The two neutral endings leave you girlfriendless, sure, but in both Vincent comes to terms with that and moves on. There doesn’t exist a “Bad Neutral” ending. The “True Neutral” ending sees him fulfilling his dream of going on a tourist trip to space. How is the character growing and learning and fulfilling his dreams a negative result?

    Also, there is a ton of leeway in the meter. It’s far from a situation where you need 100% red answers to put you at max red. This gives you the freedom to experiment and answer honestly and still end up heavily to one end or the other.