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.