Catherine – Part 1: Ludonarrative Nightmares

I bought Catherine without knowing much about it. I had passively absorbed enough information to know that it was the kind of game I’d be very interested in, if not downright love – enough that I went back to my old PS3 to play it. (No screenshots this time, I have no capture card, but do not worry, I don’t plan to talk about other console games any time soon) At the same time I didn’t know anything about it going in: I knew it was about love and relationships, somehow, but I didn’t know it would be about cheating or mythological creatures, and I definitely didn’t know about the block puzzles. Which is why, when I started the game, I carelessly selected the hard difficulty as I always do. (Most games are easy, she said, at least this way I get some semblance of a challenge, she said.) Was I ever wrong…

Catherine must be one of the hardest games I have ever played. Dark Souls’ got nothing on it. And it’s definitely unusual for such a story-driven experience, because if you’re playing on hard without using walkthroughs (choughchough), chances are the lengthy cutscenes and day sections of the game, where the plot proper unfolds, will seem insignificant in comparison to the amount of time you’ll be spending dealing with blocks. This simple fact creates all kinds of interesting questions about videogames’ pacing and their relationship with other art forms, which hopefully I’m going to address in the future (for now, I’ll point you to this excellent video), but here I only want to talk about what this means for Catherine.

When I switched to normal difficulty halfway through the game, I developed a much healthier relationship with it, I stopped having nightmares about zombie sheep surrounding me and telling me “Edge” and “Noooooo waaaaay” and “Edge, edge, edge” and “You rest in Peace” and “Now’s not the time to be dead” and “Edge, edge, edge, ed—ed-edge”

Let’s start again.

When I switched to normal difficulty halfway through the game, I developed a much healthier relationship with it and I was able to complete the Nightmares in a reasonable amount of time and retries, mostly without walkthroughs, which in turn greatly improved my enjoyment of the game. I was there for the story and the overall experience, sure, but that didn’t mean I wanted to watch a film. The gameplay side of Catherine was part of that experience, added to it, and I wanted it to be there, but being so frustrated with the block puzzles on hard meant that those puzzles didn’t exist as part of an organic experience anymore. They became purely logical problems, with logical techniques to apply in order to get at a logical solution. It was as if someone paused the game and asked me to complete a level of Tetris or Sudoku before I could continue.

The metaphorical link between the Nightmare sections and the overall experience is undeniable – the game, almost insulting the player’s intelligence in fear of not being understood, makes it clear both at the beginning (“Will Vincent be able to overcome all the blocks in his life?”) and at the end (“The stairway Vincent was forced to climb could be taken as a metaphor. It symbolized the journey to adulthood, pressuring him to make his tough life decisions… don’t you agree?” Really, game? Really?). But whether it is also an effective gameplay portrayal of Vincent’s struggles, of his working through his doubts and fears, is a harder and more interesting question to answer.

At first, perhaps because of my experience with the difficulty level, I thought it wasn’t effective in the least: Vincent is supposedly twisting and turning in his bed, oppressed by guilt, scared of losing the person that matters the most to him, terrified of commitment, unable to articulate his feelings and desires; in short he is working through his emotions, perhaps trying to gather enough courage to talk to Katherine openly and honestly (at least, I spent most of the game trying to nudge him in that direction). On the other side of the screen, I was thinking about techniques, arranging blocks, memorizing patterns, using cold rationality, trying to solve a logical puzzle with the certainty that a solution, no matter how obscure, existed. Metaphorical links be damned, I couldn’t feel more distant from what Vincent was going through. Throughout the nightmares, the only time the game asked a modicum of introspection of me was during the questions in the confessional. The narrative of the day and the gameplay of the night could hardly be more at odds. In the words of Ed Smith:

“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 […] in Catherine, moments of dream logic proceed via a traceable, quantifiable puzzle logic, diminishing our empathetic connection to the main character and his plight.”

However, reading through other articles about the game made me develop a more complex opinion: I don’t intend to recant the last paragraph, I still stand by it, and I still wish the game asked me to exercise compassion, empathy, decision-making in situations in which there is no easy or correct answer, more than my spacial manipulation skills. But there is a form of empathy with Vincent that can be developed through the game mechanics, even though I failed to perceive it. Christopher Williams talks about the time constraint as generating an anxiety and sense of pressure within the player akin to Vincent’s own anxiety, with no sense of accomplishment in “winning”, but only relief:

“[The fact that] the player has to push and pull blocks frantically to make a way for Vincent’s ascent before the ground is literally ripped out from under the man places an intense time pressure on the player.  These segments are less “fun” than they are mentally and emotionally draining, exactly the feelings that the character of Vincent is experiencing in the plot.”

The problem is, it’s difficult to say whether it was my failure to connect with the game on that level, or whether it’s the game’s fault for not being able to dress up its mechanics in a more narratively-convincing way. Again, I have to reference the difficulty setting of my first playthrough, because constant, repeated failure can easily bring detachment from the fiction and break player immersion and empathy. Certainly, being awarded points and trophies, and being cheered on by an imaginary crowd didn’t help with that atmosphere either.

I have found Patricia Hernandez’s take in her powerful article more convincing, interesting and relatable: in a difficult moment, she writes,

“I started using the game’s puzzle segments as therapy; problems were straightforward, logical, had solutions that fit neatly into place amidst all the chaos. I could pause when things were tough. I could make mistakes, and there was an undo button that let me have another shot at doing things the right way. Better yet: it was possible for me to achieve the results I wanted, by saying the right thing. The right choices are so clear when it’s just a game and I’m meant to be the hero. Katherine can come around. I can get married. I can get the happy ending I wanted—even if I didn’t deserve it.”

There are two layers here: one of escapism and one of therapy. The latter can be linked with CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a widespread psychotherapeutic approach. Breaking down an issue, and even our emotive response to it, in an analytical way, developing techniques and “coping strategies” to deal with it, is not at all different from what the characters do in the Nightmare space, nor what we as players are invited to do. Just like CBT “help[s] individuals challenge their patterns and beliefs”, so we (and the characters) learn techniques and change our approach to puzzle-solving in the game: instead of panicking and scrambling around in front of a complex configuration, we take a deep breath and try to apply our knowledge. In one of the last few landings, the sheep-policeman Morgan almost says as much: “With techniques, I can face everything”. And while it may only apply to the Nightmares, strictly speaking, it also gives him the strength to cope with the loss of his wife in his waking life.

As for escapism, there is the obvious escapism of Patricia Hernandez, and of the Player generally, trying to get away from a complex situation with no easy way out by taking refuge in a world over which she has control; but there is also the escapism of Vincent, much in the same situation as Patricia. In his case it’s failed escapism, because his ghosts haunt him even in his nightmares, the otherwise pure puzzle space over which he can assert his control. But, in the literal sense of escaping something, Vincent is always successful: he escapes death, he doesn’t succumb to his fears, he hangs on. Like all escapism, it’s only temporary, he has to keep running.

Catherine sees escapism in a positive light: Vincent himself, like a stereotypical, socially inept gamer, is unable to take control of his life and manage his relationships with women, but he’s great at manipulating game systems. More than that, he’s the best, and being the best eventually gives him freedom and confidence in real life. It’s his block manipulation skills, and by extension the player’s, that saves his life, and the lives of every other man involved.

But the game goes even further: the “Tower of Babel” bonus mode requires more time, effort and dedication to the activity of pushing blocks around than I could ever muster. In the process of beating it, the goddess Ishtar, also known as Trisha, the presenter of the “Golden Playhouse”, addresses the player directly. She is amazed, and even sexually excited by the player’s in-game ability. As the Goddess of Love and Fertility, she promises herself to the player as reward for beating the final levels of Babel. And of course, when he does, she delivers.

There are so many problematic notions in here, all intertwined and co-dependant, that it’s hard to unpack them all. (Many of those ideas will be the focus of part 2) It’s also hard to criticize them, because the game seems vaguely aware of them, but still makes use of those concepts and stops short of questioning them. The idea, for instance, that in the (supposedly) male-dominated, heterosexual space of gaming, women and sex should be the prize for the best, for the winners, and therefore also a motivation, is extremely widespread. The idea that prowess, courage or skill would impress and conquer the hearts of women – as opposed to, you know, the actual relationship you have, person to person – is not new to gaming, in fact it’s almost a fundamental tenet of traditional masculinity, but in certain spaces it’s been embraced and turned to 11. I’ve played League of Legends for more than a year, and one of the most common sayings in that community, repeated in a half-facetious half-serious tone, is that “chicks dig ELO” – ELO being a numerical assessment of your skill, the higher the better.

Catherine seems to be aware of all this, to an extent. When Ishtar feels aroused just by recalling the player’s actions, to the point that she can barely contain herself, we’re meant to laugh at the absurdity of why manipulating blocks is supposed to be sexy in the first place. These cutscenes are aware of their absurdity, but the awareness never turns into satire or parody. It’s supposed to make the (male, heterosexual) player laugh, but it’s still supposed to sexually entice him too. Laughter is not used to make the player feel the absurdity of the situation (like satire would), but to ease him into it. It feels like an Hentai clip of the Player and Ishtar would have been appropriate here, because that’s how far it goes. Of course, the game doesn’t even show nudity when it’d be appropriate in the main story. For all its willingness to discuss mature themes, the physicality of sex and of the bodies is still something that must not be shown or openly discussed, only teased, as with Catherine’s pictures. Like the mind of a child, the game is supremely fascinated by sex as an important part of romantic relationships, but it’s too embarrassed to say the dirty word out loud.

In the end, Ishtar’s extreme willingness to jump on the player only reinforces those problematic notions. The player, after spending dozens of hours perfecting his skills, is rewarded with fictional, off-screen sex. His escapism paid off, and maybe, if a girl in real life would only notice how good he is, then perhaps… The only positive thing I can say about all this is that, despite being a dream construct of male heterosexual desire, designed to perfectly complement it and satisfy it, at least Ishtar has her own sexual agency and her own appetites, which she is not ashamed about.

To go back to the gameplay’s significance within the broader experience, Catherine’s Nightmare space and puzzle mechanics exist in the ambivalence I have described of failed escapism. In a world of pure abstract play (like Tetris), fears, worries and desires of the day seep in and thematize the world, for instance, in the form of boss encounters. But, as I’ve argued above from a different perspective, it’s not an entirely effective thematization. The sensation is that of a separate game re-skinned and forced to fit into a narrative to which it doesn’t really belong.

Perhaps I wouldn’t be saying that if it wasn’t for the 9th day’s Nightmare. For 7 days we have accompanied Vincent as he moved blocks and climbed the precarious stairs he formed. He not only survived, but cleared his mind. He’s started to become more confident and assertive, he’s started to understand what he wants (he wants Katherine, which may sound weird depending on the choices you made during the day and in the confessional), he even gathers enough courage to break up with Catherine. In the 8th day’s Nightmare, he climbs together with K, trying to save his relationship from C, fleeing from the consequences of his own cheating catching up with him, as they will in the following cutscene. In this unique cooperative level, the thematization is stronger and more effective than throughout the whole game: K has to trust Vincent, she has to rely on the skills he has acquired, and for once he can do something for their relationship, he can guide her instead of always being guided. It’s the only space in which Vincent is confident and capable, while K is confused and disoriented, and their relationship turns upside down, their roles are reversed. It’s no longer just escapism or simple survival: it is a nightmare as much as it is a dream, wish-fulfilment.

Then on the 9th day, as Vincent challenges Dumuzid, the whole metaphor breaks down. Now Vincent is not escaping, but competing. The whole system has stripped itself of significance, and it has gone back to near-pure play. The upwards movement, the timer, the instability of the ground beneath him, the creation of order out of chaos: the structure is the same, but the meaning isn’t there anymore. The same elements are not charged with the same psychological value and symbolism, now they only stand for themselves: arbitrary rules of a game. It’s a lot like playing the multiplayer of Spec Ops: The Line after playing the single player: the systems are the same, but the contextualization and therefore the meaning of those systems is different, and one can’t help but feel the dissonance. The difference is: both modes in Spec Ops are different interpretations of the same subject, roughly speaking “killing”; in Catherine, we have one interpretation, or none at all.

The interesting question, then, is: would, e.g. Patricia Hernandez have found escaping in the gameplay of Catherine equally cathartic if the Nightmare world wasn’t thematized as it is for most of the game? Would she have found the same relief playing Hexcells or Tetris, or any other abstract game? The honest answer is that I don’t know, but I like to imagine that she wouldn’t, that, imperfect as it is, Catherine’s attempt to contextualize and give meaning to the mechanics of play matters, just like our perception of playing X-Com changes when we name the soldiers after our friends. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that if certain mechanics can so easily be stripped of meaning, then maybe they weren’t really adequate representation of their subject matter; that the link between form and content was only superficial, not intimate enough. (Naomi Clark and Merritt Kopas recently gave a very interesting lecture about subverting games in a queer way not only through traditional narrative tools but by queering game mechanics. Here is a PDF version. Great starting point if you care about these things.)

Admittedly, the shift I have just described is justified by the plot, but the plot itself is equally unsatisfying when the focus changes from the human dimension to the mythological. And plot, characters, choices and the more traditional narrative aspects are going to be the focus of the next part of this discussion.

Until next time: Nyan ❤
You can find Part 2 here


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