Hello, reader! May I ask you a few questions before we start? I may? Great. Because I won’t let you read anything else until you answer.
- 1st question: How are you feeling today? A) Best day of my life – B) Worst day of my life
- 2nd question: What did you think of part 1? A) Best article I’ve ever read, I don’t need to read anything else ever – B) Worst article I’ve ever read, it’s ruined reading for me forever
- 3rd question: Does life begin or end at marriage? A) It begins – B) It ends
If you’ve answered A to the 2nd one, you can continue. Otherwise… errr, I guess you’re welcome anyway ^_^
If you haven’t, I suggest you read Part 1 first.
I’m far from the only one who felt the strangeness of Catherine’s binary questions. I’d like to know how the average “target demographic” of male, heterosexual players, 15 18 to roughly 40 years old, perceived them, because the critics and journos I’ve read usually don’t fit either the description or the assumed mindset. Personally I learned to give up on them as a form of self-expression, I simply tried to choose the least of two evils whenever I could. As a trans-woman who is strongly attracted to polyamorous ideas (never had the chance to put them in practice) and knows what a Kinsey scale is, I felt simply alienated by the vast majority of the questions. I wanted to answer honestly, but the game simply didn’t contemplate my answers within the realm of its possibilities, and that’s probably one of the most direct ways of showing one of the meanings of the concept of ideology. Each of the Confessional’s questions is plagued by at least one of these issues: firstly the heavily debatable assumptions of the point of view from which those questions are asked, secondly the binary answers that don’t account for nuance, and finally the (also binary) evaluation system.
For me, the tone was set with the very first question I got asked in the confessional: “Does life begin or end at marriage?” Which is an analysis of marriage that I would never for a moment consider performing: while my marriage continues to be wonderful, I had a fine life before I was married, thank you very much (and indeed the ways in which my marriage is wonderful are themselves outgrowths of that previous life), and aspects of my life that aren’t tied to marriage continue to be very important to me.
A similar “third way” answer (“Both/Neither” ,“It depends on the circumstances”, or “Only in part”) would be appropriate for several other questions: “Your lover or your best friend?” It’s impossible to answer based only on empty labels. What kind of relationship do I have with them? “How do you make decisions, with your gut or your mind?” is another rigid binary that just doesn’t accurately reflect real life. “Your lover is cheating on you. Do you break up with them or make them end it?” Well, I’d talk to them first and evaluate case by case, depending on why they’re cheating, who they’re cheating with, what my relationship with them is like, and so many other factors. And I wouldn’t “make” them, by force. I’d discuss it with them.
Other questions are based on certain ideas that I just don’t share: “Which is more cheating, an emotional tryst or a physical fling?” for instance, assumes monogamy. It also presupposes a bunch of other ideas, and most of all, it presupposes that you don’t discuss those ideas with your partner. For instance, I’d say “breaking your partner’s trust” is cheating, and the difference between physical and emotional doesn’t really matter. The great thing about some of these questions is that they show us that, when we enter into a romantic relationship with someone, we form a tacit contract concerning what we expect of each other. And we tend to believe that the terms of that contract are clear to both parties, that we understand what being in a relationship entails, what we can ask, what we are expected to give. But when we start examining that contract, we realize the details are not so clear, we realize we may not have the same ideas. The solution? Talk to your partner, be honest with yourself and with your partner about what you want and what you can give, and reach an agreement. This, incidentally, is what Vincent should do in the main plot too.
As for the Order/Freedom bar, I was less outraged by it when I realized that it’s not actually supposed to be a moral judgement of your actions, at least not on the part of the game’s creators. Throughout my first playthrough I understood that Blue/Order was associated with Katherine, and Red/Chaos with Catherine, but I also assumed, like most people I believe, that Blue was Good and Red was Evil. It’s not like that. That meter, like almost everything in the game, needs to be contextualized within the framework of the Golden Playhouse and Ishtar/Trisha, the Goddess of Fertility. The Gods are sending Nightmares to certain people because those people are stuck in situations that won’t lead to reproduction. The Nightmares are not actually about cheating, instead cheating is itself orchestrated by the Gods to break up couples like Vincent and K, in order to free both of them for future fertile mating. Both the characters and the player only learn this at the end, so, while we know our actions are being judged and monitored, we don’t actually know according to what standards until after the game is over. Blue is Good and Red is Evil, but not the kind of Good and Evil we should associate with authorial intention or with some kind of objective morality, like in Mass Effect: it’s only Good if it’s in accordance with the Gods’ plan, and Evil if it isn’t. It’s also Good if it conforms to their idea of order and law, and Evil if it disrupts it, if it challenges certain taboos.
With that in mind, the value judgements attached to each answer make a lot more sense than just assuming the game writers to be deeply, worryingly traditionalistic, chauvinistic, and sexually repressed. “Which makes you more nervous, being alone or being with others?” if you’re nervous alone, you’ll seek the company of others, and eventually reproduce. “Does your job always come first?” No, I’ll sacrifice my personal aspirations for the sake of being a parent. “Is good housekeeping important in a partner?” Of course, it’s necessary to set up our “Happy Family”™. Other questions condemn the sexual kinks of the subject (“Cosplay in the bedroom: Aye or Nay?” and “Has being embarrassed ever turned you on?”), but also condemn the subject for rejecting a partner on the base of their sexual kinks (“Your lover’s into baby play. What do you do?” and also “You find your lover’s kink horrifyingly unsexy. What do you do?”). There is no consistent moral stance, just as long as the end of a stable couple with children is realized. Yet other questions are simply about taboos that need to be maintained (”You must kiss a cephalopod-like alien or a beautiful corpse” and “Could you marry the perfect… robot?” and also “Could you have sex with an attractive ghost?”)
“Do you prefer to stand out from the crowd or fit in?” This question, and others with it, highlights the major concern that runs through the game: the pressure to conform. The Gods envision a society of quiet, traditional families that never step out of their place and perpetuate the status quo. Responsible and obedient, people (especially men) have subdued their instincts and are slaves to their super-ego. They are allowed to have fun, but even fun needs to be carefully circumscribed and never excessive. This description has a lot in common with the criticism of Christian religion by thinkers such as Nietzsche and Bataille, which leads me to believe that the pervasive religious imagery has deeper meaning than just the superficial association with divinity. Throughout (Western) history, religion has been one of the most effective forms of social and moral control over the general population. I don’t think the parallel between Vincent and Christ, suggested by the painting of “Vincent Crucified” that hangs in the Confessional, runs very deep or yields interesting results, but certainly Vincent becomes a saviour figure. Not only he helps and encourages others to keep climbing, saving many lives, but he puts an end to the Curse itself, breaks free of his shell, achieves true freedom and ascends to legendary, near-divine status. In the True Freedom Ending, he quite literally ascends above the sky and to space.
There is also the more obvious metaphor of the sheep (and Vincent, who becomes a shepherd, like Christ) working towards the same theme. I really appreciated the choice, small and inconsequential, but smart and effective, of having everyone look like sheep to everyone else, except oneself: it’s a great representation of the common and misleading sensation that we are fully-formed subjects, free and authentic expression of our true self, unaffected by ideology and indoctrination, as opposed to others, helpless victims of external influences. And that’s what the game truly is about. More than about love, relationships, and cheating, (and despite the marketing material that just screams “sex”) Catherine is about finding one’s place in the world, dealing with one’s own fears and desires on the inside, and with external pressure coming from friends, family, acquaintances, as well as societal and ideological forces. The game’s best and worst revolves entirely around its depiction of freedom.
The plot begins with Vincent and Katherine. Vincent is insecure, spineless and everyone commented on how unlikeable he is. He exists in between a fully fleshed-out character, with aspirations and motivations, and a blank slate. He merely gets by in life, he never acts unless he has to, and if he acts it’s often in order to maintain the status quo. He is stuck, with no career possibilities and no future, and that’s mostly because he doesn’t know what he wants. Without an aspiration, an idea of a better state of affairs, he sees all change as inherently negative, disruptive of the comfortable escapist limbo he inhabits. On the other hand, K is much more mature and well adjusted.  She is the kind of person society likes and will promote, and in fact she is having a successful career. She is responsible, she seems to know what she wants, and she hides her insecurities well enough from the outside. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about her, but I believe she’s not as cold as we see her from Vincent’s point of view. She obviously cares about him, she buys him a cake when she sees him feeling down, and I’m sure she must have had a few truly horrible days when she realized Vincent was cheating on her. But she is the kind of person who will not show her fragility easily, even while speaking her mind openly.
And yet, in the opening scene, it’s K who succumbs to external pressure. Two important factors make her think about marrying and having children: her parents’ phone call and her friends’ families. I don’t want to call her a conformist, mostly because we don’t know much about her motivations and her feelings, but she surely feels that kind of pressure much more than Vincent ever would.
Vincent stutters his way out of the situation, buying himself some time, and soon he meets Catherine. Now, we should talk about Catherine and the K-C dichotomy, but we should also talk about a few direction choices that greatly affect the player’s experience. C is, in many ways, K’s opposite, that much is obvious. But I think it’s inaccurate to frame the difference as the opposition between Virgin and Whore. K is never represented as particularly prudish or frigid, she and V certainly had sex before, and we never get the idea that she’s the “sex gatekeeper” for V, that she’s starving him of sex or that V is dissatisfied with their sexual life. Certainly, C’s uninhibited sexual freedom is one of her fundamental attributes, but it’s not about sex. Rather, as Vincent remarks with envy, C does what she wants without caring about what others think. Catherine says: “Marriage is just a tradition, right? Seriously, who wants to be tied down? […] It’s best to be free, don’t you think?” We could even frame the whole thing in psychological terms: Vincent, the subject, the Ego, is torn between K, the Super-Ego, the world of rules, order, responsibility, the realm of “doing the right thing”, and C, the Id, the dimension of instincts, unfettered desires, careless self-expression, of “doing what you want”. Using religious imagery, Vincent is torn between God, Heaven, Righteousness, Morality; and Hell, the Devil (almost literally). The difference, though, is that religious narratives rely heavily on there being one Good, Correct path, whereas psychoanalysis is very much about finding balance.
About direction: the way the game represents the V-C relationship deserves a few comments. It effectively distances the player from it, to the point of having the player question whether V is actually cheating at all. And not only because the actual sex is off-screen, but because so much is off-screen, with those events being the opposite of what we actually see, that it’s hard to believe it happened. The most compromising thing we see is when they kiss, the first time they meet at the bar. But every time Vincent wakes up with Catherine beside him, he doesn’t remember calling her over or having sex with her, and the player certainly didn’t do anything. Moreover, V shows regret over it, at least part of him didn’t want to cheat, and we do see him trying to put distance between himself and C in other scenes, so, is the cheating really happening, or is C just appearing beside him in bed? On the other hand, these scenes reinforce Vincent as a spineless character: he is not the one initiating anything, but he doesn’t have the will power to say no. Things just happen to him, and in his confusion he doesn’t facilitate them nor he tries to stop them, he simply buys himself more time. His inaction costs him everything: when he finally breaks up with C it’s too late, and he ends up losing both C and K, at least for a couple of days, until the various endings. Still, we would blame V a lot more if we actually saw him at least once letting himself be driven by drunken lust. Instead, we always see him resisting C: he’s not very decisive about it, but he does.
Again, there are several themes to unpack, so let’s tackle them one at a time. First of all, the cheating itself. I already mentioned how the game is not really interested in relationships: it doesn’t delve into interpersonal dynamics, it doesn’t show us much about how V&K work as a couple, and it never explores the importance of their sexual life to their overall relationship, for instance. Consistently with this, the game does not pay much attention to the cheating situation either. Allow me to go back, once again, to Patricia Hernandez’s article on Kotaku: she’s not the only to have commented on the mythological turn that the plot takes. It’s deeply unsatisfying, most importantly because it trivializes the cheating with the reveal that C was a succubus all along, an embodiment of Vincent’s desire. Coupled with how much of Vincent’s affair is and is not shown, the result is that it’s too easy to excuse Vincent, and it becomes too easy for Katherine to forgive him. The thought becomes: it was (mostly) not Vincent’s fault, maybe he didn’t cheat at all, and even if he did, that’s a Succubus sent by the Gods, there was no way he could have resisted. As a reflection on cheating, it is a superficial and anti-climactic conclusion, as opposed to either the impossibility of being forgiven or the hard journey towards overcoming that moment as a couple and re-building the relationship. I don’t mean to excuse it, because it’s just a bad turn of events, almost a parody of itself, but it’s important to understand that it’s not what Catherine ultimately cares about.
Secondly, there’s a major emasculating component. For all his ability with blocks, Vincent has no agency in his life, he is only pushed and pulled by C&K. For the majority of the game he is completely passive, and almost the embodiment of shame, an impression that is only reinforced by the fact that Katherine earns more money and has a better career than him. In Japan, tradition requires, for instance, that the man be taller than his partner, earn more money than her and generally be of higher social standing. The other way around is considered belittling of the husband’s manhood, menacing the typical gender roles. Powerless and despicable male characters the likes of Vincent are almost absent in videogames, and it’s even more rare to see them as player-controlled protagonists.
Thirdly, Catherine has a negative opinion of male sexual desire. Men are slaves to their lust, it’s an immense and overpowering force. Catherine is irresistible not because she has mind control or because she’s a supernatural being, it’s ultimately only because she is attractive. I don’t entirely agree with G. Christopher Williams’ article “The Taming of the Dude”, but it’s undeniable that there is a strong current pushing men to conform to the ideal the Gods envisioned and society tries to enforce (order, restraint, super-ego), and that’s because male sexual desire is seen mostly as a wild, lustful animal that needs to be “tamed”, for instance, through marriage. In fact, throughout the game, the word “marriage” is almost never used, and the male characters prefer the metaphor of “Tying the knot”, an image that supports the idea of taming, of a forceful restriction of freedom.
We have a lot of points on the table, but I don’t want to make this overwhelmingly long. In the third and final part, we’re going to talk about the various endings, the supporting cast, how the game represents ideas about masculinity, femininity, social pressure and self-expression, and hopefully tie all the loose ends.
Have a lovely day, and see you next time. Nyan ❤
Part 3 is this way.
 As an aside, I loved Katherine’s visual design. She is a great example of a character that is sexy without being sexualized in the slightest. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with sexualizing a character, but it’s so refreshing nonetheless. How many women are so smartly dressed in AAA games?