Catherine – Part 3: Freedom from Nightmares

Catherine has 3 branches of endings (Katherine, Freedom and Catherine), for a total of 8 different outcomes. Although some of them are designed as “good” and “bad”, none of them are completely undesirable or “wrong”, and there is no “objectively best” ending either. After all, Astaroth/Ishtar suggests that there are no correct answers, no right way to navigate the game. And it’s true. But I believe one ending is inherently more faithful to the spirit of the story. And here’s why.

If you haven’t, I recommend you start from Part 1 and then read Part 2 before this one.

Vincent begins the game as just another sheep, both in real life and in the Nightmares. But he goes through a linear evolution that first manifests itself during the Nightmares: Vincent slowly starts emerging as a leader that other sheep can follow. Not only that, but his task is to listen to the community of men that is forming around him and encourage those who need help, so that they keep moving, that they believe in themselves, that they don’t die. In the pub, his role also involves listening and consoling his peers, but there are more nuances there. The difference is that it’s easier to create a community when there’s one common objective holding it together – in this case, not dying, learning techniques, continuing to climb. Techniques are objective and valid for everyone, and Vincent is objectively a great climber. In the pub, things are more complicated (although they don’t really require the player to demonstrate anything more than a superficial kind of empathy): people are more willing to discuss their perspectives on ethical matters, to which there is no objective solution, and so Vincent hears several different opinions on the same issues. It’s the linearity of a staircase opposed to the dynamicity of a colour palette. For that reason, in the pub Vincent never becomes a leader in the same sense, but he still becomes a helpful figure for others, helping them work through their problems as he works through his own. As a result, Vincent himself grows more confident, he starts to understand what he wants and starts acting on it.

The character arc would like us to believe that Vincent achieves Freedom, the promised Freedom at the top of the staircase. This freedom amounts to complete self-expression and self-realization, freedom from external pressure, freedom to make one’s choices without caring about what others think. In reality, one of the most dangerous things you can think about ideology is that you got rid of it: no one ever gets rid of it, (and actually, when you think you got rid of it is usually when you’re most influenced by it) you just become more aware of it. There is no absolute, pure Freedom, just tiny little bits of freedom, degrees of freedom, if you like. But the shift is nonetheless important: Vincent (and the player) is constantly exposed to judgements; the judgements in the Confessional, the judgements of the Gods in the form of the Freedom/Order bar, the judgements and ideas of his peers, of his friends, of the other customers of the Stray Sheep. Supposedly, he is meant to find his “true, authentic” voice in the sea of other voices.

Edward Smith was put off by the constant sense of being measured, judged and evaluated for every step he took in the game.

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.

I’ve already argued why the major moral evaluation system (the Order/Freedom bar) shouldn’t be taken as objective morality, and that there is no correct way to go about the game, that the slider only represents the alienating, horrifying morality of the Gods. Of course, the player doesn’t know this immediately. And it’s important that they shouldn’t. Like an insightful commenter on the same article pointed out, “the only bad choice is to fail to be true to yourself”. The pressure to do what one perceives to be the right thing according to a larger design is willingly misleading. An anonymous sheep during the Nightmares wonders the same thing, whether he should answer the Confessional questions honestly or depending on which answer he thinks is the correct one. The players find themselves in the same situation as Vincent, pushed and pulled by analogous forces: pressured to make choices not on the base of who they are and what they want, but according to what is considered “correct”.

The Gods exercise an oppressive power that doesn’t leave much room for personal expression and individuality, but the game knows that the ethical landscape is much more labyrinthine than its own binary systems. Vincent himself realizes it by the end. Before the last level, he almost snaps when confronted with another one of Astaroth’s questions: “What’s the point of asking questions at this point in your game? My life isn’t so simple that I can just boil it down that easily” She replies: “Who are you? […] There’s no escaping this place without an answer of some sort”. Again, when Vincent defeats Thomas Mutton: “Look, men and women… They’re more complicated than you think […] People’s lives aren’t planned out for them. There’s no roadmap. […] I am human. And I’m free to choose how I live. […] From now own, my life is my own.” Despite the reservations I’ve expressed about this arc, freedom is no doubt the central theme of the game.

While in the Nightmares we’re being judged, in the pub we listen – and optionally also do some judging ourselves. In that space, the pace slows, and the player is meant to feel calm, safe, without pressing concerns. Occasionally we’re still evaluated with the same binary method, but at its heart the pub represents the wild variety of opinions and attitudes, diametrically opposed to that rigid binary. I enjoyed the text messages, for instance, for the expressive possibilities that they allowed. It was far from a perfect system, I often struggled to find the right expression for what I wanted to say, but it was by far a more satisfying approximation of the infinite spectrum of possible answers. The community of the pub also expresses different, personal perspectives on certain issues – mostly their relationship with women and their views of masculinity.

I found this section of the game by far the most interesting and enjoyable. The characters are meant to represent different archetypes and perspectives, but they are not so stereotyped that they lose their individuality. Their views are shaped by their personalities as much as they are affected by their life experiences. The community is overwhelmingly male [1]: Martha and Lindsay don’t really exist as part of the community (they certainly know a lot about what is going on, they are outside and above it), Anna and the “Upbeat Woman” mostly exist in relation to their male partners, and Erica is a Male-to-Female transgender, but ‘male enough’ for the Gods to punish her with Nightmares like other men. In the variety of voices we have people with despicable views like Todd as well as more selfless and empathetic characters like Justin and Morgan. Catherine may give the appearance of being a more sexist work than it is, partially because voices like that of Todd are naturally stronger and leave a deeper impact than the more delicate and understanding ones.

And Todd himself is a great character for further describing the concept of masculinity that the game sometimes seems to be entrenched in, even while distancing itself from it elsewhere. It starts from the words he uses: he likes to speak of “men” and “women” as two homogenous groups in competition. For him, all men are the same, all women are the same, and the two are irreconcilably different from one another. There can be no dialogue, no understanding, only a power struggle. He’s not the only one who is culpable of this flat view of both his sex and the opposite: many characters, including Orlando, the Boss and Vincent himself, like to talk about what all women are and aren’t. The first night he meets Catherine, Vincent finds her personality surprising: “You know how it is with most girls, as soon as they’re adults all they can think about is tying the knot, right? But there are girls like you out there… Hmm, never knew.” And Catherine adds that the two of them actually “think alike”. Now it’d be great if the game didn’t undermine this small epiphany by revealing Catherine to be a succubus. (The only other sexually liberated female figure is the goddess Ishtar). Todd’s question about what you must have in order to be a ‘real man’ has 3 possible answers: Money, Power or a Harem. Ideally all 3 of them, but the correct answer is the Harem, because the ability to cheat is the sign of a better man, and he justifies it by appealing to his ‘fascinating’, if obscure take on “Sexual selection”. Interestingly, there is no option to answer “none of them” or “what’s a ‘real man?’”: once caught in that discourse it’s hard to break out of it, especially if we’re raised within it. As a result, certain ways of talking about and relating to each of the sexes just become ‘normal’, sometimes even apart from our other ideas and/or from our actions in practice.

It’s no coincidence that the only men willing to expose their vulnerabilities are the ones most distant from this narrative (especially Justin and Morgan). Todd needs to maintain his machismo, his façade of confidence and lack of sentimentality; if he showed his suffering he’d be ‘effeminate’ and, in his own eyes, despicable, not a ‘real man’ anymore. This is the flip side of the same narrative that promotes the use of the word ‘gay’ as an insult (“this thing is gay, because it’s something made for women, real men wouldn’t use it/associate themselves with it”) And obviously, being male and homosexual is ‘gay’ in a pejorative way, because ‘real men’ like women. Rather, real men use women as their sex toys, before discarding them, because they don’t need them. (I’m exaggerating, obviously, taking this position to its logical extremes in order to better flesh it out – it’s more complex and riddled with contradictions than I have the space and ability to properly describe.) Whereas Justin tries to understand the mechanisms at work behind sexual and romantic attraction (no matter how correct or misguided his conclusions may be), for Todd masculinity is about satisfying his sexual needs (and strong libido is a sign of healthy masculinity) while maintaining and continually asserting his position of power over women and independency from any particular woman. If women are interchangeable, he needs not depend on any one of them, for any one he loses there will always be more.

It’s from this perspective that comes the fear of being tied down, the idea that marriage is a loss of freedom. The woman wants to marry the man in order to be able to control him, effectively castrating him by limiting his sexuality, asserting her own power. Starting from a similar concept of male sexuality, the Gods are trying to tame it in the name of Order, whereas Todd asserts his own blind and wild sexual desire and his individuality in the name of Freedom, in defiance of that Order and that society that wants to tie him down and castrate him. These two opposite responses exist in the same framework, the same worldview. According to the same narrative, women don’t have agency, they don’t have a sexuality, they don’t need to be tamed because there’s nothing to be tamed. They don’t masturbate, they don’t like sex, and if they are ‘nice’ they’ll allow the man to have sex with her, or rather, use her body for his pleasure. For these men sexual and romantic relationships are more about themselves, their manliness, and their status within their homosocial community, than about their actual bonding with their partner. (If you’re interested in this subject, you could start with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book “Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire” – I only hope I haven’t butchered her ideas too much in my attempt at adapting them)

Several men in the plot don’t fit into this ideological framework. Toby, for instance, represents the Japanese stereotype of the Bishōnen, the beautiful boy, innocent, inexperienced and pure, unashamed of his feminine traits. It’s a type of man that is mostly absent in Western Culture, and it has helped break down certain gender stereotypes in the West, like the ones I have described. It makes sense that Erica would be attracted to him, of all the men in the pub. Without meaning to generalize about trans experiences, I can definitely imagine that, throughout her transition, Erica came to dislike certain traits of traditional masculinity, as well as the feeling of being trapped and restricted by gender stereotypes in general, and as a consequence, that she’d have more in common in terms of ideas and worldview with someone like Toby.

Compared to the rest of the cast, Erica is a refreshing presence, even though she introduces ideas that usually belong to the sphere of traditional femininity, more than that of queerness proper. She is also, I think, a great trans character in her own right, even though the game has been criticized for how she is treated. [2] For me, it boils down to the fact that Erica is not stigmatized, not stereotyped and not demeaned for being who she is. And I’m just happy to see that in an AAA game. Her being trans is accepted by her friends, sometimes mentioned by them, often ignored – because not everything about a person has to revolve around being trans. Her identity is often the subject of jokes, but they are friendly jokes, not meant to belittle her. Orlando and Jonny don’t like the idea of having sex with her when Toby mentions it, but you know what? That’s fine too. Sure, it’s a borderline transphobic behaviour, mostly in their tone rather than the thought itself, but it’s not an uncommon reaction, and again they don’t make her feel bad about herself because of it. If every character had the same thought, it’d lead to a subtle exclusion of Erica under the guise of superficial acceptance (“Yeah, you’re trans, that’s great, but not for me, go away”), but the game also shows Toby’s carefree acceptance of Erica and her sexuality. After the two of them have sex, he comments that it was weird, different than he expected, but not bad by any means. A lot of the criticism revolved around her being punished with Nightmares for being trans, that is, for being a ‘man who will not reproduce’. But the Gods don’t really hold sensible opinions on every other matter, do they? I’ve repeated this so many times already, but the Gods’ point of view should not be taken to coincide with authorial intention or objective morality. And even if they represent society and the pressure to conform to the tradition, it’s not unheard of that society would put trans* people at a disadvantage. In fact, it only makes sense. But Erica herself is confident and unashamed. She speaks her mind, but doesn’t impose on others. She tries to listen and understand, even when she disagrees or condemns something. She is a competent bartender, but also tries to be a good friend and cheer Vincent up. She has to face her own difficulties, but she doesn’t give up, she is not ‘broken’ by them.

Catherine shows a varied cast of people who were born male, each of them with different ideas about who they are: from Todd to Toby, from Orlando to Erica, and so many shades in between. As for people who were born women, we have the aforementioned Anna and “Upbeat Woman”, who are not given much space. Then we have Katherine. Catherine, Lindsay, Martha and Ishtar are all supernatural beings. It’s definitely a game written from a male perspective (which often coincides with being written by actual male devs, but it’s not the same thing). And I can’t help but imagine 3 more games, Catherine’s own parallel universe, and how interesting it’d be to be able to play those too: the same story written from a female perspective; and the gender-reversed story (Vincent as a woman, in a community of women, with men as the love interests), written from both male and female perspectives. Maybe, one day we could have a Catherine with no strict gender separation, written from an androgynous perspective, but the story is so reliant on mystification of the opposite sex that it’s hard to imagine what it’d look like without it.

Regardless of parallel universes: diversity. The game shows several different identities, different ways of expressing oneself, all from the same starting point of being male at birth. Many of those identities exist apart from and beyond the framework of the Gods’ morality, of the Confessional’s questions with only two answers. While Vincent is not allowed every possibility, he nonetheless has to choose his way, he has to find his voice. And that’s where the endings come in.

Let’s take the Katherine branch: this is supposedly a good ending, but only if Vincent is marrying Katherine out of genuine love for her, and only if marriage, monogamy, a wish for a quiet life, an acceptance of responsibility are things he (and by extention, the player) genuinely wants. No matter how opaque the concept of genuineness and authenticity may be – and that’s something that perhaps the game should have explored more – the message is that it’s a victory as long as you choose according to the ‘real’ you and not what you felt compelled to choose by others. To simplify, Vincent should marry Katherine because he wants to marry her, and not because society says you should marry. Applying the same principle to the opposite branch with Catherine [3], the game seems to be saying that being a rebel for the sake of being a rebel is equally misguided. Like in Derrida’s Deconstruction (Expose => Reverse => Dismantle), going for the polar opposite of the dominant ideology is only an adolescential phase towards the more mature phase of dismantling the ideology and moving beyond its framework. That’s not to say that anyone is somehow bad or ‘not really free’ if they happen to genuinely think in a way that leads them towards the Catherine ending.

Nonetheless, it seems clear to me that the ideal ending is the Freedom ending. On the one hand, the thought process is that, if you’re truly free and honest, your meter is probably going to hang around the middle, as you agree with the dominant ideology on some things and disagree on others. On the other hand, the Freedom ending, the True one especially, means that Vincent will continue soul-searching beyond the extension of the game, in keeping with the main theme and with the recognition that one is never completely free. He understands that he doesn’t have answers, that he is confused, but, unlike the beginning of the story, he is now aware of it and he’s willing to figure it out. He starts to act, to do things for himself. In many ways, the Freedom ending is the equivalent of choosing to continue driving in Glitchhikers, as opposed to choosing to exit and settle with either C or K. Ultimately, neither choice is ‘wrong’, but one of them feels truer to the spirit of the game.

It’s become cliché by now to use the term “interesting failure”. But Catherine really is. It’s a failure. It’s a great failure, better than a lot of games who are not even ambitious enough to fail. It’s so damn close to being a great game, but it remains a great game for the ways it falls short of its incredible aspirations. As I said, its best and worst revolve around the game’s depiction of freedom. It uses the Bioware model of morality and choice, only to subvert it, and it offers an imperfect alternative in the form of text messaging. At the same time, it lives and breathes its binary mentality to the point that it fails to criticize it properly. The same issue comes up in different guises multiple times: the game implements certain contents or mechanics, aware of the problematic nature of these elements. It shows its awareness, but still falls short of an effective criticism, sometimes of any criticism at all, and therefore ends up embodying the same values and ideological assumptions it’d like to criticise. Issues that remain under-discussed include: the need to marry, the influence of ideology, the competing ideas about masculinity, identity, men, women. On the one hand, it’s afraid that the player won’t take the game seriously, and so explains even the obvious, only to lack an incisive commentary where it’d be most needed. It wants to represent freedom and diversity, and to an extent it does; it also gives us a great unlikable protagonist, whom we hate because we understand him and we see in him our possibilities, our fears, the incarnation of the worst of us. But then, a simple Wikipedia search reveals a world of possible interpersonal relationships that the game doesn’t even seem to be aware of. And its treatment of cheating is appalling for how superficial and dismissive the game suddenly becomes. Most of its endings are sadly conventional, because of some unwritten rule that games need to be wish fulfilment and you have to be able to get all the women, in some way. How much braver and more interesting it’d have been, if the Katherine branch only ended with her walking away, as she needs to be alone and think if she’s ever going to able to forgive Vincent, hinting that she probably won’t.

Still, when I started writing about it, I wanted to do a 3000-word piece like I did for the other games. But as I kept writing, I found so much interesting material to discuss, and I’m aware I could have gone way deeper in so many ways, and that I didn’t even touch on other things at all. Before I knew it, I had 10000 words, and with enough studying one could easily write a small book about it. Catherine is worth trying, for its ambition and its shortcomings. But most of all, because it’s stimulating, and one way or the other it doesn’t leave you indifferent.

Hello, reader, I’m glad you made it this far. This series has been by far my most ambitious yet, but I know I have a lot of room to improve. Most of all, I’m aware that I need to work on my writing style, make it more readable and enjoyable, and I’m trying to fix it. Still, feedback always helps, so feel free to leave a comment or reach out to me with your thoughts.

Thank you for reading and have a lovely day, kind stranger. Meow ❤

[1] The cast is also all white and Caucasian. You’d think that, being made in Japan, you’d see at least one character with Eastern traits, but nope. The only allusion to the fact that not the whole world is white is in a phone call between Vincent and Steve Delhomme, in a cutscene on Day 6: for him, Catherine takes on the appearance of a non-Caucasian woman.

[2] I mean, it goes without saying, but she’s only one point in a spectrum, and for everything she is there will be other trans-girls who relate to themselves differently, and that’s completely fine. She’s not meant to represent every transwoman more than any particular cis man or woman are meant to represent every other individual in the same category. For instance, Erica passes as cis, other transwomen like to celebrate their queerness more than passing, they may even see it as being “normalized”, as a sign of bowing down to the same culture that rejects you for being trans in the first place. And there are more arguments to be made about each and every aspect of her identity. That’s great and interesting, although this is not the place to go deeper. But at the end of the day, while one should look at oneself critically and everything, one has to be oneself and be okay with oneself, as long as it doesn’t impinge on other people’s rights etc.

[3] A small note on the True Catherine ending: it’s ridiculous. Yes, they were shooting for ridiculous, but it’s beyond ridiculous. She is a demon, the daughter of Satan himself. He is a human male. Even if repeated contact did turn Vincent into a demon himself, and even if he could keep up with her libido, to think that his sexuality would be so fascinating and appealing that he’d have his own harem of women enraptured by him, in which Catherine is the first and most important, but far from the only one, is ridiculous. It’s pure and lazy male power fantasy taken beyond the extreme, more impossible than the impossible. The reverse would have made so much more sense: Catherine, with all her power, as the centre of a harem of men (and maybe women too), of which Vincent may very well be the first and most important, but still only one of many, and still dominated by her.

As it is, I prefer the Good Catherine Ending by far.

Links and Further Reading

A lot has been written about Catherine. First of all, the Wikia is a good starting place. David Carlton (Malvasia Bianca) wrote about the gameplay first, and then the game as a whole, with its take on marriage, children and how it manages to be interesting despite rejecting the underlying gender politics that dominate it. Edward Smith wrote for Medium Difficulty about how various scoring and evaluation system ruin the aesthetic experience. On Kotaku, Patricia Hernandez confessed her own real life infidelity, which the game gave her a new perspective on. She related a bit too much to Vincent’s situation. Mattie Brice took issue with Atlus’ treatment of its trans* characters, and uses Erica as an example for her argument. While not directly about Catherine, Apple Cider Mage’s interesting post about sex positivity, sex negativity, different sexualities and her complex take on Bayonetta is very very relevant. Michael Abbot of Brainy Gamer was disappointed by the game’s failure to live up to its promises and the expectations it sets up.

Finally, PopMatters has written a lot about Catherine, including a podcast that is now sadly inaccessible. G. Christopher Williams described Catherine as a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, and explains why this stereotype is so absent from gaming, he explored the tension between gameplay and narrative and finally considered the moralistic attitude underlying the plot, the “Taming of the Dude”. Kris Ligman reviewed the game, offering seeds for further discussion in the process, she delved into the conflict between humans and Gods, and then explored Catherine’s community building. Scott Juster related to the characters, and hated that he did, and Jorge Albor wrote about individuality, choice and sheep.

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5 thoughts on “Catherine – Part 3: Freedom from Nightmares”

  1. Hi there! New reader here.

    I really enjoyed all three articles, and they’ve earned you a new follower. And if you have more to say, about Catherine or anything else, I say bring on the long articles, they’re absolutely awesome.

    Can’t wait to read your next piece!

    Like

    1. Why, thank you!

      I still have a lot to learn, if you enjoy my stuff you’ll probably enjoy checking out some of the people in my blogroll on the left, they’re far better than me =)
      But Thank you for your support! It means a lot.

      Like

  2. Hey there, you managed to break down this game is a way that I feel was just perfect. You went deeper and you even helped me feel a bit validated. I just couldn’t believe in my initial playthrough that they had gone and invalidated Vincent’s behavior with the whole “gods” thing. But seeing the interpretation of the gods clearly being seen as equally wrong (which I got in the game, but hadn’t connected as many dots as you do) really makes me respect your critical opinion.

    You did an excellent job with this, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of your writing about games. Catherine is a particularly great game for this approach, obviously deep, dripping with imagery, taking on a very adult theme.

    Like

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