Vincent and Catherine, quite probably about to be up to no good whatsoever
"What would you do if your significant other fell in love with someone else?"
I'd let her go.
"It is easier to love, or be loved?"
To be loved.
"Are you prepared to risk your life to get back together with a former lover?"
Maybe not everything.
"Confessional" questions asked throughout Catherine, with the answers I selected.
In 2009, Japanese developer Atlus released the latest in its Shin Megami Tensei line of RPGs, Persona 4, to critical acclaim. It combined a social simulator with a murder mystery, crammed in a load of JRPG mechanics, and immediately became one of the definitive games on the PlayStation 2. Inevitably, the question of what could possibly follow it soon surfaced, and when the studio announced a new title for the then next-gen PlayStation 3, the natural prediction was that Persona 5 was imminent.
Oh, how wrong we all were. Instead of announcing another game for the company's marquee franchise, Atlus revealed Catherine. Neither an RPG nor a proper Shin Megami Tensei entry, Catherine was a puzzle title that essentially combined the gameplay of Tetris and Q*bert. The developers also revealed that it would earn itself an M rating, with the story wrapped around the blocks-shifting sections swollen by themes uncommon in video games: sex, romance, adultery, and marriage.
Catherine is the tale of Vincent Brooks, a 30-something man in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend, Katherine. (Note the spelling gets confusing fast.) She's been dropping hints about marriage to him for some time, but something is holding Vincent back from popping the big question. Then, one night, he meets a young, attractive woman named Catherine at a bar and finds himself in the throes of an affair.
There are eight possible endings the player can reach, assuming he or she can master the devilishly demanding climbs that make up Vincent's nightmares, the punishing puzzle sections of the experience. My first playthrough resulted in the "True Freedom" ending. For those of you not bothered by spoilers (and if you are, I guess just click away now), the "True Freedom" ending sees Vincent stay with neither Catherine nor Katherine. Instead, he decides that a relationship just isn't for him, gambles his money on a wrestling match, and uses his winnings to go to space… for some reason. Which ending you see depends on your answers to survey questions asked after successfully completing each dreamtime dungeon. These "confessionals," as they are called in the game, usually revolved around the topic of relationships, though not always. While I found the game's melodramatic premise engrossing, the lackluster ending I received felt unsatisfying, especially given pre-release commercials in Japan had featured interviews with real couples, asking their thoughts on love and marriage. I expected something more tangibly relatable, perhaps.
Then, five years after the game's announcement in 2010, I broke up with my girlfriend because I couldn't commit to our relationship.
At the time I blamed a lot of my issues with commitment with my own family history. I mean, really, what chance does a child have when they've grown up against a ruined marriage?
But I don't want to describe my breakup with clichés like, "It was messy." The prevailing mood in my mind was disappointment. Disappointment that our relationship ended the way it did. That the potential for it would never come to fruition. And, ultimately, disappointment in the person I turned out to be. I don't mean to use this article as a public display of penance, but at the end of the relationship, it was clear to us that standing in the wreckage was my inability to conquer my own fears.
So I was single again, and after a few hazy months I was reminded of years earlier when I played Catherine, a game that illustrated that I had (and would have) a problem with commitment.
The last thing I want to do is equate the very real emotional consequences of my last relationship to the plot of a video game. I didn't suddenly find myself thinking about the ending I earned as Vincent; it never crossed my mind that I'd chosen freedom, just like I had in a video game a few years ago. I wasn't torn between two women/metaphorical stand-ins for lust and commitment. I was torn between genuine human affection and a self-preservation instinct that's been a part of me since I was a child. I didn't want to believe that a game, one I believe is actually rather shallow, would predict my own nature.
'Catherine,' European launch trailer
I don't want to give the game credit where none is due. It wasn't that Catherine had, and has, any real authority over its player's romantic nature—it just asked the right questions. "Who would be responsible if you cheated?" "What's your take on praying mantis mating habits?" "Have you changed your personal style for someone else?" These are clever questions that sorted the player into one of two categories, "law" or "chaos." Choosing too many answers that were designated either lawful or chaotic would net you a corresponding ending, with Katherine the lawful partner and Catherine the chaotic alternative. If your answers effectively split the difference, you would wind up with an ending like mine: Vincent heading off to the other side of the credits as a lonely space cowboy. Just like me.
But Catherine's story, even with its Freudian ticks and ultimately normative views of relationships, succeeded as the sordid telenovela it aimed to be. The red velvet atmosphere, colorful cast, and supernatural elements (which I won't detail here, because that's a whole new level of spoiler) were all highly tuned to titillate and thrill. But I feel like it was all just dressing for what would basically be an unusually crafty romance survey. It helps that some answers eschew their expected outcome. For example, the question of, "Your lover's into baby play. What do you do?" Now, answering that you'll try anything once would land you a lawful score, while answering that it was a "deal breaker" landed you firmly in chaotic territory.
Choose the steady and stable Katherine and get hitched, or follow a mysterious seductress you meet at a bar into chaos. The fact that the player can easily manipulate the survey into giving him or her the ending he or she wants to receive undercuts the whole narrative, but strangely not the confessionals themselves. At the same time, the game's cleverness doesn't mean it possesses any great depth. While the questions asked can lead to answers taking you some way from expected results, they are still essentially offering you the choice between two contrasting personality types: black or white, no in-between. The very straightforward nature of Catherine's story is what resulted in my Vincent not fitting into its basic duality; it determined that he just didn't want any kind of relationship.
That's not completely true for me, however. It's not that I never wanted to be in a relationship—I did. But once it crossed an imaginary threshold I had drawn for myself, the urge to back out of commitment was stronger than the simultaneous desire to push through my fears for love. I didn't want true freedom; I just didn't want to be a coward.
In the end, I was a coward.
So does this change Catherine into a far more intricate experience than what I first thought it to be? The game's central thesis on relationships seems to hinge on what amounts to be a cheeky checklist—but a checklist made up of honest answers still holds weight, no matter if they're buried in an addictive puzzle game. I answered honestly at every confessional Catherine's fictional world threw at me, and the results did somewhat reflect the reality I live through every day. I was torn on commitment then, and I still am. I'm just a little pissed that the game considers this mentality as "true freedom." Because as Vincent got a little bit closer to the stars, I'm still down here, burdened by questions of my own.
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