I picked up Catherine probably a year or so after it came out during a PSN sale. I bought it without thinking too much about it; it was cheap, I wasn’t really playing anything else at the time, I liked other Atlus stuff. I didn’t look up any reviews or anything, maybe a gameplay overview. Dating sim meets puzzler with goofy anime-style cutscenes? Why not?
It became a game I would play by myself, at night, when my roommate wasn’t home. I really dove into the sim aspect of the game, spending a ton of time at the in-game bar, getting to know the characters and deciding what to drink night after night. I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I saw a lot of myself in the player character, Vincent. He’s a schlub who doesn’t think things through, coasting through his twenties and into his thirties. He’s focused on what’s in front of him and not much else. He’s a little selfish and a lot thoughtless. One of the unexpected pleasures of playing the game is playing as a character that has real-feeling flaws, unlike the paragons of virtue depicted in many other single player games. I won’t get into a debate about Eastern vs. Western game development styles; I’m not nearly well versed enough. But I will say that games that come out of Japan have more of a tendency to wrestle with some of the darker aspects of humanity and relationships than might be reasonably expected from a video game.
Early on in the game, Vincent meets Catherine, a vivacious and carefree young woman who doesn’t want to be tied down. Something about her appeals to Vincent- she’s sexy, she’s outgoing, she expresses a lot of interest in him. She seems kind of ditzy but something about her grabs Vincent’s attention, and he’s tempted to stray. Unfortunately for Vincent, he’s in a long term relationship with Katherine. Katherine is seemingly more mature, more focused on the future. She knows what she wants (marriage, a child, career advancement).She’s attractive, in a different way than Catherine.
When I played Catherine, I was single. Early twenties, fresh out of college, I thought of myself as a hotshot Hollywood actor. I was aggressive towards pursuing women and that tended to get results, in the form of dates. I liked to drink and would take the time to find bars that were unique and not well known. When I played the game, Vincent was a bourgeois lothario, treating Katherine flippantly while being intoxicated with Catherine. When presented with choices, I picked the ones that would cause the most chaos. My PlayStation 3 was connected to the internet while I played and I loved seeing the percentages of what choices other people would make. It was exciting to feel like I was making choices in the game that would have big effects, and I would be lying if I didn’t say the in-game cheesecake wasn’t a tempting factor as well. It’s like the frustrated teenager I used to be would bubble up and do his level best to perfect his sexting game with Catherine.
It’s a great game, really interesting from a mechanics standpoint. As far as I know, there is still a fairly competitive scene that tries to complete puzzles as quickly and with as few moves as possible. The music is smooth, and the plot has some great Atlus-y hooks throughout. The morality aspect is interesting, though simplistic. I never got all the way through it, though. At a certain point the nightmare puzzles became too difficult for me to finish (I was playing on Normal, my default for pretty much every game I play; I really should have stuck with Easy) and I stopped playing. The game has stuck with me ever since, haunted me, really. I learned a lot about myself while playing the sim aspects and even now I’m uncomfortable facing some truths.
What follows is perhaps Too Much Information, so if you’re not interested in reading past this point I would understand. Consider everything up to this point an end in itself, a post where I wax on the idea that Catherine does a really solid job at presenting difficult adult themes in a video game. What comes next is of a more personal nature.
I’m a serial cheater. I should say- a reformed one. I’ve had problems with alcohol and knowing when to say no. For a while I lived a very hedonistic lifestyle and I didn’t care who I hurt. It’s startling to think back to relationships I upended and the people I hurt and how it relates to Catherine.
I would never say that a video game made me do anything, especially something as devastating and violating to another person as infidelity. Catherine had nothing to do with personal decisions I made and the consequences that arose afterwards. I originally wanted to write this post with a more morally righteous slant, something like We Must Be Careful What We Consume Lest We Become That Which We Fear Most- but in all honestly it comes down to “I made some supremely shitty life choices, and also I played Catherine, a game in which the player character has to opportunity to make some shitty life choices”. Something else I love about the game is that Vincent’s cowardice in confronting Katherine is remarked upon constantly by the supporting cast. No one sets out to make that case that Vincent is a good guy, or even a fun friend to hang around. He’s a tryhard, self-obsessed to the point of denial. Having come through my own self-inflicted relationship wastelands, I can cynically view Vincent for what he is: a small, selfish man who wants to fuck someone else before he settles.
Again, I never finished this game. It’s likely I never will. I would probably have to restart it, and at this point I don’t have it in me. I’m in the most stable relationship I’ve ever been in, and with lots of therapy I’ve come to grips with who I am now and who I used to be. Alcohol abuse and other excesses are under control or being worked through. I had a wakeup call, and I somehow doubt Vincent gets one that doesn’t end violently.
I’m sure there’s an ending to Catherine where he stays with Katherine, has the kid, gets the job. I hope there’s an ending where he winds up alone, if only so that virtual Vincent can get his life together. He’s running from something but aren’t we all? Stray sheep, wandering, wanting freedom to roam but expecting a safe pen simultaneously.