I first heard about Atlus’s Catherine in 2011 when a non-gamer friend posted an article about it on facebook. A linguist who was deeply interested in sociology and psychology, she was commenting on how fascinating the game’s premise was. Specifically, how fascinating it was that the catalyst of the game’s plot is a morally “bad” decision that you, the player, are powerless to stop. The idea made me uncomfortable, partly because of personal experiences at the time. I quickly forgot about the game. My interest was renewed earlier this year when close friend and fellow TAYter tot Sol was raving about it constantly. I finally got around to playing it over the weekend with a partner (aka Dyram), and it quickly became one of the most special gaming experiences I’ve had. The story, music, voice acting, and environment are utterly absorbing. That’s not surprising coming from the Persona Team, who have a knack for creating worlds you want to hang out in. But it’s still what my friend commented on all that time ago that makes this game so unique.
The morality systems in most games are rather shallow. I find they usually amount to something too black and white for my tastes. That’s not to say that things don’t get too cut and dry at times in Catherine, but it mucks around in the grey areas for the most part. It can be an uncomfortable experience. Most of us are regular good guys in games (probably nicer than we are in real life). Being good gets us rewards, or in the case of choosing pacifist strategies, gives us an extra challenge. I do think it comes naturally for us as gamers, in part because of force of habit, to gravitate towards traditionally good moral decisions in games. This is why it’s so odd and jarring to watch our character, Vincent Brooks, do the “wrong” thing.
Early in the game you cheat on your long term girlfriend, Katherine. There’s nothing you can do to prevent this. You’re just left to help Vincent fumble around with the mess he’s made afterwards. In actuality it’s the mess he’s worsened. Vincent and Katherine are comfortable (read: complacent) lovers, but she wants to settle down. He’s not so sure. His central conflict is really that he’s not sure about anything – in love or for himself. His abrupt infidelity is a bold move. No matter what your first impressions of Katherine are, or your own moral code, plenty of people are viscerally turned off by cheating. This leaves many players stuck on a journey with a guy they probably think is a total spineless dick.
Vincent is thrown night by night into twisted dreams – the site of the game’s mind bending puzzles – with similarly lost souls. Your fellow “stray sheep” (also the bar you chill at) are, like Vincent, troubled and confused by relationship issues. No one in this game really has their shit together in love. You juggle your interactions with your friends, Katherine, and the interloper Catherine through conversations and text messages. The latter is an utterly fascinating mechanic and an example of how the game’s moral system is refreshingly deep. Instead of just having a few responses (like in conversation) you can choose from, you can craft your own texts by piecing together your options for each line. It can be a really harrowing process. Do I shut Catherine’s flirtations down? Do I try to tell Katherine to stop being so nosy? Do I send my girlfriend a sweet and considerate text? But wait, does that make me worse for sounding so fake, considering what I’m doing behind her back?
The texts you choose, as well as your answers in conversations with the girls or the NPCs you help in the nightmares, change your alignment on a mysterious red and blue meter. Here’s the brilliance of Catherine: it’s not explained until you beat the game what the meter’s purpose was. Being the trained good guys we are, I think many of us would assume red is “bad” – being selfish, carrying on with Catherine, and blue is “good” – being the responsible adult and stifling our impulses for Katherine. But like I said, this game is more about the grey areas. It wants to make you think about how you view life and relationships. I was genuinely surprised by how some of my choices affected the meter. “Am I being punished for not being an optimist?” I asked Dyram at one point. Another mechanic is a mini-survey that Vincent must take between levels in the nightmare world. These questions are hard hitting and very much directed at you the player, not you as Vincent. They ask such things like who would be more to blame if you cheated, is marriage the end or beginning of life, etc. These move your meter, and also surprised me at times with their direction.
Oh, and those surveys? Before the next level, you are shown the results of other players’ answers with one chart per gender. It’s a brilliant little feature, always interesting, and like the game as whole, sometimes unsettling. You won’t get away from this game without thinking about some hard issues deeply. It was very interesting for me to play with someone else, too. Not only because it’s kind of funny to play a game about romantic strife with your romantic partner, but because the themes here are so subjective and often existential. Every player will have a different opinion – Dyram, along with being way better at puzzles, is generally much less pessimistic than I am. He commented at times that I answered opposite of how he would have. I shrugged sheepishly (heh, sheep, heh) before one of my choices in the surveys. The personal nature of these questions combined with the unexplained purpose of the meter make the morality in Catherine something very complex and authentic. I really think the designers wanted the game to play out according to every player’s honest beliefs and outlook. This is a game where your own point of view affects the plot and characters beyond the superficial level. It doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths, and facing them may make you realize just how revolutionary Catherine is with in-game morality.