14 thoughts on “Atlus’ Catherine

  1. Increasingly, I am becoming convinced of the idea that criticism — whether literary criticism or game criticism — is a kind of wisdom writing; a genre where the critic attempts to develop his or her insights in a conversation with the game. We are not looking for a nameless critic who will tell us the truth about the game. We want to know how the game was profitably read by the critic — where the profit is an increase of wisdom. Putting herself on stage is not an act of narcissism that the critic commits, it is an essential part of what she needs to do, because you cannot show a profitable reading without a reader.

    This review is a very good example of this thesis. It is also a somewhat sad example, because most of the wisdom seems to come from you rather than from the game itself. This is in fact the general impression I have gotten from your analyses of romance games: that these games generally embody so little insight into actual human relationships that the only fruitful thematic engagement with them is critical (in the common sense of the word). Would you agree with that? Or am I too pessimistic? The best criticism is of course that where we can no longer tell what comes from the game and what comes from the critic, but that is only possible if the game is as wise as the reader.

    (If my impressions are correct, I cannot help but wonder what you would write when engaging with better material. Let me know if you ever decide to analyse Persuasion.)

    What I didn’t quite understand what this sentence:

    “These questions push his freedom vs. order score in one direction or the other, and it is fair to observe that freedom and order are not logical opposites.”

    Is it you or the game that makes this observation? (I agree with it, of course.)

    • This is in fact the general impression I have gotten from your analyses of romance games: that these games generally embody so little insight into actual human relationships that the only fruitful thematic engagement with them is critical (in the common sense of the word). Would you agree with that? Or am I too pessimistic?

      …hrm. I wouldn’t generalize that far. It’s true that there aren’t a huge number of games that talk about the sorts of relationship issues I’m interested in at all, let alone in a sophisticated way. That said, just about any game that’s sufficiently observant about characters is likely to have something of interest to look at, even if the game’s author hadn’t explicitly thought in terms of themes I care about.

      “These questions push his freedom vs. order score in one direction or the other, and it is fair to observe that freedom and order are not logical opposites.”

      Is it you or the game that makes this observation? (I agree with it, of course.)

      The game makes explicit that the score is freedom vs. order. I observed that they’re not opposites (though one of the commenters on the gamasutra article disagrees with me there). There’s also an interesting argument in the comments that these are seen as opposites in Japanese culture, and that’s a point I really can’t speak to.

      • You’re right, I overstated my point when I wrote that “the only” fruitful engagement is “critical”. What I was trying to find words for and explain to myself was an experience I commonly have when reading your analyses (of non-IF games): I read the analysis with a lot of interest, and yet I finish it with no intention at all to play the game that was analysed. That can happen once or twice, but it becomes something to think about when it happens almost every time.

        The problem could lie with me more than with the games: perhaps I just hate all these genres on sight. But I even tried out a platform game when I thought that the thematic content might be interesting. (The low point of my career as a critic. My own failure to engage with Braid in a fruitful way has left me a sadder, wiser man, and… oh, all right, now I’m just being hyperbolic for the heck of it.) But so many of these analyses leave me with the idea that the analysis was probably thematically more interesting than the game itself.

        Maybe my reading of your analyses is distorted, or at least shaped, by a wider feeling of disenchantment about the maturity of the thematic reflection that can be found in games right now. Why do articles that tell us what is wrong with the morality system of Fallout 3 or Fable tend to be more insightful than anything in those games themselves? I loved The Witcher 2, and I believe it gives us what the most mature depiction of the causes of violence to be found in a (certainly mainstream) computer game; but it is not all that mature when compared with good fiction and non-fiction. When someone on the IFDB asks us to name IF games that explore sexuality maturely and I cannot think of a single game that would fall into that category, I wonder how it is even possible that one of the major themes of modern literature is represented in our medium by, well, nothing.

        This is getting to be pretty off-topic. The one sentence summary: I believe games have a lot of potential, but I’m getting frustrated by the fact that they generally actualise so little of it. The result: I write snarky comments on your blog.

        The game makes explicit that the score is freedom vs. order. I observed that they’re not opposites

        I see. I liked the comment about Japan, but it seems to underscore the truth of your observation: the hikikomori are a perfect illustration of the fact that rejecting order is not the same thing as achieving freedom. Still, it might be hard for us to understand, without further research, what those two terms meant to the authors of the games.

      • What I was trying to find words for and explain to myself was an experience I commonly have when reading your analyses (of non-IF games): I read the analysis with a lot of interest, and yet I finish it with no intention at all to play the game that was analysed. That can happen once or twice, but it becomes something to think about when it happens almost every time.

        I don’t know what to tell you about that. Maybe I’m doing a disservice to some of these pieces and not sufficiently highlighting what’s positive about them? I did think L.A. Noire was a memorable experience, and despite all my many gripes with it, I’m glad I played it through, and will probably go back and play it more at some point in the future. But it’s true that I almost certainly wouldn’t finish all the games I currently play if it weren’t for the dual need to review and to keep abreast, generally, of what’s going on in the industry.

        That said, I only rarely want to see the movies I read about, either — I’d say maybe one in ten reviews (if that) inspire me with any intention to view the film in question.

      • Hm. I think several issues have become entangled in my mind, and I need to think about and separate them before I post more dramatic sounding comment. I certainly wasn’t trying to imply that you were being too negative in your reviews.

        (I may try L.A. Noire when it gets released for Windows in November.)

  2. A couple things this made me wonder:

    1. You said “Frequently I couldn’t see where I was because I’d wound up round the back of the blocks where the camera wouldn’t go, or the camera movement would be taken over by the game and prevent me from looking where I was actually headed.” Do you often have this kind of experience? I feel like I do — which can’t be true, because I only play free games and indie bundles and thus almost never even have to deal with a 3d camera. But whenever I do, I feel like I’m spending most of my time fighting it. Was Catherine a one-of-a-kind offender for you?

    2. The first comment at Gamasutra basically says “It’s not important that it does adult relationships badly, it’s important that it does it at all.” And I feel that point — none of the big titles I hear about actually sound like they’re about people. But then, isn’t there a whole genre (or two) of games about relationships: dating sims and visual novels? Do they do it well enough to count? Do the people I read fail to pay attention to them because they’re marketed toward women, or Japanese people? Is that even true? (Footnote to Gregory Weir’s Why So Few Violent Games? goes here.)

    Tentative conclusion: All games should be by Christine Love.

    • You said “Frequently I couldn’t see where I was because I’d wound up round the back of the blocks where the camera wouldn’t go, or the camera movement would be taken over by the game and prevent me from looking where I was actually headed.” Do you often have this kind of experience?

      Catherine was worse than usual, I’d say, though I’ve had similar problems with some other games. The deal is that there’s a distinct “front” and “back” to the tower of blocks you need to climb. If Vincent goes around the back, (1) the camera doesn’t follow him and (2) the directional effect of the controls is reversed to reflect the fact that he’s facing the other way. This is maddening, and killed me so many many times. (Or sometimes I just gave up and committed suicide because I couldn’t figure out where I was any more, because Vincent’s figure was completely invisible behind the block stack.)

      The first comment at Gamasutra basically says “It’s not important that it does adult relationships badly, it’s important that it does it at all.” And I feel that point — none of the big titles I hear about actually sound like they’re about people. But then, isn’t there a whole genre (or two) of games about relationships: dating sims and visual novels? Do they do it well enough to count?

      Most of the dating sims that I’ve seen (e.g. https://emshort.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/homer-in-silicon-on-datewarp/ ) tend to be about getting the player to collect all the available dateable characters — in fact, some make this mandatory if you’re to get unlock a final “true” ending. Sometimes this means that game mechanics center around learning what each of the possible dates likes (as in Date/Warp), which is somewhat interesting, but the cumulative effect is not particularly romantic, in my view, precisely because there is such a strong encouragement to Collect Them All.

      • If Vincent goes around the back, (1) the camera doesn’t follow him and (2) the directional effect of the controls is reversed to reflect the fact that he’s facing the other way.

        That does seem like an extreme version of the Camera Battles problem. Extreme enough that it sounds like a bug. Have other people talked about it when they talk about Catherine?

        My usual problems with the camera I think tend to be that when you go in a corner it swerves around uncontrollably (which can be an issue when you’re trying to move in a straight line) and, in Lugaru, when you get hit the camera rolls over as the PC does, making me lose control completely. Also, working the keyboard and touchpad simultaneously is like trying to rub my belly and pat my head at the same time. When Jonathan Blow said that fumbling is inherent to IF but not to FPSes, I laughed a bitter laugh.

        Most of the dating sims that I’ve seen… tend to be about getting the player to collect all the available dateable characters — in fact, some make this mandatory if you’re to get unlock a final “true” ending.

        I guess I don’t see that as incompatible with dealing with relationships in an interesting way, but I can see how it might wind up being reductive (in the same way that most games don’t actually teach us anything about violence, perhaps). From Sam Ashwell’s CYOA posts it sounds like I should check out Katawa Shoujo. Is there anything else that does relationships well? I should probably also finish “Your Life Flashes” sometime, though I don’t know if I have enough spare time to devote to all that voice acting.

        ((In what may be an unconscious homage to Catherine, my browser is occasionally not letting me see what I’m typing, so apologies if there are any typoes or extra cruft.)

      • My impression about the camera in Catherine was that it was intended as just an added challenge that you can’t see Vincent if he winds up in the back. It’s pretty brutal all around, so that would be consistent.

        I guess I don’t see that as incompatible with dealing with relationships in an interesting way

        No, it’s not; and I have played a fairly limited selection, so I shouldn’t be too judgmental. But my impression has been that the collect-them-all challenge often means that the characters wind up feeling more like trophies than like individuals: there’s something a bit objectifying at a meta-level about having a game set up to reward getting with the maximum number of partners, or in which some part of the story is blocked off until you have dated everyone once.

        A separate issue, but one that also affects my interest and enjoyment: quite a few of these games are set in high school or very shortly thereafter, and deal with what I think of as fairly immature character stereotypes. Whereas I’m less interested in playing a game about “does he like me, teehee?” and more interested in “okay, how do we balance our relationship with our careers and life goals?” and similar issues. I know of few games that delve into that territory except in extremely abstract ways (Passage, I suppose).

      • And “Guy of My Dreams,” of course.

        [Rohrer’s “Gravitation” is actually a much better game qua game than “Passage,” and is even more explicitly about the family/work balance, but it’s about a father-child relationship rather than a romantic one. Don’t know what that means.]

      • See also Acquiescence, a very short game about how the people we’re with affect the strategies we take through life. I’m not sure it’s so much a romantic game exactly, but it touches on some adjacent issues. But, again, it’s in a fairly abstract format.

    • Looking at your twitter feed, it’s funny that you compare the excuses made for Catherine and Heavy Rain, because that’s exactly what I was thinking of when I was talking about games that don’t sound like they’re about people. The video Zack Urlocker links here has a lot of talk about videogame stories while shiny graphics play in the background, and Heavy Rain is the only one whose graphics made it look like it was about a story rather than blowing stuff up in space or blowing stuff up in medieval fantasyville.*

      Which isn’t an excuse for a crappy story. More like, “Wouldn’t it be great if people made games that had similar ambitions and weren’t crappy?”

      *Yes, blowing stuff up in space can be the foundation for a fine story. It’s still weird when it’s the only kind of story you get.**
      **And Braid, which I guess also counts as an attempt to treat relationships.

  3. “The idea of a healthy partnership that leaves you both freer and safer than you were before does not conceptually exist in this universe.”

    I think this is originally a very Christian concept – the package of freedom, order, relationship and peace as opposed to slavery, chaos, ‘lording’ and lovelessness. At the time it must have been as alien to (the ancestors of) us as it may now be to non-Christianised cultures, but we have grown to consider it possible if not normal.

    I understand this game is Japanese, and Christianity has never profoundly influenced Japanese culture.

  4. I haven’t played all the way through Catherine (I have no spatial skills and was stymied by the puzzler parts), but from what I have seen of it, and from the reviews I’ve read, I suspect it’s something of a metaphor for the transition into adulthood. In Japanese society, people aren’t quite regarded as full adults until they marry and have children, especially men, and especially white-collar middle-class men. Personal preference is completely irrelevant; you have a familial and social obligation to marry and have kids, and failing to accept that obligation is a sign of immaturity. (And yes, in this system, there is no room for “happily single, polyamorous, [or] childfree” people, nor for gay or trans people unless they can manage to participate in heterosexual marriage and reproduction.) This attitude is waning gradually, but it is still widespread, especially in regards to corporate hiring and promotion.

    So in the context of the game, Katherine represents growing up, which means accepting your burdens and other people’s demands on you, however unpleasant and unreasonable you find them. Catherine represents continued adolescence, capitulation to the lures of irresponsibility, and, therefore, expulsion from the normal social order. The “best” ending is the one where you (Vincent) suck it up, “take responsibility” and conform to your destined role in life as husband and father.

    In the real world, a large fraction of young Japanese are remaining unmarried, in part of the extremely unsatisfying and oppressive nature of traditional marriage roles, especially for women. This is a cause of much handwringing and moral panic-ing, and it’s frequently framed in terms similar to those the game uses: young Japanese men are too wussy and unambitious, and young Japanese women are too aggressive and demanding, except for the ones who are too slutty and undemanding. So I think Catherine has a large element of social mirroring, even if it doesn’t really have any social commentary beyond “akirame” (“deal with it”).

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