For me, the tone was set with the very first question I got asked in the confessional: “Does life begin or end at marriage?” Which is an analysis of marriage that I would never for a moment consider performing: while my marriage continues to be wonderful, I had a fine life before I was married, thank you very much (and indeed the ways in which my marriage is wonderful are themselves outgrowths of that previous life), and aspects of my life that aren’t tied to marriage continue to be very important to me.
So, with that question, the game made matters clear: not only is Vincent not an avatar of myself, but the game as a whole was coming from a foreign point of view. (And one whose gender politics I found rather distasteful.) For whatever reason, though, rather than having this put me off the game, I found it liberating.
Which, in retrospect, isn’t so strange, and may even be a healthy sign for our art form. In any other art form, I wouldn’t blink an eye if I were asked to follow characters who were quite different from myself, even in ways that I abhorred: part of what makes great art is that it lets me go beyond myself, and perhaps in ways that I can learn a bit more about myself in the process. In video games, however, I don’t find this happening very often.
Take, for example, BioWare games. They’re in large part about making choices that express whom you would like your character to be. They’re very well done in that regard, and Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening in particular ended up taking me to some unexpected places. Ultimately, though, BioWare games place your avatar front and center; and when the Arrival DLC for Mass Effect 2 made me (or: “me”) complicit in actions I didn’t feel comfortable with, the experience was jarring and unpleasant enough to make me quite a bit less enthusiastic about the upcoming conclusion of that trilogy.
Catherine, however, created enough distance right at the beginning to get me over that hump, to put me in a similar space to when I’m reading a book or watching a movie with a protagonist who isn’t particularly similar to myself. In fact, the game turned player choice into a virtue in terms of perspective: while I had to choose one of two in-game options periodically throughout the game, I always had a third mental option of rejecting the premise entirely, and that option felt completely valid to me in a way that rejecting the premise of the conclusion of Mass Effect 2: Arrival didn’t. I haven’t played the game, but I gather that the HD Prince of Persia reboot ended with a similar invitation to reject the premise of a player action; the moral of these three examples seem to be that, if you want to set up such tension, do it at the start of your game instead of leaving the option of rejecting choices until the last moment. (Or take a leaf from Shadow of the Colossus: make your player increasingly complicit throughout the game so rejecting that final choice isn’t really an option.)
In her GDC 2009 rant, Heather Chaplin lamented game designers and players who “fear responsibility, introspection, intimacy, and intellectual discovery”. And it’s hard to imagine a better description of the themes of Catherine: our main character does, indeed, fear responsibility and intimacy. But, as it turns out, that fear isn’t paralyzing, he’s not completely mired in adolescence: he’s forced (rather more abruptly than he’d like!) into introspection, leading (with the help of a bunch of block pushing) to intellectual discovery.
The game explicitly reflects this forced introspection/discovery in the form of Thomas Mutton’s “culling the herd” idea. Which is another example of how the game’s surface reading is foreign to me, even bizarre, and with awful gender politics to boot. But, as with other examples in the game, I’m surprisingly okay with that. These themes of responsibility and intimacy are hard ones, with real bite and power behind them; by addressing those themes explicitly but from an unfortunate angle, it creates a space where the player (or at least where this player) is encouraged to think about them, without being bound by the parameters that the game puts in place.
When I finished the game, my first reaction to the surreal turn that the cheating plot took was to be disappointed in the game, even in the medium. Other art forms don’t shy away from discussions of infidelity, but in video games, the closest I get to that is listening to the lyrics of the music in Rock Band. So why couldn’t this game have the courage of its convictions, to dive into a real exploration of infidelity instead of pulling this succubus dodge?
A day and a half later (and, more importantly, 790 words of a blog post draft later!), I’m not nearly as disappointed. Continuing with what I’ve said above: just because the game uses Succubus Catherine to lighten the tone (or at least make it more surreal!), that doesn’t mean that we have to follow the same train of thought that the game presents. In particular, the questions of where the boundary between fidelity and infidelity lies, of how that’s affected by initiation versus reaction or by physical intimacy versus mental intimacy, and for that matter of whether you accept the fidelity/infidelity dichotomy as real and/or important in the first place, are all important and serious questions, with no simple answers.
The presence of Succubus Catherine provides one way of approaching these questions, but gives lousy answers while doing so; one tried-and-true teaching technique, however, is to give your students such bad sample answers to questions that they can’t help but poking holes in those answers, improving on them and surprising themselves with what they learn in the process. So, to that end, maybe Catherine‘s approach gives better results to such questioning than an approach coming from a place closer to how I normally think about these matters? I would be curious to play a game that addressed infidelity in a more realistic (in a more painful!) form, but I’m not sure that it would be as effective as such depictions can be in more voyeuristic artistic media: I don’t know how such a game would navigate between the Scylla of avoiding meaningful player choice and the Charybdis of removing the power of that depiction by letting the player not be an asshole.
That last uncertainty is, doubtless, more a failure of my imagination than anything else. And this game has certainly left me curious about where the Persona team is going next. The only other game of theirs that I’ve played is Persona 3; that game was wonderful in its own way, but the variety of social links was perhaps a bit overwhelming, and I didn’t find as much space for interpretation in that game as I did in Catherine. But the variety of links in Persona 3 makes it very clear that the team is willing (eager!) to address a whole range of interpersonal questions; I want to see more.
(On which note, I can’t believe that I’ve written over a thousand words on Catherine and not yet mentioned the fear of becoming a parent. “Child with Chainsaw has appeared! It’s a killer! Do not die!” And the use of children for entrapment; again, gender politics that’s so bad as to force you to explicitly reject the underlying premise/dichotomy, to approach the issue from a different direction.)
I can’t remember any more what I expected Catherine to be like when I started playing the game, but I’m quite sure that those expectations didn’t survive contact with more than my first couple of hours of playing the reality of the game. As is doubtless quite obvious, the game has set its hooks surprisingly deeply into my brain; I was hoping that writing this pair of blog posts would exorcise those hooks, but I’m no longer confident that that is the case. Fortunately, I’m also no longer as eager for that to be the case: if the game manages to continue to tumble around in my brain, I’m not sure I’ll actually enjoy the thoughts that it will surface, but I am sure I’ll find the experience interesting…
This post has not been revised since publication.