Catherine seems to mostly attract interest for reasons related to its narrative, but of course you spend most of your time with the game shoving blocks around in the puzzle mode. I went through it on Normal which, generally speaking, meant: quite difficult. So I failed a lot, but with persistence, I made it through each level; and I enjoyed the process enough to generally consider the difficulty (and indeed the very presence) of the puzzle gameplay a feature, not a bug.
The night stages aren’t a pure puzzle game: they’re a puzzle game with a timer. Which, at first, annoyed me: timers are of course necessary in Tetris-style puzzle games that are all about quickly coming up with optimal (or at least not pessimal) responses to new information. But Catherine is a different sort of puzzle game, and the gameplay would make perfect sense in the absence of time pressure. The thing is, though, the game gives you an untimed variant of the gameplay in the form of the Rapunzel minigame, and I both didn’t like it as much and didn’t do as well on it. It may be that the Rapunzel levels were harder, having fewer options; but I also think that working under pressure forced my brain to experiment more with different lines, generating a wider set of options and helping me solve the puzzle faster. Even the repeated dying may have helped, in that it gave me an opportunity to solidify my understanding of sections that I had only managed to solve by accident the first time.
Also: the imagery in the final stage of each night, where you’re under the most pressure, was glorious in its own way. I’m still not sure what I think about all of that imagery, but I’m glad to have been exposed to it.
Even so, I was unsure how much I liked the puzzle levels, and whether I would stick with Normal difficulty, until about the halfway point in the game. The technique videos certainly helped, both by making suggestions that actively helped my gameplay and by showing that the gameplay is a good deal richer than it seemed at first blush. But then, a few nights in, it all started to come together: I learned the “climb a three-wide wall of arbitrary height” technique, and the presence of ice blocks forced me to come to grips with the power of moving laterally along a wall while hanging from it.
And, with those two techniques, a flip switched in my brain. Many more possibilities were clear; and, as I was trying to fall asleep at night (in real life, not in the game!), my brain would instead be imagining block sequences, running through them over and over again. Which is something that happens to me when I play puzzle games, and is a sign that the game is sufficiently rich to be a good one: it happened with Tetris, it happened with go, it happened with Slitherlink.
So: Catherine turned out, to my surprise, to be a rather good puzzle game. But, surely (sadly?), the puzzle gameplay is divorced from the game’s narrative themes, despite the imagery of the final stage of each night?
To my surprise, the answer is no. As I said above, the game had me lying away at night, thinking through possible courses of action, sometimes discarding bad ones and progressing while, other times (most of the time!), just repeating the same sequences in a rut. This is what I do when a puzzle game catches hold of me; it’s what I would also do when a person caught hold of me as well, however. I would lie awake at night thinking about whomever I had a crush on, imagining possible sequences of interactions, imagining a sequence of moves by which I would catch that person’s notice, we would talk, we would spend time together, a spark would ignite, we would fall… in love? In something, at any rate: the video game metaphor of progressing from level to level is not so bad here.
Catherine is a darker game than that: no simple crushes there. But these racing thoughts aren’t limited to infatuation: they happen when, for whatever reason, I’m afraid of a conversation. If I were in Vincent’s situation of having to break up with Catherine, of having to rescue his relationship with Katherine, of trying to figure out what he wants out of either relationship in the first place, I’d be lying away at night, tossing and turning and wondering. And playing through scenario after scenario in my head: if I do this, maybe she’d react in this way, she’d say that? No, that wouldn’t work, what if I said this instead? I’d make it a little farther that time, only to lose my grip eventually, to be crushed by the weight of responses, of expectations. I wouldn’t be climbing a tower in my nightmares: instead, I’d be lying in bed, living through an ongoing nightmare, trying to find a path to navigate through it.
Progressing through levels isn’t the only video game metaphor that fits. The game puts difficulty and skill front and center; and certainly when I had my first crushes, I was completely incapable of navigating them successfully. (As I imagine most people were, but I suspect I was abnormally bad.) I got better at navigating crushes, and then (mercifully? Wonderfully, certainly) I haven’t had to for the last couple of decades. Difficult conversations still happen; I’m getting better at them, too (protip: if you’re scared of a difficult conversation, then that’s a sign of the importance of openly talking about the issue in question, though the real issue may not be what your consciousness thinks is important), but my stomach remains no stranger to sinking feelings.
Despite the darkness of much of the game, the subtext of the puzzle gameplay is surprisingly supportive. When I’m imagining conversations (or stages in puzzle games!), my brain gets stuck in an unrealistic rut; when I later have those conversations during the daytime, the possibility that they can go horribly wrong is very real indeed. In the game’s nightmare stages, however, the pressure forced me to try out different routes, and the game gave me a safe space to hone my skills when I’ve figured out a good route through a particular section. (Indeed, the game made it clear that I had figured out a good route through a difficult section; in real life, what sounds like a good solution in my fevered nighttime imagination frequently collapses at the first sign of daylight.) There was always the possibility of running out of continues, but in practice the game scattered them around thickly enough that, after the first few nights, I never had to worry about dying: the worst that I had to fear was being stuck in limbo, neither dying nor being able to figure out how to make it past a given section.
Ultimately, the game presented a world where you can rework the traps and pitfalls that are lying in wait for you in your brain, turning them into a smooth (or at least navigable) path forward. If only that were so reliably possible in real life…
- September 18, 2011 @ 11:57:09 [Current Revision] by David Carlton
- September 17, 2011 @ 21:25:58 by David Carlton