Catherine's Manifesto

In the world of video gaming, few sights are more ubiquitous than that of the military grunt or mercenary clutching a gun.

The 'first person shooter' (FPS) genre, in particular, is synonymous with gaming, in part through its very public association with shooting tragedies like Columbine and, more recently, Anders Breivik.

Thanks to the casual and social gaming phenomenons, and the rise of smartphones and tablets, gaming is no longer as taboo as it used to be, but there is still a core gaming audience that craves the visceral excitement of a military style shooter.

I am a gamer and for the most part, I reject the FPS genre because it doesn't interest me. I fear locking my synapses into the noisy, gunfire heavy experience it provides, but it goes beyond that. Wildly successful games like 'Borderlands,' 'Bulletstorm,' 'Call of Duty,' 'Crysis' and 'Army of Two' all share a common thread. Most of these games lack a narrative that would cause a gamer to reflect internally on the experience in a meaningful way. The narratives these games share is largely a tactical one, and consequently, taciturn, and that doesn't interest me.

Recently, 'L.A. Noire' drew me close to a cerebral gaming experience, while still exploring some brutally mature themes and avoiding the glorification of violence that so often besets games. While the subject matter was lurid, the content itself was presented without irony or sleaze. What impressed me most was the motion capture technology that allowed me to, in essence, interact with talented actors while trying to discern whether they were telling the truth, being evasive, or flat-out lying.

My experience with 'L.A. Noire' was an anomaly. While I often reject the louder, more visceral experiences, most games I play don't usually contain much emotional depth. Even games earning themselves an "M" rating don't usually mine profound issues, either. The God of War series, for instance, a phenomenally entertaining ride through a bloody and brutal depiction of ancient mythology, it is, at heart, a pretty basic and juvenile revenge story. Similarly, many games - fantasy, war, World War II,  you name it - present us with characters whose dilemmas don't reflect on the human experience in any meaningful way.

Even an indie title like Braid, a lovely and mind-bending platformer praised for its depth and maturity, tackled emotional material with the subtlety of a treacly high school diary. It's tough for developers to get it right, even with mostly satisfying experiences like Braid, in part due to the demands and limitations of their industry, and partly because the best games require hugely talented creative directors (like Ken Levine of Irrational Games) to communicate effectively with developers, and those are in short supply.

The developers behind a little game called 'Catherine' have taken a premise unique to gaming - a soap opera about dating, commitment, love and taking responsibility for one's life - and suffused it with surprising philosophical and emotional depth. The game itself is hard to describe, but it's a cross between Qbert and a Japanese dating simulator.

Publisher Atlas stated this week that Catherine is the most successful game in the company's twenty year history. This doesn't surprise me. Atlas is probably best known for localizing the Persona series, games featuring adolescents fighting evil forces at night and struggling to survive their social lives during the day. In that sense, Catherine - which deals with a man's social dilemmas during the day and his dangerous nightmares each evening - is remarkably similar to Persona, only with a twist.

Through face-to-face conversations, phone calls and text messages, the protagonist, Vincent, is continually given choices about how to react, and these choices - usually in the form of short replies that represent a wide variety of attitudes - impact a 'morality' meter that pops up at the bottom of the screen. The positioning of this meter at any given time can impact things both subtle (like Vincent's internal thoughts) and major (like the numerous endings to the game).

The in-game conversations are filled with historical and philosophical references. Characters you meet - and grow to care about - impart information that is often funny, informative and tragic. The main 'hub' in the game, a local bar, hosts most of these interactions.

Vincent's nightly climb up a steep, staggered collection of blocks comprises the other half the game, and it's tough as nails. Sometimes Vincent  is pursued by a mammoth figure that represents his worst fears (marriage, children, to name a few), and pushing and pulling on blocks while making a mad scramble away from these horrifying enemies is a harrowing experience.  There is all manner of metaphoric territory to be explored, particularly in regard to commitment and relationships.

To make things more bizarre, Vincent is joined in his epic climb with numerous sheep. Each sheep is someone he knows from the real world. As you begin Vincent's epic ascent, you realize that you may know some of them in the 'real world,' the game really gathers cohesion. As you climb higher and higher, the dynamic among the group of sheep shifts in part depending on your choices. At periodic 'landing sites,' you must wander into an opulent 'confessional booth' and answer personal questions. Once you answer the question (and there are dozens of them spread throughout the entire game). Before being shuttled to the next level, you are given a snapshot of how the rest of the gaming community has answered the previous question.

Catherine is filled with little flourishes that make it an incredibly polished experience. In the bar section of the game, you can just chill out, talking to patrons, play a fully realized arcade game (complete with the speaker distortion common in older arcade cabinets), choose between sake, beer, whiskey, or cocktails, and browse through your cell phone, exchanging texts along the way. Additionally, if you finish a particular kind of drink, you get interesting trivia about that drink.

Catherine borrows some elements from other games, but overall it's like nothing I've ever played. It's not a perfect experience, but it's a wholly unique one. Games like this excite me because they represent ways that gaming can evolve and diversify. There is too much same-ness in popular entertainment today, and consumers enable that to a large degree. Catherine may be something of a mashup (after all, the morality meter, game-within-a-game and puzzle conceits are nothing new), but it's greater than the sum of its individual parts.

In a gaming culture saturated with space marines, knights, wizards, and military squads, innovation is easy to spot. Catherine's existence - and success - is a bold cry for such innovation, and I hope to see more of it in the future.


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