This week, I saw the first game trailer that has truly intrigued me this year. The game is Atlus' Catherine, a 360/PS3 offering due out this winter (so far, in Japan only) from the team behind dating sim/dungeon crawler hybrid Persona 3. In the game's first trailer, we meet a man named Vincent who seems to be haunted by dreams both sexual and horrific in nature; he is alternately chased by rams wearing ties and taunted by a blond woman named Catherine who flirts with him, kisses him, and straddles him naked as they appear to have sex. He is clearly worried and afraid, but from the little we've seen, we aren't sure what's real yet and what's a part of the nightmare -- only that we are seeing the first suggestions of a major fracture in our main character's psyche, which only tantalize us to want to see more.
Described as a "horror/adult action adventure", the trailer made a strong impression on Atlus fans, who discussed it wildly in forums. The development team working on the title said it would be "highly erotic" and character designer Shigenori Soejima has stated that there are some shockingly adult scenes in the game. While most gamers reacted favorably to such a topic being central in an adventure title, most seemed more interested the possibility of a U.S. release than the meaning of the sexual themes shown. However, voices here and there were picking up on the very things I found most interesting -- not the fact that the game is not afraid to deal with sexuality, but the themes it is mixed with and what they say about the male sexual psychosis.
Sexuality has made its presence known in much less subtle ways within the games we play. When Fox News caught wind of a sex scene in BioWare's sci-fi RPG Mass Effect, a frenzy followed about the "unsavory nature" of the content. It seems like as far as gaming has come, there is still a gap between "normal" gaming and blatant sex simulators. So to speak, there is no bridge where the two meet -- at least, not one where sex is represented as the multi-layered experience that it can be (under certain circumstances).
Then, we have Catherine. Vincent, our 32 year old protagonist, identifies as a "herbivore" -- a recently-popularized Japanese slang word that refers to men who are passive and lack interest in sex. He argues with a woman who he calls "Catherine" in the beginning of the game's trailer who seems to be aggressive in nature, as she mentions dreams of killing others. As the story goes on, we see a man who exhibits signs of terror when confronted with a sexually forward woman. In fact, we have no proof whatsoever whether Catherine is a real person, or simply a symbol he sees in his dreams that represents a part of his psyche.
It's been a while since I've seen sex in a game and been taken aback, but I was genuinely awed when I realized it was happening again as I watched this trailer. The topic of true sexuality was certainly being addressed here, focusing not only on Vincent's sexual orientation but also the world within his dreams. Whether Catherine is just a symbol or a flesh and blood woman, the scenario being portrayed so far suggests that we are about to participate in a journey through his psychosis to seek the answers -- and that is something new indeed.
Atlus have been poking at the sexuality issue in their games for a while now. Persona 2 protagonist Tatsuya Suou had the option to engage in a homosexual relationship with another character, while Persona 4 famously led the players into dungeons that represented their innermost feelings and explored a blatantly homoerotic dungeon that suggested male character Kanji Tatsumi was suffering confusion over his sexual identification.
However, Catherine appears as if it may forge a new pathway of the presence of sexuality in games: delving into the role of sexual identity, specifically within the male psychosis. Not just a quick what-bam-thank-you-ma'am either, but a much more developed, multi-layered sexuality. After all, the herbivore man in Japanese culture has essentially chosen to forfeit his sexuality and therefore some measure of his power. Yet in his dreams, Vincent is surrounded by rams, which traditionally symbolize virility, power and force. In fact, at one point, he wears the ram's horns himself (echoing Shakespeare's horn-wearing "cuckold" men, who accept their wives infidelities without complaint), but appears uncomfortable and terrified to find them on his own head. In another scene, one ram is wearing a tie, which implies he is a Japanese salaryman (and also perhaps, a sheep in an unending flock which merely do what they are told to do).
Vincent's identification as a herbivore ("soshokukei") may well point to the concept of terror of the feminine. This issue has been gaining presence in Japan as of late, as men in their twenties and thirties are identifying with the term. The idea centers around men do not seek out girlfriends and tend to be a bit clumsy in love, care less about financial matters than the average Japanese, and are more comfortable showing vulnerability.
If the game is localized, these details may be lost on western audiences unfamiliar with the recent rash of men in Japan that fit this description (20 percent according to pop culture columnist Maki Fukasawa, who coined the term). On the other hand, Persona 4's themes also distinctly addressed issues in Japanese culture such as the contrast between honne (true feelings) and tattemae (public opinions and behaviors), but the game still resonated with western audiences and was lauded for its presentation of mature themes.
We've long seen games that place a central male figure in a position of hierarchical and sexual power, allowing the player to take on those characteristics and feel dominant. Even the simplest games imitate this structure, as Mario and Link save their respective princesses over and over. The theme is the same -- the man is active, the woman passive. Catherine turns this deeply ingrained societal role upside down, introducing a willowy, frightened man as the character we will play as. Not empowering at all, is it? In fact, rather than play a role in which the player is lead to triumph, we are led through Vincent's fear as he becomes a victim of the female object he also longs to possess, as his genetics drive him to. While males of every species long to conquer, they often also expect the woman they conquer to remain in her passive role, as that was an unspoken part of the deal. Catherine is clearly not that woman ... and neither is the angry woman at the end of the game's trailer who screams at Vincent that she will never forgive him.
Now, we have a theme, with many layers to explore. But how does it make for compelling gameplay? We've seen little so far, although some summaries suggest that the nightmares act as the game's action component. Set in a world with an unending stairway, Vincent has to make it to the top of the stairs, or he will not be able to leave his dreams and come back to reality. If this is in fact true, we can deduce that we will spend more time in Vincent's dreams than we will in reality to further the story, which may leave us with some very dark paths to walk down indeed.
In any action/adventure, you must control your character, so I expect we will maneuver Vincent through some of his nightmares. With a theme as complex as this, the options to use unique gameplay mechanics are vast. For instance, the same design team entertwined dungeon leveling mechanics with real world relationships in Persona 3 and 4, suggesting the connection between physical and emotional strengths. With such a creative team at the helm again, I suspect we may see something equally interesting in Catherine. For instance, if we play Vincent's nightmares, how will the actions we take affect his day to day life? If we make the right choices within his nightmares, could we "unlock" further parts of his memories, to learn why he feels he way he feels about women? And alternately, if we make the right choices in his real life, will we find some relief from the horrible visions of the nightmares?
The choices a game designer has at hand while designing a game like this are surely more challenging than making another platformer where the knight saves the princess -- although that type of game has earned its place as a beloved part of the culture. However, the more intuitive the gameplay mechanics used, the more we as players can be drawn into a world so human and realistic that we may even feel our character's fear and shame, and therefore push that much harder to transcend it.
While we can only wait to see how the game itself will flesh out the things it suggests, even the things we've already been shown point that Atlus intends to once again use games as a vehicle for commentary on Japanese culture and how its rigid structures are forcing its citizens to create new identities. For the first time in video game history, we may have the opportunity to peer within the male sexual psyche to a new depth and perhaps breathe in a bit of mingled fear and desire, to feel a moment of the responsibility of being the "pursuer" ... and perhaps understand the weight that might carry.
If the game does in fact explore these issues the way the material we've seen so far suggests, it may mean the first time a door is truly swung open into the world of intelligent, human sexuality in gaming. And since the games of today aim for a realism so true to form that graphics grow closer and closer to lifelike perfection, it only makes sense that this last barrier should be crossed. Not to explore "fucking" -- that's been done, thank you, Kratos. But to communicate sexuality as another dimension of characters who we've already come to know emotionally, mentally, share in the memories of and more -- why not begin to understand them sexually, too?