Atlus is my favorite game company, and I've been rabid for the release of puzzle/relationship sim Catherine from the moment the very first Japanese screenshots hit. Even the first trailer was a thrill for me, and I waxed philosophical over at Gamasutra about the possibilities it seemed to offer to break new ground in gaming. A game that addressed the male psyche and issues of fidelity? Add in that Persona Team is behind the title and have handled delicate matters such as true vs false identity (Honne and Tatamae in Japanese) in past times, and well, you can easily see why I was so worked up about the possibilities.
And then, it came out in America. And finally, I had my most anticipated game of the year in hand.
There were a lot of things about Catherine that I expected, and I got. I expected a man's struggle with apathy and fidelity. I expected commentary on modern romance and its pitfalls. And I of course expected that surreal touch that Persona Team games bring to all their titles. Demons, moral conflict, surreal imagery ... that's the taste of Atlus home team going to bat, alright.
What was more of interest, however, was what I did not expect -- and there was more of that than I bargained for. I expected a story that was courageous enough to poke a stick into real life issues, but I didn't expect that those issues would hold a weight that I connected to and felt directly. By the time I was halfway through Catherine, I realized that personal feelings about both women were coming up, and that those feelings would be absolutely different for each person who picked up the controller. For instance, I detested Catherine from her first appearance on, considering her to be the type of person hellbent on destroying the lives of strangers for her own fun and profit. If you've seen the game's ending, you'll know that that characterization isn't far from the truth.
Katherine, on the other hand, showed a sense of frustration I felt I could relate to. Any woman can tell you Vincent's apathy is painful in an obscure way that is difficult to understand from the female perspective. Therefore, Katherine asks for what she wants and comes across as a nag because Vincent is resistant. Vincent wants things to stay the same and seems to feel frightened of change. These are all traditional human thoughts and feelings and roles men and women find themselves in all the time-- nothing particularly out of place there.
So much of Japanese society pressures its residents to follow a "set" path, creating an unrealistic, rigid expectation of what a life should be like. Catherine takes an interesting approach in that it explores the two different paths in its eight endings, but doesn't cast any opinions on which is favorable. In fact, the meter that changes based on Vincent's decisions has a red and a blue side, which we traditionally read as "good" or "bad." But we find out later that the two ends of the scale actually mean "freedom" and "responsibility." Neither are inherently positive or negative in nature, and the "herbivore" trend of the last few years in Japan reflects that the seesaw between the two may be starting to even out in the other direction.
The broader statement of Catherine is distinctly non-Japanese in nature, despite all its recognition of the country's societal tropes. Much like the way Persona 4 dealt openly with the parts of people that they hide, Catherine suggests that rather than follow the way of the "sheep", we make our own decisions on how to live, whether they be towards acceptable societal norms ... or the opposite.
Of course Catherine carried weight that affected me as a player, because it made me question myself. Not about what I thought about the value of fidelity (as I thought it would), but a much larger question about the type of life I choose to lead. Freedom and responsibility can be both good and bad, depending on one's perception as you experience both states. And yeah, cheating is still shitty if you don't have an agreement with your partner that allows other partners. But rather than break "the rules", perhaps we should consider first whether or not they fit us in the first place.
What did you take away from playing Catherine?