Vincent’s got problems like Mexico has cacti.

As we are all well aware by now, I’m a bloke with some interest in topics and issues revolving around gender. Especially where it concerns love, relationships, sex, attraction, etc. Obvious, right? But how often does a video game come along which does more with that stuff than the obligatory cinematic love story we can diagram with our eyes closed? Never. That’s how often. Until this weird, awesome, fucked up Japanese gem known as Catherine.

Ostensibly a puzzle game, Catherine follows the adventures of Vincent, a total prick, for 8 days while he has an affair behind his girlfriend’s back and continuously blacks out over it. So where does the puzzle solving come into play? That’s sort of the kicker. There’s some mysterious business afoot and many young men (aged 25-35) are dropping dead all over town. At night, Vincent becomes a sort of sheep hybrid in that he has ram’s horns, boxers, and clutches a pillow tightly to his body. He then enters a bizarre dreamscape, a kind of huge tower made of cubes with different properties. These blocks are Vicent’s (and your) best friend and worst enemies. Everyone else he encounters is in the form of a sheep and sooner or later, you start to realize that other people Vincent knows are having the same dreams and some of them aren’t surviving them.

Half the game takes place in the dreamworld, where you guide little Vincent up stages and levels of block-related puzzles. Each new area offers different blocks and incredible challenges. This game is fucking hard, I’m telling you. I played it on Easy and still had a hard time on a couple of levels. Every few stages you encounter a boss, and that is where this shit gets truly crazy. As each day’s events force Vincent to consider new anxieties and problems revolving around his situation with Katherine, his girlfriend, and Catherine, his mistress, and the lies he has to tell to keep it all going, his dreams throw up immense monstrous representations of whatever the trouble-of-the-day is.

This isn’t even close to the most horrifying specter waiting to yell crazily at Vincent whilst trying to snuff out his wasted little life.

Vincent is a slacker avatar, a passive guy who just lets life push him around. Part of the theme of the game is that sooner or later, a dude’s gotta grow up and take charge. But the other side of that coin is the embrace of freedom and refusal to live a life of obligation or responsibility to others. The game asks you questions and asks you to take control of the way Vincent treats the two women in his life, as well as his friends and fellow bar goers. That’s the other half of the game, cut-scenes balanced against a sort of conversation-simulator as Vincent spends every evening with his closest friends, drinking and broing out in a bar called The Stray Sheep.

So it is that you, the player, are forced to bring some of your personal views into play. Or, conversely, play a bit of devil’s advocate and see what happens. I tried to answer honestly, which meant that Vincent’s ultimate feelings were pretty ambiguous until events settled them into place. I’m not sure if the big mystery behind the dreams and deaths is the same if you make different choices, but I doubt it. The choices in the game are fairly subtle and it doesn’t feel like the selfish course is the most natural one. Still, I wonder if another playthrough would reveal more depth. As it is, the game isn’t marvelous so much for that it goes so deeply into these issues, or has more to say about them than your average indie coming-of-age drama. The key is that it bothers to approach this stuff at all. Along the way, there is a lot of sly commentary about masculinity. It’d be very interesting to get a female player’s perspective on this, I think.

In true anime fashion, Catherine’s hair is nonsense.

As it is, the game flirts with the stereotypical desirable ideal, a vixen who comes over and fucks you and treats you to naughty pictures, attention, etc when you want and has no demands of her own. Basically a real doll made flesh. That’s what Catherine is. Her clothes are provocative, her manner is both alluring and aggressive. She is supposed to be a functioning model of a supposed ideal woman. Her spikes of jealousy and violence offset this but that is not necessarily to make a point about subservient sexualized women being somehow more prone to that, it has to do with what’s really going on with her. I’d hate to spoil that. As the titillation you experience through Vincent fades, Catherine becomes more and more a sad allegory for the insular, unrealistic desires of adolescent (even in their 20’s and 30’s) manboys. This might be trying to say something about gamers and how gamer culture tends to treat women. It ranges from veneration to seething misogyny but it’s still the case that video games in general project an uncertain masculine ideal, caught between the post-machismo world our generation has ushered in (which is a thing video games have a large part to play) and the impotence of fantasy derived from ignorance and confusion.

Katherine is never really nice but you come to understand she’s dealing with a lot, including a childish boyfriend who doesn’t seem to acknowledge her very much at all.

On the other side of things is Vincent’s actual girlfriend, Katherine, who is about as far from all that as you can get. She dresses modestly, she doesn’t show much affection to Vincent. At first, I had Vincent not treat her very well because she is a raging nagging bitch who doesn’t give him any love for 8 days straight. Their relationship feels fucked up, forced, and doomed to fail. Eventually though, it becomes clear that Vincent is screwing things up by being a selfish child and not recognizing the person that she is, her needs, etc. It’s much easier to dally with the girl who doesn’t ask you for anything and is happy to show up and show you a good time after you’ve already had your fun elsewhere. Katherine is a person and while I’m not entirely convinced she isn’t a frigid bitch, I think the contrast is by design. The people who came up with this game had to know that K/Catherine are extreme stereotypes. I’m not sure the attempt to archetype them works out, but it’s a noble effort. I think if we were actually supposed to view either as representative of real women, Catherine would be in serious danger of reinforcing some of the bullshit it seems intent on questioning and potentially subverting. It’s definitely an interesting thing to think about and discuss and I’d love to hear more opinions about where the game’s gender politics come down.

I certainly wouldn’t call this game feminist. It’s too rooted in it’s useful stereotype of the 30-something on the cusp of “adulthood”. Zach Braff made a movie about this shit called The Last Kiss. Or wait… Paul Haggis made that one? Regardless, that movie convinced me to stop screwing around and try again with a relationship I had abandoned. If I were in a similarly ambiguous emotional situation, I imagine Catherine would have spoken to that more. The game is fun however, even if you aren’t as keen on the anime and the cut-scenes and the story itself. You’ll have fun with the block puzzles and you ought to have a decent sense of humor about it all, Catherine is a game infused with a really dark sense of humor which works to mitigate some of the Japanese silliness (nothing against this, I loves me some silly and nobody does it in the same flavor as they do it in Japan).

Fuck you, blocks.

Because you’re so intimately involved with the challenges Vincent has made for himself, it’s hard not to root for the guy to figure stuff out. I’m a much more decisive person than he is so I found myself disliking him intensely at times. Still, he inspires a certain loyalty tempered by criticism which is not unlike what you could expect from an older sibling or a good, more experienced friend. In fact, through Vincent’s friends in the game, you get a sense of how a certain type of player might feel toward the character. Finding some way to bond to his experiences and journey is really important for a game like this. Vincent can be nudged by the player, but he is ultimately of his own mind. He told me in the end that he was in love with Katherine and needed to win her back. He finally made a decision and yes, it was influenced by all the choices I had made through him up to that point but it still surprised me and vindicated him, making that final push to overcome a little more urgent, a little more personal.

A lot more satisfying.