I still don't get Catherine. Even after a few solid hours spent learning the ropes of Atlus' bizarre hodgepodge puzzle and dating-sim gameplay (think Q*Bert meets Tokimeki Memorial), I'm still unsure if this is a game I like. I'm compelled to keep playing, though, and that's a success as far as I'm concerned.
But it's not the puzzle-game aspects that have me hooked. The block-moving, tower-climbing action sequences that define the "game" part of Catherine are perfectly fine — controls are tight, difficulty ramps up at a good clip, pacing is appropriate — but to me, they're just filler. The real fun of Catherine comes from the story that unfolds as you delve deeper into protagonist Vincent's sordid love life. The choices you make through him are surprisingly revealing — not about Vincent, of course, but about you and everyone else who plays.
The first feature that stood out to me was the inclusion of a "would you rather?" minigame at the pinnacle of each climbing sequence. You'll enter what resembles a church confessional and be presented with a question related to relationships and ethics, such as "Is marriage where life begins or where life ends?" It's a loaded question, and the game is intentionally ambiguous about who the player is supposed to answer for: Am I speaking for the Vincent I intend to play, or am I personally casting my vote? Once you've made your choice, you'll be able to see a pie-chart breakdown of how all other players voted. It's reminiscent of L.A. Noire's inclusion of social support features for its tricky interview sequences, where you can narrow down your choices by seeing how other players chose to answer and make your decision based on that. In this case, it's a fun way to see how people feel about some relevant and sometimes-controversial questions we all face in life. But thanks to the anonymity we're given through Catherine and the assumption that, well, it's only a game, I've already seen some pretty interesting statistics.
When not climbing tower after tower, you'll spend a lot of time in Catherine at your favorite bar, The Stray Sheep. In perhaps the most accurate depiction of the dive-bar experience yet conceived in a game, you'll divide your time up between your bored-looking friends, the various other regulars, the lone arcade machine and — of course — your cell phone.
There's a clever mechanic in the game where you'll receive a text from somebody and have to compose a response. You'll be able to cycle through options for each sentence until you've got a message that best expresses what you want to say. Maybe this is the sort of malady that only affects neurotic writers, but I found this design mechanic simultaneously brilliant and unnervingly similar to my own life. I'll agonize over a text before sending it: Is the phrasing okay? Too many words? Is "love" too strong a word to use when asked if I'd like to go get some pizza? Catherine brilliantly captures this unique problem of modern communication. That's not to say the impact of your choices seems all that revolutionary; as far as I can tell, Vincent's actions only affect a binary good-or-evil morality meter, which just seems outdated to me in an era when we have the resources and technology to build games where the player's choices can stray into ethical gray areas.
So far, the majority of those texts have been coming from Katherine, Vincent's doting, long-time girlfriend. She's not-so-subtly pushing for Vincent to face up to his fleeting mortality — dude's in his thirties, after all — and settle down with her. And why wouldn't he want to? They seem to get along fine, and she's pretty, and...y'know. She's that archetypal desirable-yet-undesired female.
The object of Vincent's desire — or maybe lust would be more accurate — is Catherine. Katherine with a C. Which is to say that she's exactly like Katherine except for those ways that she's a polar opposite. Catherine is a decade younger than Vincent, flirtatious, bubbly and fun-loving. I'm only maybe a quarter through the game at this point, but if I had to hazard a guess I'd say she represents the fleeting temptations of youth. Katherine is the stolid, career-oriented rock in Vincent's world, and Catherine is a youthful, spirited force of change.
It's a dichotomy anyone can relate to once they've hit a certain age. At least, I know it resonates pretty deeply with me. I picked up and moved far away from the life I'd always had a few months ago, and ever since then I've been considering the what-ifs of that life I could have kept living. I'm currently leaning more towards the "responsible adult" end of the spectrum, with an engaging full-time job and this notion of a career-focused life starting to bubble up. But when I think about the pseudo-bohemian lifestyle I could have had in Portland, I have to wonder: What would I be like if I'd stayed?