Catherine is one of the most divisive games I’ve ever loved.
The game makes many people uncomfortable, which is a completely understandable reaction. Catherine is a game about a bunch of flawed men and the unlucky women in their lives. The main character is cheating on his fiancee. It’s overtly gory, sexual and weird. It’s also a puzzle game.
It’s really hard to describe to people, in general.
And I love it, because it’s a game about making mistakes and becoming a better person. Or not. The choice is up to you.
I’m not trying to talk anyone out of their negative Catherine feelings. Your comfort levels are your own. But there’s a reason a game about cheating men and the women they hurt is so fascinating.
Vincent’s hard-knock life
Catherine’s protagonist Vincent is a 30-something systems engineer whose long-term girlfriend Katherine is ready to take their relationship to the next level: marriage. Vincent is terrified by this, and one night he gets too drunk when he’s out with his friends and goes home with another woman. Her name is Catherine.
This is a really bad time for Vincent to be cheating on his girlfriend, as well. There is a rumor that cheaters are cursed: when the men go to sleep, they end up in a nightmare realm where they’re forced to climb towers of blocks. If they fall or are killed, they die in real life. One of Vincent’s old friends has just died from this so-called curse. Vincent finds that he is also a victim; his attempts to survive his nightmares make up the bulk of the “game.”
His waking life is a different sort of nightmare, as he fails repeatedly to break up with Catherine, or to tell Katherine the truth. The two women in his life are foils of each other: Vincent’s fiancee Katherine is a career-focused, Type-A woman who loves Vincent, but wants him to get his act together. Catherine appears younger, carefree and much more overtly sexual.
But both women want commitment.
We all know how this story should go, because we’ve seen it a billion times. Tell me if you’ve heard this one: An ordinary man in a rut is tempted by a beautiful woman who is nothing like his boring current significant other. The story concludes with him either forsaking his stick-in-the-mud girlfriend to realize his “true self” with the hot new girl, or resisting her wicked ways and re-committing to the old girlfriend.
These stories are usually about middle-aged men who feel trapped by the realization that they’ve become adults, and have adult responsibilities. Usually I find them hideously boring. The women in these stories are props, and the man’s journey is shallow and rote, his psychology mundane.
Catherine has eight endings, and none of them feel like a cop out or part of those tired storylines. It’s story that focuses on men who are unhappy, but the reasons for that are never simple. And while on the surface, Catherine seems to make a lot of moral judgments about sex and relationships, that’s ultimately not the case.
As the player moves through levels in the nightmare world, they answer questions that are posed to Vincent by an unseen figure in a confessional. These questions all revolve around the central themes of the game: love, romance and freedom. The game tracks your responses to these questions, as well as responses during the daytime roleplaying sequences. The ending you receive will be based on where you fall on a spectrum of order to chaos.
It sounds like there’s a “right” way to play the game, doesn’t it? Order is good, chaos is bad. But six of the game’s eight endings are positive. Some of those endings involve fully giving into chaos — leaving Katherine and embracing the madness that comes with dating Catherine. An equally good ending is settling down with Katherine and apologizing for cheating on her.
That’s because the order and chaos scale isn’t a judge of your morality. It’s literally being implemented by the game’s villains: the monsters that are sentencing men to death. How you answer the questions has nothing to do with whether or not Vincent will survive his ordeal. It doesn’t make the puzzle gameplay more or less challenging.
Instead, the game asks you to make decisions based on what you (or the Vincent you’re role-playing) believe. No matter what woman you end up with — and even if you end up single — a happy ending is within your grasp.
The chaos meter is something created by the game’s villains to measure your worth as a person, but you don’t need to live up to their standards to win.
And romance isn’t everything
Despite having six good endings, I ended up falling face-first into a bad one. But the experience was still satisfying, because Vincent’s interactions with the other condemned men provided a welcome and nuanced view of humanity.
Vincent can interact with other men suffering from the curse in the local bar, and in his nightmares. These conversations can boost morale and save the men’s lives. Alternately, neglecting a character could mean that one day they simply won’t be around anymore. They’ll die, having run themselves to exhaustion in their dreams.
Being able to save these men gives Catherine its heart and soul, and elevates it above the (admittedly amusing) sitcom-esque hijinks of scenes where Vincent is trying to hide Katherine from Catherine, and vice versa.
If you choose to help the other condemned men, Vincent as a character comes off very differently. He’s a guy who has a lot of growing to do, but he also has the qualities of a leader — and he expresses them by giving emotional support to people who need it. Through his conversations you learn about the other characters’ insecurities, regrets and occasionally abuses that they’ve faced.
Catherine is surprisingly mature and uplifting. It’s about cheating and commitment, yes, but it digs deeper into the roots of what might make someone behave badly in a relationship, and who gets hurt.
Women would be the villains of this story in a lesser game. Vincent’s future with Katherine would be bleak and oppressive. Growing up would be painted as an unfair demand. Who wants to grow up, after all? Everyone knows that growing up means you become a shadow of your glorious youthful self. No fun ever!
The characters themselves wonder if that’s true. Their conversations about relationships don’t feel like adolescent whining from grown-ass adults; their anxiety is relatable and their flaws are nuanced. In this game, growing up isn’t just about checking off boxes on a list of life milestones: long-term girlfriend, marriage, kid. It’s about acknowledging when your behavior has hurt others. It’s about choosing your own path, rather than letting it be dictated for you. And it’s about finding ways to heal from the wounds that others have left on us.
At least two of the womanizers who end up being punished in Catherine are men who underwent horrific abuse as children. They both perpetuate the cycle of abuse. But by the end both can pledge to change. The past abuse that they’ve suffered isn’t minimized or disregarded, and neither man is painted by the narrative as weak, though certainly both feel like failures.
The game acknowledges a cornucopia of hard truths. That someone can be a victim of abuse, and in turn lash out and abuse others. That that person can take responsibility for their own bad behavior and make amends to the people they hurt. That sometimes they can’t, or won’t, and everyone suffers.
You can also be killed by a monster that looks like a butt with a tongue.