Today, with all it’s outmoded discussion of leap year proposals (cue an articulate rant from a friend of mine*), seems like a good day to mention Catherine. When I mention videogames on this site, I generally prefer to highlight the games that push the medium forward (okay, or sometimes hark back two decades). Catherine is certainly unique and a purely descriptive explanation — it is a story-driven tower-climbing action puzzle game — is largely useless. Really it is an exploration of fidelity. This is a bizarre game of parts that build up to a greater whole because of how each layer informs the others, moreso because, against a backdrop of games that rarely handle romantic or sexual relationships with any semblence of finesse, Catherine actually manages to be rather thought-provoking.
Protagonist Vincent is a pretty ineffectual chap in a long term relationship with a girl named Katherine, who is beginning to press him about their future and settling down. Vincent is seemingly content enough whiling away his life in a local bar that he would rather maintain the status quo than make any serious decisions about commitment. In the week we spend with Vincent, a chance encounter with a vivacious young blonde (conveniently named Catharine) leads to infidelity, leaving him wracked by powerful guilt-ridden nightmares.
Much of essential plot is conveyed through high-quality anime cut-scenes that instantly reveal the game’s Japanese heritage. Meanwhile the gameplay is split between narrative segments in a bar, where Vincent can converse with his friends, the other patrons and — by text message — with the two girls now in his life, and tower-climbing segments in Vincent’s nightmares.
The conversations you have in the bar — often including questions of morality and faithfulness — affect the story outcome, while some patrons are reflected in the “sheep” characters Vincent meets in his nightmares. These nightmare levels form the heart of the gameplay, scaling a tower of boxes by moving them around to create traversable paths and avoiding traps, while the bottom continually falls away beneath Vincent’s feet. It’s a simple concept but with surprising complexity and challenge at speed. The really interesting thing is that this very mechanic underscores the heart of the game’s narrative: the paralysis of indecision isn’t an option — to live, you have to keep moving forwards, and sure you might get hurt or make a mistake that sets you back, but you have to commit one way or another.
* I suspect that, beyond tradition, waiting for the man to propose was considered partly a way to test his commitment rather than simply “waiting until he was ready”. By extension the modern proposer perhaps ought to be the more commitment-phobic of the couple, irrespective of gender. Just a suggestion.