CIRCA:Catherine - A cultural bubble of commentary


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Based on a Presentation by Domini Gee (Prezi presentation).

Catherine is a puzzle-plat former adventure game released in Japan and North America in 2011. The game was a huge commercial and critical success and was lauded for its story, gameplay, voice acting, and unique approach towards ‘real-world’ topics.


Catherine Concept Art. Vincent is at the bottom, Catherine is at the middle, and Katherine is at the top

Catherine is about a 32-year old office worker named Vincent Brooks who has little to no life ambitions, especially in terms of love and marriage. However, he begins having nightmares involving a tower that he must climb every night after his long term girlfriend, Katherine, begins talking about commitment and marriage. Further complications arise when he meets another girl named Catherine. Vincent finds himself in an affair with Catherine and his nightmares begin to intensify.

While Vincent tries to manage his personal life during the day and survive the nightmares at night, he hears about a series of bizarre incidents in the neighbourhood in which young men die in their sleep with a look of agony on their faces. The story quickly spreads throughout the media, attracting widespread attention and theories as to the cause of death. A strange rumour begins to spread that if a person dreams of falling, then they must wake up before they hit the ground or they will be unable to wake up at all and will die.

The progression in Catherine is broken into three segments:

  • Story, which plays out during the day and is mostly linear with little room for variance.
  • Exploration, which takes place at Vincent’s favorite bar, Stray Sheep. This area allows the most room for player freedom. Players can relax, practice puzzle solving on the arcade machine, interact with the rest of the cast, get drunk (which affects Vincent’s climbing speed during nightmares), and allows for choices that affect the Law-Chaos morality meter.
  • Nightmares, which occur once Vincent goes to sleep. Vincent must continue to climb the tower until the end of the night or he dies. The gameplay is primarily based on block based puzzles where players must arrange and climb blocks to progress. As you progress through the game, the block combintions not only become more complex but they begin to include spike traps, teeth blocks, ice blocks and more. Additionally, you will eventually have to fight other ‘sheep' and at end of each night, Vincent must finish a boss level where bosses can do anything from raining hearts down on Vincent, to destroying blocks, to attacking him with chainsaws.

What chiefly pulls the three segments together, though, arw overreaching questions: what is Vincent's desires? What are the life choices that satisfy him?

Significance to Japanese Games Studies

Catherine is unique because it is not a game that is about saving the world but about finding inner peace. Unlike most Japanese games, Catherine features an adult cast who are more concerned about 'real-world' topics such as work, divorce, marriage, finances, sexuality, and where you are compared to what you wanted to be. Though the game is set in North America, Catherine creates a sort of cultural bubble for itself that is prime ground to explore societal issues usually not explored in videogames. In particular, Catherine focuses on issues and commentary relevant to Japanese society, especially in regards to Vincent.

Japan is current facing (notoriously low birth rates). Many younger people delay having families because of the perceived strains on their finances, lifestyles, and careers and there is a wide social belief that 'herbivore' men are partially to blame. Herbivore is a term attributed to males in Japan between the ages of 15-30 who, rather than focusing on forming romantic relationships with women, instead prefer to focus on living simply and their own looks. Herbivores are typically depicted as passive, indecisive, awkward and terrible with money – more like “boys” then men. Japanese society typically looks down on them for being seemingly shallow, selfish, and unwilling to properly contribute to the larger society.

Vincent starts as the typical herbivore. He's passive, indecisive, and just wants to keep things simple, which leads to him feeling pressured by Katherine pushing him to commit. When Katherine reveals she thinks she is pregnant, Vincent balks at the responsibility but he does not have the assertiveness to argue against Katherine or what society expects of him, instead meekly stepping back and internalizing his true thoughts. He partially finds himself drawn to Catherine because she places no demands on him (except that he be loyal to her) and does not push him to settle into what society wants, instead advocating self-interest and adventure. However, even with Catherine, Vincent cannot simply choose her. Despite how sexual and flirtatious she is with him, he is disinterested and even a bit afraid of being sexual with her for most of the game. Until he is literally forced to face his fears and overcome them in the nightmares, Vincent is unable to be active and decisive about anything in his life.

Interestingly, though the game offers three possibilities for Vincent – 'Law', what society expects of him with Katherine; 'Chaos', what is only in his best interest with Catherine; or 'Freedom', finding what out by himself what he really wants without being bound to one path – it does not judge him for his choice. Provided the player achieves the 'good' or 'true' endings, all three paths are treated with equal weight and Vincent is happy in all of them. On one hand, this is a useful gameplay-narrative choice that ensures that no player feels gypped out of a true ending or punished for their choices. On the other, this presents commentary on herbivores like Vincent. The game presents Vincent's dilemma in a way that it does not matter which choice he makes, only that he stops being just a 'herbivore' is capable making a choice and has the strength to commit to it.

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