So, yesterday I popped Catherine into the 360, pretty much knowing what to expect by playing it. Adult drama with a puzzle game attached. And I played the game for about three hours before I put it away. I might not go back to Catherine for a while, but that’s ok. Three hours was enough for me to really evaluate what I wanted to out of it. This was the nature of the game’s difficulty in relation to its story.
Now, I could go into a rant here about games and story and how story is treated in Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun (On page 86 Koster even says, “my background is a writer, so this actually pisses me off.”). Instead I want to talk about how Catherine is fun and what it is teaching us. I will needless get back to story and challenge just that which Koster is so pissed off about.
For those who do not know, Catherine is a game that surrounds the narrative of a man whose long-time girlfriend (Katherine) wants him to get married (to her). Well, that is a story, and inside that story is a game of moving blocks around to climb up a very tall wall. The narrative becomes complicated when a young unknown girl (Catherine) arrives on the scene and the main character has an unexpected fling with her.
The game is divided into three basic parts:
- Cinematic sequences.
- Socializing at the bar.
- Nightmare block-puzzle stages.
Catherine is a game distributed by Atlus in the U.S. Those who are familiar with Atlus games, may recognize this as being a little bit different from your average game. Truthfully, the game feels like it belongs in the Persona line of games, specifically Persona 3 (Events->Social Links->Midnight Hour Battles).
Essentially, though, Catherine is about impending marriage. Usually, this is not a “fun” topic, but instead a “serious” topic (though I wouldn’t ever dream of using this game to describe Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games or really any of his recent books). So what makes Catherine fun?
According to Koster, “Fun is the act of mastering a problem, mentally.”
I will for now exclude parts 1 and 2 of Catherine. I do this because Koster constantly says to ignore the fiction of a game and look just at the mechanics. The design of part 3, though, is fairly a game, in just about anyone’s eyes. Part 3 is a puzzle game. It specifically is a game of blocks that hold each other up in a specific configuration. The goal is to move the blocks around to create a stairstep path upward to the finish and to do so before the blocks below disappear. Obstacles such as other characters and trapped blocks get in the way. There are waypoints in the middle of levels where a player is safe and can learn new techniques for quickly making a path.
The fun in part 3 of Catherine is mastery of these block-moving techniques to achieve the goal as fast as possible. Catherine is, at its essence, a “get to the other side” game. It is Frogger, or perhaps more aptly, Donkey Kong. It is a mathematical puzzle that is made challenging by requisite speed.
What can we learn from part 3 of Catherine? We learn spacial awareness and how to make decisions quickly.
But here I am only talking about one-third of a game. What about parts 1 and 2 of Catherine? I’ll talk about part 2 first, and then move on to part one.
Part 2 of Catherine is a social simulation. It presents the player with a bar, in which the main character may talk to other bar patrons, send and receive messages from or to C/Katherine, replay nightmare levels, change the music with the juke-box, and play an arcade version of part 3 (playing a game within the game, so to speak). What you do in part 2 has, as far as I could see, no effect on part 31. No matter what you do in part 2, part 3 is the same.
So what makes part 2 fun? Perhaps mastering the correct thing to say to C/Katherine via text messages. This alters some kind of personality meter. Getting the wording just right to get the maximum jump is perhaps the “fun” of part 2, at least according to Koster. What do we learn from part 2? Perhaps making decisions carefully, seeking clarity, or understanding what sort of responses help or hinder a situation. But we’re veering back into the fiction of the game, so let’s get back on track.
The reason I saved part 1 of Catherine for last is that part 2 determines the outcome of part 1. Part 1 has just cinematic sequences that change depending on the main character’s personality. That is, based on the decisions made in part 2. But these are entirely story. Part 1 seems to never affect the gameplay in part 3. Part 1 is non-interactive. As such, according to Koster, it is not fun: there is no problem to master.
I said I wasn’t going to rant on stories in games, and I’m going to damn well try not to. But completely ignoring the story in Catherine seems counterproductive. You see, there is something we can learn from part 1 of Catherine. It is the effects of our actions in a real situation. It puts all the meters into context. It makes everything make sense. I suppose this might be what Koster is getting at in chapter nine (Games in Context), that we need context to understand games.
But I’m talking about fun. There is a certain fun in seeing the cinematic narrative change based on our decisions. And yes, this can be quickly exhausted (after all, narrative changes in Catherine is of the either/or kind). Nevertheless, we understand how what we have done in the overall game has affected the overall narrative. We see the results of our actions. Again, this is what we learn from part 1 of Catherine. Honestly, I posit that this is what we learn from the whole of the game. Understanding the consequences for actions is extremely important in tackling decision making in life. Catherine gets right at this. It uses a narrative to teach us this, but it requires a game for us to learn.
Part 2 of Catherine is where the “game” really takes place. It is here that you decide how the narrative will end up. It is here that you make the decisions that you will be shown the consequences of later (in part 1). What you say to C/Katherine is important, and will adjust the main character’s personality. Who you interact with is also important. Some people in the bar tell you what the goal of part 1 is. Some people give you models of behavior to help you weigh your choices. The game is, after all, all about making choices.
Sid Meyer said that “a game is a series of interesting choices.” Catherine is.
So here we are back down in part 3, where the high-functioning game mechanics are. The pushing and pulling of blocks, the race to the top, it is all about making decisions. Specifically, part 3 is about making decisions by overcoming obstacles or blocks. The blocks in Catherine are metaphors. They are hangups, and things we have to overcome. They are our fears holding us back. Part 3 of Catherine really teaches us how to organize our inner blocks, to be able to find a clear path to the top. The top being a decision to a difficult choice.
On the back of Catherine it states: “Vincent is trapped in a nightmare, facing a choice of marrying his longtime girlfriend Katherine or moving on to the incredible blond he just woke up next to[.]” Even right there it tells you that the game is about choices. And, while you can divest the game from its narrative, it seems defeatist to try.
Note: This is cross-posted from my Games in Culture class blog. We read Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Designers. I usually don’t cross-post these, but I felt that this blog worked well for my regular blog as well.
1 Actually, I lied. If you drink more at the bar, then you move faster in the nightmare world. I did not pull this out because drinking at the bar seems to only affect part 3, so it might as well belong to part 3 properly. Similarly, during the waypoint sections of part 3, the player is asked a series of questions about commitment and responsibility. These alter the main character’s personality and might as well belong to part 2, where personality is adjusted regularly.