For my class on understanding games and impact, we have to describe 60 minutes of gameplay. As I mentioned in my last post, I have chosen to analyze gameplay from Catherine, a game about a man who has a supernatural nightmare that mirrors his real-life dilemma of choosing between a life of marriage or a life of fun. I chose to record my playthrough from start to finish and have divided the video into digestible chunks. In this post I will be providing the video and then following each video will be a description of the mechanics described and used in the game, as well as how the game progresses through its narrative. A side note on the structure of Catherine, as I describe in a previous post, the game is divided into three parts. The first part is a climbing block puzzle, the second deals with narrative decisions that affect the resolution of the game, and the third is a section of narrative feedback, which describes the results of the player’s performance in the first two parts. Keep this in mind when viewing the videos.
The game takes a little bit of time to get started. Part of this is because the game is a frame story. It is presented to us as a drama, as if we were watching a film. It actually can be really jarring the first time the player sees the actual gameplay, which consists of climbing and moving blocks. Once we are introduced to the game world, we get a visual indication of the obstacle. First the camera pans up to show the complicated tower of blocks and then pans down to show that the stage shrinks from the bottom. A narrator explains that the game will end if the player falls off the bottom of the tower. The losing condition is introduced immediately, and the concept that the game will force players to move upward to succeed. There will be a number of times in this playthrough where there will be a focus on the act of climbing as a means for success. The game does not want the player forgetting this in the slightest.
Once the game has informed the player what the conditions for success and failure are, it describes how to move. An on-screen depiction of the controller shows the buttons to press for movement, but it is assumed that the player can understand that pushing the up button will make the player go up. After the player has scaled a few rows, the game presents a row that cannot initially be climbed. It uses this row to pause and explain the other main mechanic: moving blocks around. The game uses the narrator and on-screen depiction again to describe the use of the a-button as the button that grabs blocks and that moving while holding a block will cause you to try and move the held block in the direction you are trying to move. These two actions, moving the player and moving blocks, are, for the most part, the only thing that the player needs to know to play these climbing puzzles.
Now that the major actions are described, the game starts focusing on information. The next time the game pauses is to explain what picking up mystic pillows does. This does two things simultaneously. This associates the image of the pillow with the idea of being able to retry after failure, and it informs the player that they can pick up extra retries along the way. It also informs the player that there are things that can be picked up. This is important, as the next object picked up, a pile of coins, is not described for quite some time, but the player understands that moving over them means that the coins will be picked up. The next pause is used to help the player understand how to look at the stage. This helps the player get a mindset for how to approach the gameplay. This also warns the player that they can cause blocks to fall if they become disconnected.
The next pause is handled very well. Before you get to the row that will pause the game, you hear the word “edge” announced and visually see two blocks fall and connect with other blocks, making a bright blue line. Edges are very important aspects of gameplay, and the fact that blocks remain standing even if just their edges touch another edge. An astute player will probably note that most of the blocks in the stage are actually using this property already. This information cements in place one of the most prevalent world concepts that the game has. After using the property of edges a few times, the game reinforces that gravity means very little in the game. Additionally, the game informs the player that they should use edges to make stairs with blocks. Making stairs with blocks is the primary method of getting to the top of the tower, so this point is driven home here.
At this time there is a bell ringing, which indicates that the top of the current stage is near. After climbing a few more rows, a narrator explains that that is just what it means so that the player can understand the sounds that they are hearing. The game takes control again after reaching the highest, red block, and again reinforces that going down means failure, with the introduction of a nightmare that won’t be seen for some time. A stage clear screen appears and counts up the player’s score, though the score has not been much explained. Players familiar with a points system can understand it, but otherwise it is simply a set of numbers for now.
What follows is part of the narrative feedback portion of the game. At this point, there is nothing much for the game to provide feedback upon, but by reaching it, the player gets to see the dillemma that the main character, Vincent, is facing. In this portion, the player is introduced to the familiar tension that occurs between Vincent and his long-standing girlfriend Katherine. The player also learns that Katherine seems to be hinting at marriage, and that Vincent feels just fine the way things are. This sequence sets up most of the major themes of the game’s narrative.
After Vincent’s friends leave, we are presented with a miniature version of the other potion of the game (the narrative decisions portion mentioned earlier). It does this by introducing the text-message feature, in which the player responds to text-messages that Vincent receives. The way in which the player responds will affect the overall story. It is at this point where the game decides to describe a scale that measure’s Vincent’s tendencies in the game, based on the player’s decisions and interactions. It is unclear what the blue side and the red side really mean, but the blue side tends to align with honest and caring answers, while the red side tends to align with deceitful and rude answers. The game also introduces the player to various kinds of messages Vincent can receive, and the method for replaying stages. I did not replay a stage, but could have on the award message.
After two text messages, something happens that is not actually described and is very subtle. Vincent drinks a little more and a meter showing how drunk Vincent is increases. What this does is not described in the playthrough at all, and the effect was too subtle for me to notice, even knowing about it. The game does do a fairly poor job of indicating what the meter is for and how it affects the game. For those who are curious, the drunk meter controls how quickly Vincent moves in the nightmare stages.
After this, the titular character is introduced. Catherine asks to sit down at Vincent’s table to get into the club, and the two appear to converse in the background, but the game fades out.
The player is thrown into the next nightmare stage. After a few rows, the game explains that some blocks are different, with particular care to mention cracked blocks, which break if stepped on twice. The game also mentions heavy blocks but does not explain what they look like or how they are different from other blocks. I feel this is an oversight, as moving a heavy block is essential for completing the 2nd day’s nightmare stages. A few more rows up and the game explains that you can hang from edges. I think it is nearly impossible to have not already hung from an edge already at this point in the game, so this is just reinforcing it right before you must use the skill. The game does not explain that you can only hold onto an edge for a period of time, nor does it explain that this time is shorter for hanging on brown, immovable blocks.
The next bit of information is about the controls. It informs the player that they can look up or around the tower by using the right thumbstick. This is useful immediately to see where you need to go next, but this is also failproof, as the only movable blocks in this section are the blocks that you must pull out. Then the game presents what seems like an impossible row, and immediately tells you how to navigate it. This is to enhance the player’s knowledge of their ability to move blocks, as it informs the player that any number of blocks in a line can be pushed at the same time. Immediately after that is a description of checkpoints, since one is now on screen. This is very artificial, as the checkpoint is only a few rows from the top.
There is no door at the top of this stage, though, only a ring and more stairs. The game now introduces the landing, which is an area between stages where the player can save and talk to other sheep. Talking to other sheep can provide new techniques to the player, which are just new ways of using the skills the players have, and can sometimes provide opportunities to adjust Vincent’s moral compass. On this particular landing, a number of people are talking about being shoved, and about staying calm and climbing.
To continue on, the player needs to enter a vestibule. Inside the vestibule is some kind of child-like voice who appears to be a kind of overseer or gatekeeper. He requires the player to answer questions to be able to continue. These are uncomfortable questions. The first question is always “Is marriage the point where life begins… or ends?” The player cannot justify this information, but only picks one of two answers. After selecting, the voice sends Vincent on to the next stage. After, the game shows a graph of how other people answered the first time that the question was asked. This informs the player that the game is collecting information and putting it in a database somewhere to be compared with other players’ answers. The first time you see it, it feels very subversive.
The game immediately goes into the second stage with very little prompting, though Vincent’s own “There’s still more?” mirrors the player’s realization that there can be stages strung together. In fact, day two seems ages longer than day one. Two more mechanics are introduced on this stage. The first is the concept of use items, which are items that Vincent can carry with him and use once. The only item obtainable on this stage, the White Block, is not explained until the landing, but the player must pick up the item to continue (use of the item is not required, though). The game quickly explains that coins can be used to buy use items between stages, and that they can be used to unlock things in the game.
Before explaining the other mechanic, the game lets the player finally know that being crushed by a block constitutes failure. I feel this might be a bit late in the game to describe this, though. Soon after, the game explains how other sheep on the level are obstacles, noting that two creatures cannot stand on a single block. One will get knocked away. This has been reinforced this whole level by sheep occasionally falling down the tower. The game informs the player that walking into another sheep will shove him off.
Before reaching the top, the game explains that the map on the left side is indeed a map, but it also shows how far away the bottom is at the moment. At the top of this level is the aforementioned heavy block that must be moved to finish the stage. This is misleading, as other brown blocks are immovable, and so the player’s first instinct is that this one is too.
On the new landing, most people are talking about sheep and the fact that the sheep are really people. This last statement creates a particular feeling associated with the act of shoving sheep. Also on this landing is the first time the player can buy an item. The game carefully lets you know that you can’t have more than one item.
The question in the vestibule for the second day changes. This time I got a question about being in a dark, quiet room or a loud, bright room, but other times I received other questions.
The third and final stage brings about no new mechanics, but it does bring about a new obstacle. The Nightmare is a giant beast that ascends from the bottom of the level. This becomes the most hectic of the levels and, even though I know what was coming, I panicked at a part and had to retry. This part makes great use of the heavy block, as the nightmare occasionally will turn a slew of blocks into heavy blocks. Not understanding heavy blocks by now can be terrifying during this panicky stage.
Once this stage is finished, the game returns to feedback. It is here, finally, that the game can change, depending on the player’s actions. The point where the game changes is indicated by the moral meter coming on screen. This narrative portion deals with how Vincent winds up with Catherine in his bed, and what he thinks about that.
After a long interlude of Vincent trying to come to terms with cheating on his girlfriend and all his friends finding out about it, we are presented with the bar portion of the game. I chose to end the playthrough here. The bar area works a lot like the landings between stages, with a few other things that the player can do (such as drink, answer text messages, and play an arcade game that is similar to the stages which acts as practice). By this point, though, the game has taught the player everything that is needed to play the game.
These are mostly just my notes on playing the game. They were a little narrativized for this blog post, but my main goal was to describe mechanics and progression. Next time I will be matching these mechanics to the descriptions of the various components as they are currently described.