[The following article contains spoilers for Catherine, don't read it if you want to play Catherine and enjoy the ending.]
Choice is the hot topic in gaming. From Mass Effect to Bioshock everyone seems to be trying to figure out how to implement meaningful player choices. The goal is to give players the ability to reflect their desires and beliefs in the games narrative, to allow the gamer's actions to determine the outcome of the story. Catherine was one of the most recent attempts at this goal and with its edgy psychosexual stylings it looked like something new.
Right out of the gate Catherine annoyed me by grading the player's moral choices on an angel to devil scale. Every game with a moral choice system seems to do this and despite the obvious benefits of hiding the scale we always have it front and center. This scale seemed to be odd though it was not a scale of good to evil per se. While playing the game with my friends we puzzled over the game's grading of our performance. Certain answers seemed to have bizarre consequences and the general moral framework seemed all over the place. Lying in some scenarios seemed recommended by a large blue tick, but in others lying was penalized. We went through multiple theories as to what the moral framework was. Sexuality vs Responsibility? Expression vs Repression? The theory that seemed most reliable though was Catherine vs Katherine (referred to from now on as C and K for brevity.) Actions which were acceptable when talking to K were unacceptable when talking to C. The game's endings align with this theory too with blue actions leading to a Katherine ending and red actions leading to a Catherine ending. But why then did I feel so exasperated while playing it? Why does saying “it wasn't your fault” to a guilt ridden journalist earn me a fat red tick?
When choosing how to behave there are two ways that players make decisions either they make the decisions of their own volition and substitute the character with themselves, or they try to understand the character and decide as they would. The former is much more immersive and results in players learning things about themselves by acting in fictional scenarios. Catherine fails to attain the former for two main reasons. One is that Vincent acts independently and often in contrast with the player's desires, and the other is that the player is not given enough information about the situation to substitute themselves for Vincent.
The first prerequisite for substituting the player for a character is that the character more or less exactly what the player says most of the time. Vincent doesn't succeed at this especially when he wakes up drunk in bed with Catherine (an event which occurs repeatedly.) Those aren't our choices and we don't feel responsible for them. Why should we? We couldn't avoid them if we wanted to. This failure to control the character forces the player into the second mode of identification, analyzing the character and imitating his desires and behaviors. One friend who was watching me play the game insisted “you're going to cheat anyways you might as well play that character.” In light of this form of identification the player is forced to do one of two things either think about what Vincent wants or think about this consciously as a piece of entertainment and act in order to get the game you want to see happen. For myself it forced the former. Thus I read Vincent's thoughts and lines to find out what his sincere desires were.
The second reason we have trouble identifying with Vincent is that he has so much crucial information that we need to emotionally invest but never get. At one point Vincent is talking to Johnny at the bar and they reminisce on how Vincent and Katherine's relationship developed in high school and over the years. The game is ultimately based on the player's choice between faithfulness to K and reckless lust for C. The problem with this choice is that the player is never given a connection to either character. Both characters are poorly characterized and left as symbols for responsibility/marriage and liberation/sex with no strings attached. The player can't fall in love with these characters based on what the game shows. And therefore we have to imagine that the character Vincent wants to be with one of them rather than feeling that ourselves.
In light of this the problem changes from who does the player care about to who does Vincent care about? Here the game could have delivered an interesting if canned narrative about an adulterer but the game fails to do that because it doesn't show us Vincent caring about C or K. All of the scenes depicting K are awkward affectionless meetings in which Vincent is having a panic attack, all the scenes depicting C are characterized by playful sexuality that is completely overrun by Vincent's fear and guilt. Vincent has no visible affection for either of the women who we are supposed to choose between. This lack of information not only makes it impossible for the player to choose who they care about (both women are poorly characterized, barely shown, and never charming) but it makes it difficult to decipher what the character of Vincent wants. For a game centered around two women we sure don't see a lot of them.
These two major problems being stated it seems to me that the game only works on an abstract responsibility vs liberation level and on that level much of the difficult gut wrenching choices are absent. If a player wants to cheat on Katherine then the game does that and shows it ending in a bizarre sexual fantasy. If the player wants to stay with Katherine the game shows a classical wedding ending. The choice is made weak by Vincent's disobedience and the game's lack of positive characterization. Without letting you control Vincent's choices or making you want to the game fails to deliver the kind of choice driven experience that many gamers were hoping for.
Going forward Atlus (and anyone else making daring games about choices) need to reconsider how they form identification with the character. If they want us to choose between two women they're going to need to show us who they are for better and for worse, similarly with nations or ethical theories. A choice on a scale from red to blue is no choice at all. For it to have weight and impact the character needs to follow our lead and we need to see where it goes.