Hmm...I just realised that the title seems excessively profession-of-love-y. Nevertheless, I shan’t hide this secret from the world. I do love Catherine, and believe it or not, it is my favorite game of all time.
I’m well aware that no one hated Catherine, what with it’s flurry of 7’s, 8’s and 9’s from reviewers, but heads usually turn when I tell people that it’s my favorite game, and somewhat understandably. Without having played it, the marketing for this game made it seem much more - even comically - sexual, infatuated with sex in and of itself, and generally something that would be classed under one’s guilty pleasures. The reality is quite different, and what’s hidden underneath is an amazing puzzle game with gorgeous visuals, fantastic music and excellent writing.
At the end of the day, even if people didn’t hate this game, I just want an excuse to write about it. Allow me this, won't you?
Let me start with Stray Sheep.
You’ll spend a lot of time here. The game is split into two halves: the nightmare sequences, where you frantically scramble up a tower of falling blocks in an abstract dream space, and waking reality, a bar named Stray Sheep where you hang out with friends, drink booze and piece together the mystery of what the fuck is going on in your weird-ass dreams.
There isn’t actually that much to do here. You talk with your friends at the booth which you always occupy, you can go and talk to other patrons and the bartender, watch the news, play an arcade version of the nightmare sequences in preparation, and check and reply any texts from the titular character, Catherine. Yet even though there are only seven or eight interaction ‘hotspots’ in this small bar, as I returned to it each night, I became more and more familiar with it, as if it were my local watering hole, as much as it was protagonist Vincent's. This great thing happens, then, of knowing and understanding the layout of a small space, and walking around it with ease, as if it were one’s own house, school, or office.
The intricate layout of the bar is only strengthened by the game’s camera work, which the player doesn’t control; instead, the camera is on an ever-so-slight overhead dolly, creating a constant tracking shot of Vincent, smoothly moving around, producing cinematic and elegant viewing angles. This, of course, allows the player to move around without having to constantly readjust the camera, as well as creating a very purposeful and stylish scene.
What I wanted to focus on is the mood and atmosphere of the bar. It simultaneously oozes nocturnal drowsiness and an ever-growing sense of dread. What these sections represent for the gameplay is clear: downtime, a chance to relax before the onslaught of the frantic meat of the game. For Vincent, the player-character, it represents a place where he can go to relax, but with the beginning of his nightmares, it also represents a safe haven of sorts, before the daily nightmare resumes. And as the game grows on, to it’s 4th, 5th, 6th night, it feels just that. The structure of the game sets in, and Stray Sheep, for the player, represents a time to collect your thoughts, to stay up as late as possible before hesitantly returning home, and letting the nightmares continue. This is felt as the number of patrons dwindle, or as the music becomes slower and quieter, or as each of Vincent’s friends gradually (and inevitably) turn in for the night. Eventually, so must you.
And fuck me, those nightmares certainly are frantic. They’re not necessarily scary, but it’s fast-paced action; the image of hounds chasing and snapping at your heels at each moment wouldn’t be far off from understanding the pace of these sequences. What stems from that, however, is exciting gameplay. You must be on the move at all times, learning to simultaneously be observing and recognising patterns, and deploying skills that you’ve learned to scale those blocks. It only improves as the game progresses, with more block-types being introduced, as well as an array of obstacles. However, skill and improvisation remain at the heart of this, being able to assess the situation and quickly use the most efficient means to climb up.
One thing I’ve always hated about fighting games is the requirement to know specific button combos, especially those long and complicated ones. What Catherine uses is not knowledge of a series of button presses, but knowledge of tricks, of how to manipulate the environment and morph it into something scalable. If you’re smart enough, you can suss out how to do these ‘moves’ before they’re taught to you in the game, as they are natural ways to move around. They’re not a button combo that is locked from you until you get to a certain point in the game, nor is it something that requires guesswork.
One of the first techniques you're taught in the game
In fact, many techniques are not taught-in game, and have been discovered and logged by the community, through experimentation and practice. And that is, in essence, what’s great about it. This very simple and elegant mechanic allows freedom of expression from the player, and that’s what, to me, drives the gameplay.
Needless to mention, too, are the slick graphics, thediversemusicused, and the well-written and memorable quirky characters that you interact with at the bar in human form, and their sheep counterparts during the dream (sounds kooky? It is!)
Perhaps it is just the time at which I played Catherine, a thoroughly unique affair after having played the (relatively) straight-faced grunts that are The Last of Us, Uncharted 3, and Heavy Rain. Perhaps it is just that Catherine came at a time, where it stood out from the crowd and dazzled me with its dashing personality and damn fine weirdness. Perhaps, though, it isn’t just that.
About naveenwf One of us since 3:47 PM on 06.19.2010
Hi, I'm 18 years old and live in England, just outside London. I grew up in India, and grew up in PC gaming (as well as handheld Nintendo consoles) thanks to my older brother. The games I have fondest memories of were Worms, Counter Strike, Mortal Kombat and Pokemon. And Super Mario 64.
All in no particular order:
Favourite Music Artists Pink Floyd
Jeff, Who Lives At Home
Favourite TV Shows
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Favourite games: Anodyne
The Curse of Monkey Island