On the subject of all the recent excitement for Persona 5's western release over the last few months, and having finally gotten my hands on the imported special edition of said game I've thought about doing a retrospective write-up on the Persona team's other unique title. I've long since concocted a plan for a blog on this very special game, made by the exact same people whom are responsible for the most recent main titles in the Persona series of which I love.
It's probably not a secret to anyone at this point, that Atlus holds a particularly special place in my heart as one of the best JRPG developers out there. Everything from their respective MegaTen franchise to its many spin-offs have tingled my fancy. Although, amongst all of the good things that are Atlus, there's a branch called "P-studio" that deserves special attention.
This team is run by what I'd probably refer to as "The Big 3"-Katsura Hashino, Shoji Meguro and Shigenori Soejima. These are the guys responsible for the Persona games vast success, and transition of the series into a whole new formula that garnered a massive cult following with a wider spread appeal. This includes Persona 3 & 4 along with their respective spin-offs and enhanced editions. Imagine my excitement when these guys would try to stumble on new territory while keeping the spirit of their work in tact with such fascinating experiments like "Catherine".
Catherine is interesting because it's the latest game from Hashino's team-- it's a seemingly small time game with a vastly rich story and characters that started out as a tech demo. In fact, it was originally intended as a prototype for Persona 5, a way for Hashino's team to test new waters with next generation technology. Catherine's detailed character models with stark expressive animations and some sharp stylistic choices seem to have found its way to Persona 5. It's a puzzle-platformer as opposed to a JRPG, that centers its thematic and narrative focus on the many layers of human relationships, an angle that most certainly existed and was explored "to a degree" in their Persona games as well. An interesting thing to note about the subject matter is how little weight it actually carries in a lot of games--If we sit down for a second and consider things thoroughly; How many games have actually portrayed a healthy on-going relationship between 2 characters?
In retrospect, the presence of love interests, relationships and how they've generally functioned have always generally served as a conventional form of reward or goal to achieve in many video games. Be it either rescuing the princess from a giant fire-breathing lizard thing, or travelling miles upon miles on horseback to search for a way to bring your loved one back to live instead of simply moving on and try online dating. But you know how these stories go, nothing beats the afforementioned ideal that is "true love" something that doesn't exist in the real world.
The love interest spectrum is not particularly alien to gaming, it's a rather common trope added for the sake of dramatic tension. But they aren't all as involving as others. But, sure, relationship do come in many shapes and forms, depending on the game, but not the kind that generally serves to drive the plot or factors into anything in the grand scheme of things beyond "Go save the girl and there will be cake". Usually, we'll always see the "commencement" of a relationship as a conclusion to a character arc, at the end of a game, or even a story.
A lot of other times is the tragic kind like James Sunderland his relationship to his deceased wife, Mary, in Silent Hill 2. Come to think of it, SH2 is probably among the examples that comes closest to scratching that specific itch, though the game's plot it is still largely driven by James' desire to find his wife (even though she's not alive anymore) as it's the major driving force behind the story. The most interesting bit about it though, and consequently the internal struggles of which James has to deal with, is its twist which reveals a dark but painfully real side to James' slowly strained relationship he had with his ill wife.
SH2 is great for its intriguing psychological drama mixed with its horror, and how it can manage to spin a great story out from all of that-But that's not the game we want to talk about. It's the principle of how it handled its human relations, which sadly started to deteroriate as soon as Konami handed the property over to western developers. But I wouldn't say it's alone in its achievements.
Other great examples include the likes of The Darkness, with main character Jackie Ecstado and his long-time girlfriend, Jenny, who has their share of heavily poignant romantic moments between two lovers who can genuinely communicate. The thing is, however, is that it's the depressing, tragic kind (much like many romances in games) where the girl is dead- But the game offers an appropriate amount of exposition, explaining how the two fell for each other during their time together in an orphanage. That noteworthy flashback scene showing Jackie and Jenny watching TV while enjoying each other's company. They are content and happy. It feels genuine and it's sad to see how all of it affects Jackie, and his transformation into the mob guy with cthulhu's tentacles sticking out of his ponce by the time of the second game.
Even Ninja Theory's renidition of Journey to the West, featured a cast of a wild brute, forced into escorting a spunky girl named Trip across a post-apocalyptic America. What began as bitter animosity between both parties, eventually develops into a close kinship as they come to depend and trust each other than ever before.
On reflection, I find that many of the greatest game stories involve romantic subplots, and they are meant to enhance the drama, sometimes rather drastically, to a point where it feels dangerously contrived and forced. A common belief would deem that "romance" is something that solemly anyone but girls can enjoy, and therefore has no place in gaming. Considering the current state of the industry, it's interesting to note how far we've distanced ourselves from that way of thinking and see how it has evolved ever since.
The frivol novelties of the old platformers like Crash, Spyro, Sly Cooper or Rare are things of yesteryear, where the biggest contributors of the old light hearted arcadey games like Naughty Dog, Insomniac Games or even Sucker Punch have moved on to make more "mature" and gritty stories. I would be lying myself if I didn't say that my interests have also largely changed, and what I look for in games, music, film or anything of the sort has changed too. I'm more inclined to listening to the poetic lyrics of Thom Yorke, watching heavy sci-fi-romance dramas like Eternal Sunshine about a contemporary couple's spiralling relationship, or reading the grimdark fantasy writings of Joe Abercrombie. Now, it should of course be said that a lot of this also boils down to a matter of taste but it's not far fetched to say that our taste are different from when we were younger and they can always change again and again.
In truth, drama and romance aren't just solely enjoyed by women and they definitely play a key role in how video game storytelling has grown to become a medium of its own. But as implied by now, it's not just games that have grown up but also gamers too. Contrary to outdated stereotypes, and presumptions, the largest demographic of gamers actually consist of adult men and women; the kind who are married or in a relationship.
Think about that, whenever going to a convention that celebrates video games I generally find more adults than actual kids. It's common to label those who willingly behave irresponsibly online gaming as "12 years" due to the naivete and disregard for their actions-- The truth, however, is that most of the time we are talking about adults. We might have been children once, in the early days of gaming, but as we've grown up so have the games we play. As adults we find ourselves intrigued and entertained by other things, things we can relate to and gaming has been happy to accomodate. Even more recent examples like Uncharted, where with its sequels we've noted the growth of Nathan Drake into that of a family man on top of being an adventurer. The game NieR puts you in the role of a father who needs to watch out for his daughter while also trying to save the world, the list goes on.
An even more recent example is the unveiled God of War 4 at E3 2016, a paradigm of yet another game that has decided to go the path of fatherhood, by having the premise feature a pre-established character Kratos settling down with a son into father-role figure. The premise is presumably about passing the torch, teaching the son how to survive in the chaotic deity- ruled world without repeating the sins of the father. A vast departure from the original series, or so it seems as it presents a different Kratos, one who is grizzled and old-The evident similarities to The Last of Us is only made more evident with its reliance on over-the-shoulder-third-person action gameplay.
The most interesting thing is director's comments in regards to this bold direction for the franchise. "We are all getting older. We all tell stories about what we have around us...I personally do think it's the trend just reflecting all of us getting old. All of us seeing the world differently, but not wanting to go back and put flashlights into soldiers' hands or make Greedo shoot first, but make a better tomorrow." I would no less concede to his point, as it is a very real, and very honest, description of the breakthroughs that exist in all modern litterature be it digital or not.
It's constantly in motion, always moving forward and changing alongside the times, based upon on how we "as the authors" perceive the world. In the last few centuries, religion and romanticized themes have dominated our culture-- The Beatles took the world by storm through elaborate amount of various lovey-dovey songs, during the last century, until John Lennon pushed through with un-conservative sentiments about a better world, that has also come to define our age in songs like Imagine, or the weirdness that is the Sergeant Pepper album. The 90s were a vast paradigm shift for music, with personality's like Nirvana frontman Kurt Kobain writing songs about teenage angst, and Thom Yorke from Radiohead splicing emotionally tense lyrics with computer engineered audio and electronica.
The coming of literary realism in the early 20th century, would also pave way for social and naturalism, where authors would discard the sugercoating of the romantic age, and start writing things as they were. Stories about the working man, examining and providing critique on the social structures that maintain the poor conditions of the working class. Even cinema has seens it share of movements that has influenced the type of films being produced. In the 60s New Hollywood paved way for younger hopeful filmmakers, and conceded a more authorative role to directors above the studios themselves.
Later it pave away for many sub categories, like art-film or Dogme, where the creators would have free reign to explore new forms of storytelling through more natural things like relying heavily on imagery, symbolism, without the usage of necessarily any dialogue or stage-effects.
I don't think there's a need to question games value as an artform, unless you actually agree with the late Roger Ebert that video games can never be anything beyond a product of entertainment, where the interactive functions and strict set of "rules" leads to a potential "fail-state" hinders the audience's ability to experience them. He also argued that no games have ever explored the meaning of being human, which is of course not true citing the obvious subject of this blog, I'd also like to call attention to a game like Sillent Hill 2.
Consider its value as a narrative and a horror story, the unconventional approach it takes with its horror aspects. The things a game like that does is atmosphere, something that couldn't possibly be conveyed through any other medium like it. There's a sense of tact and finesse to how the game wants to place the player into a state anxiety and fear--It's soundtrack as well as its capability to know when not "having any audio at all" creates the best mood. The point being that games can convey their stories in a way that can't be replicated in any other medium. It was never a question of whether games could be art bu rather; Is it fair to say that this transition has been happening to video games over the last decade? Or does it go even further back than that?
It's a wonder then with all of these intriguing games nowadays that primes on their capability to telling more mature stories, granting iconic characters plenty of relatable family-man/woman traits (Nathan Drake, Lara Croft), or having them tackle responsibilies that goes beyond the usual adveturing, or self-less heroics; It's a wonder that Catherine still stands as an incredibly unique game in the midst of it all. It's obviously not just how it goes about the whole angle on relationships, as we're obviously seeing more contemporary middle aged down-to-earth men and women as leads in gaming, but also how the portrays the tocuh challenges that comes with adulthood.
Catherine is such a novelty because in a lot of ways it feels like an "epilogue" of sorts to basically your average video game. Mario and Link rescues the princess and defeats Ganon, the end, and presumably a long-term relationship starts? We don't know but we just assume that all is well because anything else would be over stepping bounds.
The reality would be much more cynical, at best what they have will last a few years, maybe marriage, the couple would have a fallout that reaches its breaking point when they start arguing about whether or not to buy furniture at IKEA etc. Video games aren't afraid to be cynical anymore though, however, but despite the apparent cynicism and games resolve to telling more abrasive stories, not all games are grim dark through and through. Sometimes we want our fiction to reflect on the ideal future we're striving towards, in order to contemplate on our own lives and how we may have wanted to do things differently. Othe times we just require a therapeutic session of fluffy romance or cathatic violence.
I wasn't being facitious when I said that Catherine felt like an epilogue to your average video game, if anything, it feels like an epilogue to the Persona games. Vincent could easily be a Persona character in his early 30s whose cheery high school years felt like a whole other life and he has to come to terms with the fact that happiness aren't gonna come his way unless he looks for it-- He's in a stage of his life where obligations dominates his routines. You grow up, marry a girl, get some kids and you're golden that's the ideal standard set by society but Vincent is conflicted. He's unsure whether he's ready to take that step, whether it's the kind of life he wants to commit to or not. Vincent's dilemma spans such things as unexpected pregnancy's, the impetus of commitment, which all comes to a head when he lets himself be seduced by the free-spirited Catherine (with a C).
He's already in a relationship with a frompy, conservative, Katherine (with a K) who represents the shackles of responsibilities whereas Catherine is the personfication of Vincent's doubts about tying the knot nostalgic desire for the freedom of a bachelor. Soon after the news reports of grissly deaths of several men in their own bed, accompanied by rumors of the Nightmares they all experience which eventually kills them. All of them having something in common, they've all committed infidelity on their loved ones. This introduces the Nightmare Sections of the game, where Vincent has to battle his own demons manifested from his fears and doubts in regards to his unfaithfulness by solving block puzzles and escaping monstified iterations of Catherine, Katherine or his general fears and paranoia of not knowing what comes next.
The game does an interesting job of making Katherine initially seem like the route "where happiness goes to die". She's a nice counterbalance to Vincent's reluctance to taking their relationship further into something more serious, a dominant figure, but you can also see how she's feeling the pressure of societal norms. Her mother, in particular, who gets passively mentioned in a not so flattering manner, as you get the impression she isn't quite fond of Vincent. It adds a bit of inner understanding to Katherine's disposition. Vincent is mostly held back by himself.
Ultimately, how things will progress is measured through the choices the player makes. You could be forgiven for thinking that Vincent's inability to come clean with Katerine in the first place is a bad anime trope, but I think the game makes a convincing case for Vincent's hesitancy. He loves Katherine but his lack of confidence and self-complacency is holding him up at gunpoint. Vincent says he doesn't want to cheat on Katherine, yet he still gave in to Catherine's advances. It's a very real, and very relevant problem in our society. Affairs happen when the spark goes away, and Vincent's fear of change and comfort in his easy-going relationship with Katherine and little accountability is what is keeping his world together, and also the partially the cause for his desire to give in to Catherine's temptations.
During the span of the game, the player will find themselves roaming the bar "Stray Sheep" of which half of the story is taking place. A bar is generally depicted in fiction as a safe haven, a room of self-contemplation, where sinners goes to drink themselves into a stupor in the false hopes of escaping their troubles. Although what a lot of people seem to fail to realize is that alcohol tends amplify strong emotions not diminish them.
You get to roam this bar a lot, and what I like about is how it makes you you overly familliar with its terrain and inhabitants, namely because of how the limits the story to this pub alone. I've said before how I love games that manages to create a setting and/or a hub-based area that is memorable. Places like Camp Omega in Metal Gear Ground Zeroes, the Asylum in Arkham 1, Kamurocho in Yakuza or the town of Silent Hill in the Silent Hill games. You keep revisiting, and constantly exploring, these places and find yourself getting to know all the ins-and-outs of these settings, always with a new fresh sense of wonder.
Although the size of the Stray Sheep is particularly miniscule in contrast to those comparisons, it has the exact amount of content needed to make you care about its ongoings. It's similar to the hub-based city areas of the Persona games, where recurrent NPCs and people follow their own routines. Much like Persona, there's a very smooth and natural progression to the game's story, that makes it relaxing and easy to follow the development of the bar and its inhabitants. It creates breathing room for Vincent time to contemplate on how to conquer his own hardships.
When you're not spending time chugging cocktails, learning the meaning behind distilled whiskey or looking at dirty photos of your lover on the lavatory, you'll find yourself interacting with the bar's various patrons. Among them are Vincent's buddies, who have their own share of marital and relationship troubles that makes their presence valuable to understanding the story and getting to know what kind of man Vincent is too.
Among them you have Jonny, who despite his outwardly subdued demeanor has a very romantic-optimistic outlook on the value of true love and finding "the one true love" before considering marriage. Inevitably, this makes Jonny seem like Vincent's moral compass at first, and he certainly takes a great interest in Vincent's love affairs though Jonny isn't exactly a patron saint. Ironically, despite his firm belief in true love, Jonny is already in a relationship with a woman of which he has no real genuine interest. Their relationship is solely based on temporary company and a need for emotional gratification. It is revealed that he has feelings for Katherine, but he isn't interested in screwing up Vincent's relations with her despite his feelings.
At first, he's certain that is reason why he shows up in the Nightmare Stages as another sheep, alongside Vincent and many others. He admits to Vincent (without knowing the sheep is him) that he doesn't want to steal "her" from "him," but he loves "her" and can't do anything about it. In reality, Jonny is having nightmares due to keeping his girlfriend in a relationship with no hope of advancing it because of his love for Katherine. His infedelic thoughts and guilt are holding him in check.
Orlando is the one with the most presence among all of Vincent's friends, he's also the one he's closest with. Childhood friends and both of them are acquianted with Katherine, whose relationship with the two guys was strained at the time due to a lot of teasing. Orlando sticks out as being the only one who's been married before, and allegedly blames his wife for the divorce, feeling she betrayed him though the truth paints a different picture. He's a laidback guy, with a somewhat care-free lifestyle and also a very cynical view of love and marriage juxtaposing Jonathan. Most likely born out of his feud with his ex-wife, he doesn't begrudge Vincent for his affair and while his sardonous attitude towards it (almost encouraging) might imply a form of spite towards Katherine, he actually cares about her quite a bit, calling her "cold, but a good girl". This says a lot about what kind of man he is, specifically someone who has trouble expressing how they really feel, which only becomes more evident later on in the game.
His disposition towards Vincent's seems very apathetic to a degree, as mentioned, though evident now he really has all of his best interest at heart. He might be more lenient towards encouraging Vincent to pursue Catherine, when talks of Katherine having a possible fling comes up, but as soon as Vincent mentions the possibility of pregnancy, he changes his tune-Orlando is not as aloof or even a bad man, as he might seem, but rather a dubious fool who gets too caught up in his pride, while also being easily conned by get-rich-quick scams and tricks--This is incidentally the major flaw that leads to the fallout with his wife. The truth is that Orlando's marriage with his wife was an initially happy one, though his incompetence at running a business and getting himself involved with shady opportunities caused her to get upset with him.
Refusing to admit fault, he saw this as a betrayal and broke up the marriage, and despite everything, his wife still loves him even going so far as putting her love life on the sidelines to get him back. His wounded pride won't allow him to it see this way, most likely due to the circumstances and a moment of vulnerability, feeling like she didn't have any faith in him. Ultimately, guilt, self-loathing and selfishness is stopping him from admitting that he's in the wrong, and his selfishness has ruined his ex's love life. This is why he's found himself experiencing the nightmares, and having to face an abominable version of his old wife, questioning his reasons for leaving him.
The spiffy younger one of the bunch, Toby, is the only one who hasn't been in a comitted relationship, and as a result he never ends up experiencing the nightmares. This makes his role feel rather minor in comparison to the others, but there's a lot to reflect on Vincent when looking at Toby. His naivete and curious ignorant output on the big tough world of adulthood is a keen reflection of Vincent before he met Katherine, if one takes the stories that are told about him to heart. Toby is a remembrance of the time when all possibilies were open, and you had all the time in the world to think of the future, there was no need to constantly worrying about getting a job, or rushing through a relationship to the point of marriage. That part of your life where the world is still such a curious place that raises a lot of questions before you inevitably drop the enthusiasm in trade for existenstial cynicism.
Traversing the Stray Sheep
The Stray Sheep is home to more than just Vincent's friends, but also the vast cast of NPC's whom Vincent can have recurring talks with. You can also access the jukebox and play classic tracks from Atlus SMT and Persona games, and also playing an arcade version of the game's Nightmare Stage in form of a Rapunzel scenario chosen as a specific paradigm for certain story relevance. There's plenty of symbolism to fun and the backstory that exist within is meant to compliment the overall game. Traversing the Stray Sheep are one of the more intriguing parts of the game, it functions a lot like Persona, where you spend pretty much all of your time in the bar alongside these characters, getting to know their struggles, and also trying to maintain your own relationships-Vincent, a man with no concept of personal space, will find himself getting involved with the bar's patrons and hear their stories. Time is limited in conjunction to how Vincent chooses to spend it.
Throughout the game you will run into a vast array of colourful personalities, everything from a washed-out cop, to a greaseball business man and a pair of elderly twins who look and talk like something out of The Shining. One of them I found particularly noteworth is a journalist, named Justin, whose story is quite interesting. He's actually an ex journalist, who's found himself researching the occult with regardds to the strange deaths that is happening in the surrounding area of "Whateverthehellcitythisisville". His current status as an ex-journalist is rooted in his past, where he wrote an article about a talented small-time ecomically challenged ballerina, whose tough disposition inspired and touched him enough to write an article that would end up booming her carreer vastly.
His guilt eats away at him, blaiming himself for the girl's death, which ultimately affects his own relationship to his wife. He finds himself getting the same nightmares as the other sheep. His story serves to underline the bigger dilemma and source of the nightmarish occuring of which I'll get into in detail soon. But his role as an endless source of fun trivia and special climbing techniques for which Vincent/player can use to conquer the towers is even more interesting.
The reason why is because of how Vincent can consequently return the favour by teaching Justin and the other sheep some tricks of his own, the game settles on a meta-framed narrative device to help serve the plot and gameplay equally. Justin serves an important informative counselling role, within the nightmare stages, conversing with him will make him reveal helpful moves the player can use to climb the stages, and convergely Vincent will provide some moves of his own. Fundementally, this is meant to help guide both the player and the afforementioned characters in the game, within the context of the game's rules.
Although Vincent is the player's avatar, the moves he knows is unbeknownst to the player before he mentions it, which is a clever way to incorporate the player's role into the act. It is conveyed in a convenient fashion for the game to still be a game, and although Vincent isn't a faceless character he still serves the role of an avatar appropriately. Vincent's role is that of an enabler, his influence and tendency to involve himself in stranger's troubles throughout the game is constantly affecting the game's progression, its characters and its outcome.
So what exactly is the point, considering how the story is generally focused on Vincent? Well despite Vincent being the star of the show, his friends, the people he meets, and even the player are the supporting pillars of which he constantly leans unto-- Justin's role in teaching techniques to climb is a perfect reminder of Vincent's vulnerability, and a reminder that he isn't any more special than the other sheep. Vincent needs them as much they need him. They also presents interesting parallels to Vincent's with their flaws and merits, measured up against him, which is what makes them fit so good together.
Vincent is a nervous wreck, but his saving grace is that he's a stable, social and okay guy who looks out for his friends and isn't afraid to chat up strangers in a bar and hear their life stories. Jonathan comes off as a bit introverted and hopelessly romantic, Orlando lets his pride cloud his judgement and his true compassionate feelings for his loved ones, Toby's naivete makes it easy for others to get the best of him. In a lot of ways, these characters complete each other in every sense of the word, and that point is made all the more true by Vincent lenting his support to them in the nightmares, that ultimately helps them overcome their issues with their respective better-halfs, which is a poigant way of phrasing one of the centrals factors on the game's theme. The common relationship. How do we draw a line of which relationships are most important to us?
A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
In all things that are Atlus there is always someone, or something, that is responsible for the supernatural or sinister occurences befalling the protagonists. If it wasn't already obvious, then I'll be reaching further into spoiler territory, but if you're still with me then you're already aware of that. As Vincent conquers his fears by beating the nightmares and challenges laid upon him by a mysterious voice that talks to him in nightmares, he learns more and more about "The man of legend who climbed a mountain centuries ago"--All different stories, presumably by the same man, who survived the grissly nightmares much like Vincent is doing.
Appropriately, it's non other than the man who owns and runs the Stray Sheep, called "Boss" whose real name is Thomas Mutton. He's also known as Dumuzid, who in Babylonian lore was known as "the Shepherd" signifiying his role to guiding the sheep "the patrons of the bar" away from their women and consequently making them have the nightmares. His role only extends so far as being the hand of the true masterminds, namely Ishtar and Astaroth, while also being the one who created the arcade game Rapunzel, which said game's role actually carries a lot of signifigance to the overarching story.
The voice in the booth is Astaroth, and the woman who presents the story of the game to the player is the guise of Ishtar. These two are more or less the conductor's of all that's happening, though Mutton is in cahoots with them, and also the one responsible for luring cheaters into committing infidelity or leashing Catherine on them for the same reasons--it's clear that Ishtar, however, desires to replace him.
Astaroth is the puppetmaster of the nightmare sections, and more or less the most prominent villain of the game even though you don't "fight him". His overall goal is to punish the weak, cheating, and deceitful men whom are in a position to withholding their loved ones from having a future for their own selfish reasons. Ultimately, those who are too weak to commit, or are being deliberately disingenious towards their partners. Anyone familiar with Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei, or the Persona games in this case, will immediately understand the meaning on the villain's intentions.
The common traits between these games is that you're always finding yourself opposing gods of myth, whose desires are supposedly rooted in mankind's desires. Usually their ambitions heavily misinterprets what they deem the will of man, and it's through understading this, that the true face of evil leads back to man itself and the gods are all monsters born out of the collective subconciouness that connects all humans. Although, while this is true for Persona, it's a bit different from Megami Tensei, but they do share a common backstory for the demons being spawns of human cruelty. It's an indepth discussion on real world religion, the power it carries and human morality which lingers over Catherine's story, similar in many ways to MegamiTensei.
No matter how you play Vincent, the game isn't drawing any of your choices as inherently good or bad, it's up to you to interpret. Not quite Machivellian through and through, it does compliment the heavily adult centered story quite well, while also reflecting it through the characters whom you interact; with their own problems and shortcomings that makes them easy to like or understand.
The conclusion is that these godly beings aren't inherently evil, but rather serve to teach the heroes tough lessons through severe trials. Asta and co. wants to ensure the continued survival of the species, maintaining procrastination, by rooting out all infidels and cheaters through malicious means. Their intentions are not at all happy and benevolent for everone concerned, as Thomas Mutton's plans extends much farther than so, where he'd go so far as to placing the curse on all men, who are in an age he deems fit enough to start fathering children and marrying a woman.
He's the one who physically opposes Vincent in his efforts to escape the nightmares. Mutton serves as the prime foil to Vincent, as it is revealed that he is also meant to be his replacement, but also taking his whole role in the game into account. Thomas is a mortal ascended to godhood thanks to his efforts of climbing the block puzzles, same as what Vincent is doing throughout the game.
As a reward for succeeding where others failed, he was offered a position of immortality. Hubris being hubris, Mutton's rise to power fuelled his own selfishness as he'd start taking on many lovers and comitting adultery at the expense of his wife Ishtar. Ironically, his repentance is to seperate the worthy from the unworthy through a very Swiftian methodology of which he himself is guilty.
It's all grounded in the thematic framework of the game's block puzzles and nightmares, those who refuse to progress in life, or contribute to the progression of society. This is what leads to the events of the game, where we are introduced to the story of the game by a woman named Trisha, revealed to be Ishtar, and her intentions are clear. In truth, this is also an intriguing meta-statement on a common NEET issue that Japanese society faces every single day, which revolves around a dominating hikikomori (sociatal reclusiv) lifestyle among their youth. A problem that could potentially lead to an economic crash by the time of the 2020's according to Japan's prime minister at the time.
On the subject of Mutton, he is interesting because of what he represents--He represents that sleazy part of the self that men tend to carefully dance around from, a seemingly worldly man, wise and worthy of admiration due to his experiences with women and other things alike on the outside, but who is actually a prude and cardboard cut-out of a man on the inside
He and most of the male NPCs in the game are a testament to the sort of male characters we seldom see in games - vulnerable, damaged, self-loathing - all gathered in a freakish final-exam-nightmare purgatory. “Why am I constantly hurting the one I love?” wonders one NPC. Another ponders whether he should answer the test questions honestly, or choose the “right answer” - a dilemma reflected in the player’s experience choosing Vincent’s answers throughout the game. A piteous self-relecting message for how we "as players" tend to perceive our gameplay experiences. Do we make our decisions based on the boundaries and rules of a game's world, because it's the right thing to do or because we genuinely would make that very choice were placed into said situation? This is the beauty of the game's story.
This leads me to talk about the Rapunzel mini-game, which in gameplay terms is one of the hardest aspects of the whole game, other than being an exercise for the main part of the game--it's also the key to unlocking a better understanding of the game's story. Mutton himself designed the arcade game for the purpose of preparing the sheep for the slaughter that awaits, if you'll forgive the analogy.
It does a great job of really making the player work for their closure. In the story the Prince slowly falls under the spell of the Witch. He questions why he has fallen for Rapunzel as hard as he has, and the more this passion and dedication grows the more confused he becomes. When her story of the two queens ends the Witch takes full control over Rapunzel and proposes to him. No man can resist Rapunzel's beauty and charm, so the Witch can ensnare the hearts of men.
This next part is merely conjecture, and not necessarily what I believe is the true facet of the story. It's one believed aspect. In theory, if one were to take the roles of the afforementioned characters in the arcade game, and the repeated symbolism: the ants, familiars of witches (according to the game) into question we'd arrive at a conclusion that goes like this. The ants synonomous with Katherine. They are an image of her presence, the cake correalates with the threat of her wrath.
Katherine, for the purpose of this thesis with the Rapunzel story, is the Witch. In this case, the ideal "princess" Rapunzel would be Catherine, and Vincent is of course the Prince. The thoughts, actions, and characteristics of these three characters put into context of the Rapunzel story, reveals some interesting new ways of thinking on the thoughts and motivations of each character in the main game. Ultimately the two endings to the Rapunzel tale are there to shed another light on the alleged Law and Chaos endings (as well as give us an idea of Ishtar's role in facilitating the whole thing).
Ultimately, this theory does put the ending with Katherine into perspective. Vincent is giving up the freedom he had as a bachelor to be with Katherine, and then there's the whole line of Catherine claiming "she was protecting him". It's never made clear what exactly she meant. Catherine is for all intents and purposes the by-product of Vincent's subconcious, the ideal woman that is meant to showcase that part of him who isn't interested in settling down yet. It's the traditional understanding of a Megami Tensei Law Ending. You're creating structure at the expsense of giving up individual freedoms. This is not exclusive to SMT alone though.
I'm also not sure if I wholly believe it, partially due to the wide gap that seperates the Vincent who chooses marriage, freedom or the bachelor life. It does, however, create some interesting juxtapositions to Vincent's dilemma, and how all of the characters think overall. It also headlines the question that stretches throughout the game. Are women too rash about settling down and deciding the future too quickly or are men too carefree and irresponsible to commit to a relationship? The answer in regards to how Catherine presents itself is neither. The men and women of Catherine are all flawed people, with their own shortcomings. There is one red herring that courses through all of them. Guilt.
Guilt is the keyword here. Vincent is left wondering about his relationship with Katherine, while also thinking about the future such as getting kids and starting a family. It's a heavy responsibility to take that is out of Vincent's league. All of these feelings, thoughts and then suddenly finding himself having an affair with the enigmatic Catherine is nourishing his guilt to a breaking point.
Ultimately, Vincent's indecisiveness to take a stand, and not wanting to hurt either of these women whom he loves for different reasons is the source of his troubles. All in the midst of backdrop rumors of cheaters meeting grisly ends in their bed, it traps Vincent inside of his own head in form of symbolic block puzzles, in a desperate search for a way out and to survive.
Katherine is also haunted by her own share of guilt, and shortcomings, like lying about her pregnancy to make Vincent take responsibility, she pushes him into an uncomfortable position for her own selfishness. It's something that is also nagging her enough to come clean about it and reconcile with him. Ultimately, she ends up in the nightmare stage together with him, and they have to escape together.
The nightmare stages are the epiphany of the game's symbolism; The block puzzles in particular no less. This is another example of a symbiotic-metaphorical link that exist between gameplay and narrative in one of P-studio's titles, like Persona 3, which I also did a blog on and talked a bit about the subject in as close detail as possible. Catherine is a great game due to a lot of things, the angle on examining and exploring the trope of "getting the girl" relationship angle, through it's rather poignant meta-epilogue plot is one thing; but it's also an all out interesting introspective look on our perception of games' tendency to seggregate narrative from gameplay.
Like I mentioned approximately a thousand written words ago. In the case of Catherine, they play off on each other, the fact that the whole game is a puzzle is deliberate, the fact that the difficulty of the puzzles are tricky is deliberate, sometimes to the point of condescending the player's lack of comprehession in fear of not being understood, to emphasize on the Swiftian nature of the story's themes; it makes a few things pretty clear already in the beginning. "Is Vincent able to overcome all blocks in his life?" The answer to that question is more or less rooted in the player's actions and determination to see things through to the end. Although, if it wasn't already clear by the time of this paragraph.
"Life isn't about finding the pieces of a puzzle. It's about creating and putting those exceptional pieces together". ~ Glenn van Dekken
The key to surviving the time-based block puzzles is actually rooted in math, strategy, and creative thinking. Although, it's important to consider the context of the puzzle's meaning. Things aren't as simple as they seem at face value with Vincent's survival through his own tortured guilt taken shape in nightmares in the form a giant monster girlfriend butt, Katherine's scary hand! Or a chainsaw baby, it's not meant as an analogy for life simply being a scary puzzle that can be solved through formulas.
That would be giving the game too little credit. Life is about making it what we want it to be, we don't get to experience the same things but we get to say that we're are here, we are alive and we lived. Vincent's struggle with his fears of losing the person most dear to him through his lack of taking a stance is what makes him twist and turn, an inability to properly articulate his feelings and desires. In best Persona-like fashion, Vincent's success through the trials and his choices (specifically Katherine or Freedom ending) reaffirms a lot of truth to Astaroth, the fact that life is more than just reproduction, and passing on your genes and be done with it.
Marriage isn't the end or the beginning of everything, and Vincent makes it clear to Boss that he still has his whole life ahead of him to figure out what he really wants. It's an iinteresting alternative to the sweet Katherine ending. Vincent's journey was about conquering his fears, and getting courage to take responsibilty, not just for himself but for Katherine or anything/anyone else that matters in his life.
He requires the necessary courage to speak to Katherine about it all, which is basically what I tried to do with him the whole time while playing the game. This might sound like that the only appropriate ending to the game is the one where Vincent stays with her but in a lot of ways, I feel there's also a lot of well-paid growth to Vincent's self-worth in the neutral "Freedom" endings. Vincent decides to do something impulsive by betting a lot of money on a wrestling match, should he win he'll get a trip to a space colony, if he loses then it doesn't deter him. He's simply happy he was strong to enough to make that kind of decision on his own, and make his mark-He's truly alive.
The game, after all, isn't about rushing into any long term plans, picking the short and easy way through life won't lead to happines, and Vincent is in a state of working through his emotions, perhaps trying to gather enough courage to talk to Katherine openly and honestly (at least, I spent most of the game trying to nudge him in that direction) to prove just that. Then there's also the underlying meaning behind the arcade Rapunzel game, where the connection to the game's characters puts a new perspective on depending on how you decide to perceive it.
In truth, much like what I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, Astaroth truly desires for Vincent to succeed considering the pleasure he takes in his victory but also with regards to how Vincent is no longer drowning in self-doubt and pity at the end, while holding his signifigant other in the dark and ultimately preventing them from establishing their own future and dreams. Vincent has achieved the "ideal" Freedom. The freedom to choose for himself and take responsibility for himself and those around him. Depending upon the actions of the player, the patrons of the bar would have effectuated the same kind of mental recompense and reconciliation with their loved ones, which is pleasing enough to Astaroth, and ultimately his preferred outcome.
Although while the Katherine ending may seem pedestrian at first glance, it still feels like an appropriate ending to Vincent's story. He ends up marrying her after all, but not necessarily out of principle or without having learned something.
He has acknowledged his faults, and learned to exercise his freedom to help invigorate his relationship with Katherine as opposed to hindering it. It may seem like a marriage out of duty, which isn't necessarily a bad thing either but Vincent didn't hook up with Katherine for conventional sake in the first place, according to Orlando.
He genuinely loves her but he also loves his freedom and the thing they've had together for years would forever change once they start taking the next step. All of the True endings, as well as the Good endings, seek to reinvigorate the Japanese population in some way, shape, or form, while the Bad endings reinforce the idea that any hesitation or indecision on the part of the performer is damaging. In a game where confinement and oppression are the status quo, the player learns to take advantage of the minute decisions they can make to affect the outcome of their world, and as Ishtar reveals: “After all… Nobody has their future already laid out for them.”