The Leaderboard: Now You’re Playing Without Power

Games Features

Jordan Mammo looks at how Japanese developers Katsura Hashino and Atlus Persona Team marginalize the player in Catherine.

It’s mostly true that videogames are about the player. We inhabit the role of the characters or, even more directly, the characters are supposed to be us. Between having the option to make decisions that affect the branching story of an epic tale and the ability to customize every facet of our onscreen avatars, videogames rarely ask us to look outside ourselves. This isn’t necessarily surprising; in fact, it’s perfectly normal. As the late David Foster Wallace told Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005, our “natural, hard-wired default-setting… is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

Slipping past this default setting and into conscious thinking is hard. It’s not instantly rewarding, and processing life experiences without the self as the center can be draining. But it’s important. That’s why last year’s Catherine is still worth talking about: It asks us to do just that.

Catherine zooms in on its main character Vincent during a critical moment in his life. He must decide between cementing his five-year relationship with his potentially pregnant girlfriend Katherine and severing it to pursue a new one with a wildly outgoing bombshell named Catherine. By influencing the way Vincent thinks, how he responds to questions, and even the tone in which he sends text messages, the player is constantly shaping the character’s inner monologue. It may not seem like it, though, because while Vincent is slowly internalizing this process, regardless of how drastically you vary the thoughts planted in his brain, you simply don’t have the power to change any of his actual decisions for most of the game.

Suddenly, we can alter what a character thinks but we can’t get them to do anything about it. That’s not a widely used design trope, but, in Catherine as in life, it rings true. Imagine abruptly telling your friend that his significant other of five years needs to be tossed aside and see how fruitful a decision that was. Vincent will always have second thoughts about getting married and being a father. He will always initially balk at Catherine’s bold advances. Feeding thoughts and impulses into his mind forms a connection between the player and character, but it never grants the player enough power to make Vincent a simple avatar or extension of themselves. He has his own crippling fears, his own distinct history with the other characters, and they cannot easily be undone by the whims of a distant actor.

Instead of bending reality to our will, Catherine asks us to share it with another person and understand their point of view. Vincent doesn’t know who he is or what he wants; multiple times he simply wishes things would stay the same. Despite the player’s influence, any time he encounters a situation that requires action he always takes the path of least resistance, obsessively trying to maintain a status quo that is clearly unsustainable. It’s not possible, of course, but until he’s ready to confront reality, the player can only hope to slowly change Vincent’s mindset over the course of life’s events. What’s highlighted throughout the game, then, is the conflict that develops between what one desires and what one is actually able to push themselves to act on.

Although not commonly touched on by videogames, this is a universal conflict that’s been explored poignantly in other media. Brokeback Mountain, for example, ends tragically because its world is one in which Ennis Del Mar doesn’t, perhaps cannot, overcome this contradiction between desire and action. He spurns the deeply rooted feelings pulling at his heart and sacrifices them because he’s afraid of the consequences. It’s a Wonderful Life finds George Bailey intentionally compromising his dream to travel. While it weighs on his soul for the entire film, he eventually fights past bitterness and jealousy to come away with a great truth. Interactive media, though, are just beginning to comment on this problem in interesting ways. By promoting a kind of shared existence with its main character, Catherine expands the range of conflicts that videogames can effectively explore. And it’s able to tackle this dilemma because it analyzes what typical RPGs and dating games do and does the exact opposite.

In most RPGs, players are granted a lot of leeway when it comes to customizing their characters. They can change their physical appearance; they can change their clothes; they can upgrade weapons and learn new skills. None of that is possible in Catherine. Outside of his crippling inability to make decisions, Vincent’s character and abilities are mostly predefined, leaving little room for customization. Instead of wondering whether or not a bunny hat looks ridiculous despite its ability to boost our defense stats, we sink ourselves into the story and find ourselves asking different questions. What is Vincent so afraid of? What kind of man is he?

The illusion of choice works similarly. When players are allowed to make choices in many titles, it is as if their word is Law. Results are quick, potentially life-altering, and other characters don’t really have any choice in the matter. Dating sims, meanwhile, generally regard their main character as an avatar for the player, letting him/her fill in details through choice as they attempt to attract potential mates. Catherine gives players the chance to voice their desire but revokes their ability to indulge in it, instead giving them limited ways to interact with another worldview. You’re never quite sure how Vincent or his friends will receive your decisions.

Unlike in Brokeback Mountain and It’s a Wonderful Life, however, what stands out in Catherine is that Vincent is ultimately unable to fail. No matter what you choose or how much you waffle, he’ll never deny what he feels for what he thinks needs to be done. He’ll never be unable to take a decisive stand based on how he’s been shaped throughout the game. Our influence is doubted and called into question the entire time, but eventually it plays the decisive role in Vincent’s journey to self-actualization. This is important for the narrative of the game, but for how many people does that end up being an unreachable goal in life?

For some of us, our dreams never materialize into action despite how badly we want them to. Instead, we may live with pain and regret. Perhaps we long for the chance to rectify our trepidation and move past our fears, only to fall short again when opportunity arises. As an attempt to encourage players to look past their own appetite, Catherine is a bold and ambitious piece of work. It offers new ways to look at what videogames are capable of, but now that it’s been around for a year, it also draws attention to the fact that there are still so many other perspectives games have yet to explore, still so many other types of people for players to get to know.

When Nintendo first exploded into public consciousness during the 1980’s, they liked to throw around the slogan “Now you’re playing with power.” Catherine hints that perhaps we should strive to play with the powerless as well.

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