The following essay contains spoilers for Catherine.
New advances in technology have led to a rapid advancement of the capabilities of video game consoles, and with it, an eruption of potential for narrative possibilities within interactive media. The heightened graphical strength of modern video game consoles coupled with the comparable advances in audio recording, such as the possibility for fully voiced narratives allows for the visual storytelling capabilities of current interactive media to theoretically be on par with non-interactive animation from the likes of Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Consequently, the scope of narrative within video games has expanded beyond merely rescuing the princess in Super Mario Bros. or shooting countless waves of demons in Doom. Modern video games tackle a wide variety of hot-button issues, ranging from mental illness to the moral quandaries surrounding the use of military aggression. Perhaps one of the most controversial topics to be tackled by interactive media is the representation of women and non-hegemonic identities. The history of the video game industry is sadly laden with examples of truly problematic representations of women, the poster child being the much-maligned handling of violence against women by the Grand Theft Auto series. In such games, women are not so much characters as they are interactive objects, used for scoring in-game bonuses or as a juvenile method of delivering eye candy. In this way, they have more in common with in-game cars and guns than with the male player character.
In light of these troubling representations, certain video game developers have begun to experiment not only with expanding the role of female characters in interactive media, but with actively engaging the topic of gender differences and conflict. One of the most prolific titles to engage these themes is Japanese developer Atlus Games’ Catherine, a 2011 title for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 consoles. Catherine, a self-labeled “romantic horror” title, is at its core a puzzle title that harkens back to arcade games of the 1980s. Wrapped around this gameplay, however, is the game’s main attraction and selling point: its narrative of infidelity and sexuality. In stark contrast to the brain-teasing segments of gameplay, Catherine’s narrative portion closely mimics the gameplay and layout of a dating simulator, a popular subgenre of Japanese adventure games that play like a “choose your own adventure” novel and ask the player to make decisions in order to pursue one or multiple women. The game uses the dating sim formula as a way to explore relations between the sexes (painted as largely binary and entirely heterosexual) and to balance the gender ratio of the game in a way that many traditional titles fail to do. Unfortunately, Catherine’s dating sim gameplay is also its undoing in terms of positive gender representation, for the nature of this gameplay forces its female characters into positions of objectification, where they are either trophies to be won by the player or simply unattainable and thus portrayed as undesirable.
Catherine places players in the role of a predetermined character: Vincent Brooks, a 32-year old male systems engineer. Vincent is complacent with his position in life and his unmarried status, which places him at odds with Katherine McBride, his long-term girlfriend and a ladder-climber with grand ambitions for both her career and her prospective family. When Katherine suggests to Vincent that they marry, Vincent undergoes a personal crisis in which he engages in an affair with a younger woman, also named Catherine, albeit with a C instead of a K. Catherine exists as the opposite of Katherine: she is unconcerned with marriage or the future, lives in the moment, and is aggressively sexual. Controlling Vincent, the player is tasked with managing Vincent’s affair, keeping the two women in his life from meeting, and ultimately choosing which one to pursue on a more exclusive basis. Throughout the game, the player is given the option to converse with both women through both sexual and nonsexual text messages (which are presented through a series of branching conversational paths that the player can select) and is also asked questions about their sexual preferences, which the game uses as a basis for determining which woman the player “should” pursue. Unlike the text messaging system, which players can choose to ignore, these questions about sexual preference are mandatory in order to advance the game’s narrative.
Throughout the roughly twelve hours that it takes to complete Catherine, the player never once takes control of any character other than Vincent, and consequently his actions and the player’s agency become inseparably linked. This causes the player to view the world from behind Vincent’s eyes throughout the entirety of the game’s duration. Thus, all of the female characters that the player comes into contact with are filtered through Vincent’s perspective, which is sexually charged due to the nature of both his character and the gameplay mechanics of the title. Catherine features three primary female characters: the aforementioned Katherine and Catherine, as well as Erica Anderson, a waitress in the bar that Vincent frequents and a childhood friend of his. All three characters are presented as conventionally attractive: the trio are all slender, made up, and well-endowed–a notable distinction from the female characters that exist within the game but outside of its narrative segments, such as two obese elderly women who frequent the same bar as Vincent.
For reasons that are likely the result of the game’s binary choice system, the player may only choose to pursue either Katherine or Catherine. Over the course of the game, the player is given the ability to flirt with either woman through text messages, express feelings of love and lust (or neither), go to bed with them, and even propose to them. The game does its best to cover as many of the dominant aspects of heterosexual courtship as it can within its given narrative space. Existing conversely to Katherine and Catherine is Erica, who despite still being subject to Vincent’s gaze cannot be flirted with, dated, or married. Furthermore, Vincent’s gaze views the unattainable Erica not with desire, but with disgust, and Vincent repeatedly communicates to the player and to Erica that he has absolutely no attraction to her despite her physical beauty. This initially perplexing reaction is later explained by a played-for-laughs scene during the game’s conclusion in which Erica is revealed to be transgender. Even ignoring the fact that this “justification” for Erica being romantically untouchable is misguided at best and utterly transphobic at worst, the game’s need to not only keep the player from Erica but also put her down is extremely problematic. Not only does Catherine’s nature as a dating sim-esque adventure encourage the player to view datable female characters as trophies to be won–compounded by the fact that the game’s achievement list is based around achieving successful pursuits of either Katherine or Catherine, as well as successfully pursuing both of them–its binary gameplay limitations also force the narrative to frame non-datable characters as unappealing or outright disgusting.
Catherine’s need to cater to a sense of player agency unfortunately obfuscates the many positive traits that its female cast possesses. While all three main characters flirt with stereotypical representations of women in visual media, they all also embody qualities that run counter to such caricatures. Katherine clearly evokes the image of the nagging girlfriend whose narrative purpose is to force the slacker main character to “man up” and take charge of his life. However, unlike most characters that abide by that trope, Katherine does not remain by Vincent’s side throughout the course of the game in order to improve him; instead, she leaves him (and the player) to his own devices, and if the player does not make choices to improve Vincent (breaking off the affair with Catherine, showing a devotion to wanting marriage and family), Katherine will break up with him–permanently, if the player fails to significantly correct their actions following this scene. She is not defined solely by her relationship with Vincent; instead, she is believably independent and acts rationally during the moments when Vincent betrays her trust.
Similarly, Catherine embodies another type of male-fulfilling stereotype: the manic pixie dream girl whose radiance energizes the male character’s life with little regard for her own independence or happiness. This, too, is inverted when an admittedly bizarre and anime-influenced twist explains that Catherine is in fact a sinister, polyamorous villain and succubus who has more interest in toying with Vincent than redeeming him.
Erica is particularly noteworthy for being a queering of the sexpot stereotype. Despite her rather absurd and sexy waitressing uniform, which looks alarmingly like a “sexy McDonald’s” Halloween outfit, she does not embody the role of the subservient ditz. Instead, she is snarky and vocally disapproves of Vincent’s cheating. Her sexuality, while predominantly if not exclusively hetero, is also queered–if the player converses with her in the bar, she will often make thinly veiled references to her desire to be the dominant partner in BDSM-style sexual relationships. While these examples are not be-all, end-all indications that Katherine, Catherine, and Erica are not in some ways stereotypical, they do highlight the effort that Atlus put into developing more complex female characters than is par for the norm in interactive media and make it all the more tragic that the romance gameplay casts these character traits aside in favor of framing the female characters as prizes to be won or unattainable goals to be dismissed.
Player agency is a necessary element of interactive media. Without it, Catherine would simply be a lengthy film. Therefore, correcting the game’s problems cannot be solved by simply doing away with the dating sim mechanic entirely, for the crux of Catherine’s narrative lies in Vincent’s romantic pursuits and is thus dependent upon the player navigating some sort of courtship-based gameplay. However, even within these confines, there are ways in which Catherine’s production and resulting gameplay could have been modified to not only lessen its objectification of its female characters, but also to queer the narrative in a sex positive and inclusive manner. One of the most direct and obvious ways to address the situation would have been for Atlus’s development team to have consisted of more female lead designers, as opposed to its nearly all-male team. While female designers are not inherently going to craft a more nuanced gameplay system, diversity of developers limits the chance of a studio becoming an echo chamber where a game’s troublesome aspects go unrecognized.
Having female leads on a development team results in a finished product that is more likely to explore female perspectives. One of Catherine’s biggest challenges when it comes to representing women is that it never strays from Vincent’s perspective–all actions taken by the player are through him and impact him more directly than any other character. Altering the gameplay to allow for scenes that take place from the perspective of Katherine, Catherine, or Erica would allow for the player to more directly realize how their actions as Vincent affect the female characters in the game, which would encourage the player to view the female characters as being on par with Vincent rather than merely as objects to interact with or trophies to be earned.
Another strategy that Catherine’s developers could have taken to combat the game’s problematic framing of women would have been to queer the dating sim mechanic. As it currently exists, Catherine largely rejects queerness in favor of restricting the player to the choice of pursuing either the heterosexual Katherine or the equally heterosexual Catherine. This arbitrary restriction frames the dating sim gameplay in terms of male-dominated heterosexual pursuit, which limits the game’s queer accessibility. It’s actually a rather surprising limitation, given that Catherine’s actual narrative setup lends itself to potential queering quite well. In addition to the three female characters in the game, Catherine also has three male non-player characters that are of or around Vincent’s age. If these male characters were also pursuable in the same manner as Katherine and Catherine, the game would simultaneously lessen its direct objectification of women in addition to actually granting players more agency over the character of Vincent. Giving the player the choice to pursue either men or women, the latter of which would include Erica in this scenario, would allow the player to determine Vincent’s sexuality for themselves as well as shape the gender dynamics of the game’s narrative with greater agency. While expanding the number of people to be pursued by the player does not remove objectification entirely, it does serve to level the playing field by making all of the main characters eligible for a straight or gay relationship while simultaneously making the game’s romancing mechanics less obvious.
The problem with these solutions is that they are impossible to implement without completely remaking the game from scratch. However, since all modern game consoles allow for games to be patched and modified by its developers, interactive media can evolve and adapt to criticism and flaws in a way that a more rigid medium like film cannot. While the costs associated with making the aforementioned changes to the game’s gameplay are simply too high to be practical, there are still things that could realistically be done by Atlus to temper the objectification of the female characters within the game. An important step that would discourage the player from viewing Katherine and Catherine as prizes would be to hide the game’s “karma meter” from view. The karma meter appears whenever the player makes a binary choice, such as deciding to flirt with either Katherine or Catherine or answer one of the questions that probe into the player’s sexual preferences. The meter moves along a spectrum of red to blue, and throughout the game, it becomes clear that red is representative of the player making choices that increase the likelihood of them ending up with Catherine, while blue represents the same, but for Katherine. Even players who pay little attention to such things will be able to make the connection, and from there, the game becomes less about making natural, fluid choices and more about gaming the system in order to end up with the woman that the player desires more.
Presenting the player with the ability to see which character they are leaning toward on the karma meter allows them to tailor their actions to meet a specific goal and discourages the sense that the player is interacting with actual characters that may or may not be receptive to their advances. If the game were patched to hide the karma meter from players, then they would be unable to guarantee ending up with the character of their choice and thus lose a feeling of power and control over the female characters. Similarly, although trophies are part of a mandatory achievement system put in place by the operating systems of both Microsoft and Sony’s consoles, the game could still be patched to not immediately reward the player with a trophy upon a successful pursuit of either Katherine or Catherine in order to discourage the idea that the characters are prizes to be won. While these solutions do not undo the core problems that accompany a heteronormative dating sim, they do help to prevent the player from feeling omnipotent, which in turn discourages the notion that they have complete control over the women in the game.
As it stands, Catherine is a unique title within its medium for the extent to which it explores gender relations. However, it is also a prime example of the difficult waters that developers must navigate with regard to incorporating player agency. Handing control of one character in a dating sim to players encourages them to view all other characters as objects to be attained or discarded. Thus, a game based around binary choice and heterosexual-exclusive courtship runs the very real risk of undermining any effort put into humanizing and fleshing out its characters, as is the case with the female cast of Catherine. Ultimately, the title exists as an example of the potential that interactive media possesses for transgression and queering, but its numerous flaws serve as a reminder of the pitfalls that developers must overcome in order for video games to evolve and thrive as a medium with artistic merit.
 I see what you did there, Atlus.
 Not to mention the fact that there are only so many ways to spell Katherine/Catherine.
 Less so when she lies to Vincent about being pregnant, but that’s another story.
 Basically, Erica is awesome.