Gamers are Masochists (Thoughts on Catherine)

I moved the character. He died. I tried it again. Then again. Over and over.

When Catherine asked me if I was a sadist or a masochist, I had to pause and think about it. Not just because I wanted to get the answer right in order to get more morality points, but because it was 4 am and I had been playing for seven hours straight. For just a moment, I considered both choices. No, I don’t usually like to cause people pain and, yes, this was my second time through the game in three days. I guess I must be a masochist then. Huh.

I’ve been reading up on what the critical writing was on Catherine as I have been trying to decide what I think about it. There is, for those interested, some great stuff by Kris Ligman (“Constructing Community in ‘Catherine’“, “‘Catherine’: A Screwfly Box Puzzle Solution“), Jorge Albor (“Sheep Men: Choice and Individuality in ‘Catherine’“) and G. Christopher Williams (“The Taming of the Dude: ‘Catherine’ and the Sex Comedy“) out there. Most of it though deals with the community, the sensuality or the overt normality that the game presents (i.e. straight people only). I want to talk about the pain.

Vincent stands in front of the arcade machine. “Just one more time.”

We play for pleasure. Yet, in order to get to that point, we must push through and engage with the pain of failure, incompetence and frustration. We must climb, block by block, the trials as we face them. We must continue to play within the rules as we understand them and make our way to the point of achievement, of climax. This is how we play games and how Catherine works. We, like Vincent, must fight for our pleasure.

Catherine is about a show about a game about a game about controlling the population. At the end of the game, Trisha, the host of the Golden Playhouse, addresses the player as she did at the beginning of the game and tells them what the game was about. She explains how the world worked and that the meter that appeared after making certain choices was an important part of the game. Whenever Vincent made a choice, the meter moved one way or another, either to Freedom or Order. She will remark that games are lovely creations and that the choices mattered.

Have you ever played that game Rapunzel?

Trisha, as with many things the game presents, is not important. The plot of Catherine revolves around men who have cheated on their women (who are ‘cursed’) playing a video game. When they sleep at night, they enter the World of Nightmares and play out that same game for life or death consequences. If they succeed, they continue to live. If you fail to engage with the pain, give up or even don’t climb the “mental obstacles” (i.e. block puzzle) fast enough, you will die. Catherine starts after some men have died.

Those men who have cheated (and escaped from the World of Nightmares at least once) can see Catherine, a succubus who has decided “on a whim” to help the gods clear away those men who are not committed to their women, by tempting them. She does this to Vincent and ushers him into a confusion over what to tell his partner Katherine, who he has been in a relationship with for five years, about this new relationship. Vincent, the game prompts, must choose between the two women. Pick all the Order answers and go with Katherine. Embrace Freedom and you get Catherine. This is what the game says anyway.

“I am not compatible with humans.”

It is an illusion. That is, as you continue through the game, what you come to find out. Catherine prompted some choices and produced stress for the protagonist, but was not really there. She never, although the game visually presents it as such, actually had sex with Vincent at any point. As one of the endings point out, she, as a demon, is “not compatible with humans” and can only interact with men who have cheated on women in the first place. It was all emotional. The cheating, the journey and the struggle. There was no real reason for it, other than what Vincent believed about it.

This is what I thought about when the game asked if I was a  sadist or a masochist. In a way, it was true that I was putting Vincent though this ordeal for a second (and then later third) time. Yes, he was going through some crazy events that were testing him before tracing his way through Freytag’s triangle and ending up in a climax where he must choose one path, and woman, over another. That was all what was happening to him. Yet to me, it was a similar trial too.

I changed the difficulty for my second playthrough. I increased my troubles knowing that, although I would see most of the same story again, I would have a harder time between the story moments. The World of Nightmares would be harder and the puzzles take longer to figure out. I would have to increase my pain to, as I thought, increase the pleasure. If I climb again, I might get the same hit, the same joy.

“Vincent, do you…?”

There is a point towards the end of the game where Vincent, who through the whole game leading up to this point has been climbing alone, must climb with Katherine. As the player, you must move blocks in such a way to not only climb higher to the goal but also so that another must climb with you. Each position must be arranged so that you both have a clear path to the top. It is one of the very few moments where the singular pursuit of pleasure of achieving is tied to the motion of another. To get through the level, both of you must get to the goal.

However, right at the end, it breaks into a cut scene and shows Katherine giving up. Her brief visit to the World of Nightmares (although an illusion for Vincent) is too much and she gives up. Vincent runs to her and they both fall into the darkness. Right as they do, Katerine starts to ask a question. It is this question, left unfinished, that is at the root of the theme.

For as much as the game is a choice between women (with eight different endings), it is about the reason behind pursuing those women and the reason for the pain. If the frustration of the puzzles must be conquered, it must be for a reason. Vincent, and the player, must pick a purpose. Will we chase after Katherine, and explain the affair with Catherine, or give up on following the path of ordered society and embrace “freedom” and choose Catherine?

Me? I did both. And it was worth it.