Some people have authors or other artists whom they almost automatically buy from whenever possible, never missing a new album or novel, sight unseen, on the assumption that their trust in the creator has been rewarded sufficiently to justify their purchase until a string of bad releases breaks the spell. Now that David Bowie
's stopped recording for the forseeable future and Tom Waits
is down to an album every five years or so, one of the few such producers of reliable goodness that I unconditionally trust is Japanese games
. Their works are weird, detailed creations, with often-complex world building, obsessively nuanced gameplay, and often options to embrace inhuman levels of difficulty should the player so choose.
Their works are also almost entirely JRPGs – Japanese-style roleplaying game
s. As a brief note: the main salient distinction between these and 'classical' RPGs (increasingly rare nowadays) is the level of flexibility in their story. In a Final Fantasy
game, for example, you are often a sullen Byronic
master swordsman who must destroy an evil empire – the game assesses your skill and dedication to embodying his combat prowess and following his story. In Fallout
– perhaps the greatest of the classical RPGs – you are thrust into post-Apocalyptic America
, but your character is up to you. Condescending gunslinger? Naive scholar? Male or female? Violent or pacifist? Good or evil? All up to you
In the company's new game, Catherine, elements of both structures – and of the filmic techniques of erotic thrillers – combine with an addictive puzzle-based structure into one of the most bizarre experiments I can recall seeing in a console environment. Our hero is Vincent, a mid-level programmer
who lives by himself while he drinks the nights away with feckless buddies and slowly grinds through a relationship with no-nonsense, accomplished Katherine. One drunken night, a truly exceptional beauty seduces him – and reveals, in the morning, that she's called Catherine. That night, he has the first of a series of dreams where he's climbing and reassembling a huge block tower to escape from a horrific hand that looks awfully like Katherine's – his lover's. (The confusion is deliberate and produces intriguing ambiguities in some of Vincent's dialogue – especially in Japanese, where Ca- and Ka- render as the same character.)
From then on the game plunges into a maelstrom of nighttime exploration and daytime amnesia on Vincent's part, who cannot remember the nightmares. That we do is increasingly a source of ironic horror as we realize that everyone he knows is having this dream, that those who die in it are dying in the real world – and that something is very wrong with at least one of Vincent's love interests. This broad JRPG framework is infused with elements of choice about Vincent's character. You the Player assembles his late-night texts; you choose how drunk
he gets; you choose about whom he chooses to talk to at his local bar – in short, you are offered innumerable opportunities to push him towards the poles of Order
(Katherine, responsibility, growing up) and Chaos
(Catherine, freedom, self-interest), or to remain somewhere in between. As the game goes on, this affects events in a number of subtle ways, and by the end the final outcome of your nocturnal ordeal can go one of 9 different ways based on how you have allowed Vincent – in your hands – to express both his public behaviour and his inner desires.
The other brilliant thing about the game is its tone – the sheep
with you in the nightmares persist as you go from night to night, and the pack dwindles as your fellows either fall to their deaths or survive by either banding together or actively murdering 'competitors' – which causes horrific and upsetting mutations. Crucially, however, they all see themselves as humans, and you as one of the sheep, and the game takes the opportunity to start an extended conversation about the pitfalls of masculinity
and relationships by means of visual analogy and commentary by the supporting cast. Is monogamy
a trap? Is it valuable regardless? When should a man take charge of his destiny – and is his freedom worth the risk of harming others? Are there inherent differences between the sexes
? What role should the past have in thinking about the future? All these concerns and more are dealt with in a manner that is neither glibly patronizing nor facile and simplistic - and without preaching or boring the player in between block-stacking
These dream sequences are, by the way, most of the game and they are thankfully an unmitigated joy. The player is presented with a tower of solid blocks apparently floating in the midst of huge, hellish structures full of torture implements and squirming masses of terrified sheep – each a dreamer less lucky than yourself. Razor sharp controls allow players to effortlessly push, pull, slide around and climb up and down the blocks, which rise in uneven tiers out of stygian
depths to a single point of egress from the nightmare – a glowing bellpull, and sometimes a door. The player must pull the blocks into 'staircases' to climb, as the player can climb only one layer at a time – but the bottom layer of the tower falls faster and faster as you get higher, and other sheep will push
you aside as they flee their own oncoming deaths. Normal blocks give way, as the game progresses, to blocks that crumble, or explode, or even teleport, and the difficulty of planning is paced to increase relative to your skill, to the extent that (with a multitude of available opportunities to continue climbing) frustration is rare. The control scheme is also responsive and exact, leading to few deaths due to "I didn't mean to push that!" syndrome.
All this is set to a stirring soundtrack, remixing the most melodramatic of classical staples to suit the tempo of the ceaseless climbs – Mars from the Planets Suite
, and other such wonderful bursts of sturm und drang. Outside of the nightmare, cool jazz and solid voice acting (as well as the hilarious pay-off of realistic late-night drunken texting with no real-world consequences) make you care about the man behind the play mechanic. And a healthy dose of sexual intrigue
and well-handled racy content gives the game's narrative engine a lot of arrows in its quiver, from titillation to more traditional sentimentality. Regardless, if you've a next-gen console and a child-free
game room, I strongly recommend you tune in to see what is at the very least one of the most bizarrely novel products our current game-design culture is capable of producing.