This week’s game of the week will be slightly different. This week we learned about Game Atoms, small components that make up the game experience. We treat a game as a “System” containing elements in a game and how it creates the player experience. I’ll be having an extra section containing info on this but for now let’s get started with the game!
This week I chose a rather peculiar game, definitely not a very mainstream game but nonetheless a rather recent release. Catherine was released on July 26, 2011 and developed by Atlus, the team behind the more well-known Shin Megami Tensei series. The game itself is a mash of various genres all together in one. It features Puzzle solving as it’s main gameplay element but also features “Dating Sim” aspects that are a popular genre in Japan. It also features some elements of horror due to the style of the game which I will get into later. Due to the “Dating Sim” aspects of the game, Catherine focuses a great amount of it’s importance on the story and characters.
You play as Vincent in a modern day setting, a middle aged man who is having trouble with commitment. He is currently in a relationship with a woman named Katherine; however she wishes to pursue a stronger relationship (I.e. marriage) with him whereas he simply wants things to stay the same as they are. One night he finds himself in a very compromising situation as he wakes up in his own bed with a different girl laying next to him, a beautiful woman named Catherine (With a C this time).
Catherine (left) and Vincent (right)
Meanwhile on the news, there are bizarre incidents of men dying in their sleep, all of them young men. Rumours of dreams where men fall to their deaths whilst trying to climb up infinitely high tours also begin to surface around this time (Though in games, rumours almost always equal facts). It turns out that Vincent has also been having these nightmares as well, starting with the night he found himself with Catherine (with the C). In these nightmares, he and others take the appearance of sheep. Sheep who are trying to survive by climbing up towers of blocks (the gameplay) and they are all trying to discover why they are here. But they all know that falling down means you will probably die.
Vincent and the other sheep in the Nightmares
Throughout the story you discover the reasons behind the nightmares and how it has any relationship to Vincent or the other sheep you meet in the nightmare. The catch is that Vincent doesn’t remember anything about the nightmares when waking up, and no one else does. From the point he begins having the nightmares, Vincent must survive them but also begin to make decisions about his relationships with Catherine and Katherine. You, the player help decide how reacts to each of them and ultimately decide the ending of the game based on your choices.
Gameplay is split into two sections in Catherine, one is the puzzle solving aspect found in the nightmares and the others are the “dating sim” gameplay though its gameplay is more passive.
The Nightmare levels feature you climbing up a tower made of various blocks. As Vincent, you can walk around and move towards these blocks. You are able to pull or push these blocks back and forth to form ways to climb up. Pushing blocks away in a certain fashion allow you to make the tower fall, or moving them in certain ways could allow you to form a staircase. The catch to make sure you aren’t taking too long is that blocks underneath fall every now and then. If you take too long you will fall along with them to your doom. After every “stage”, there are usually several “stages” that make up one nightmare level, you get to speak with other sheep around that made it through the tower as well. These NPCs typically offer you tips and show new ways to climb towers, offering you new strategies in climbing.
One of the stages in the middle of the game
There are various blocks that are introduced as time goes on, from icy blocks that make you slip and allow you to fall off, to blocks that set off a timer to explode and damage other blocks in the area that could make it easier or harder to progress depending on your strategy. The game starts you off easy then introduces new blocks and harder puzzles to try and ease you into the game. But despite that, the game’s puzzles are very challenging at times, even on the easiest mode. I recall reading several reviews talking about it’s difficulty. But with the correct thinking you should be able to make it to the top. It’s both challenging and rewarding to finally complete a level.
The rather creepy "Boss" stages in the game where you have even less time to get up the stage.
The second aspect of the game is the “Dating Sim” aspect. This usually is simply interaction with the various NPCs in most regards. Sometimes it can be just talking to them, but in most of these Dating Sims it involves making many choices to the characters you interact with, choices that will make them like or dislike you and change their “fates” in a game. Games like these usually feature a large variety of different endings, which Catherine has, having up to 9 endings.
You interact mainly with how you respond to Catherine and Katherine, affecting a “mysterious meter” represented with blue on one side and red on the other. Blue typically involves answers that are more conservative and usually stem towards Katherine. Red typically involves answers that are more outgoing, wanting for change which stem towards Catherine. These will affect your ending and their responses to you throughout the game.
Your choices with Katherine and Catherine will affect your ending.
Besides simply interacting with them, you interact with various patrons in a bar “The Stray Sheep Bar” ironically. In between every nightmare level, you will have time to be here, texting and interacting with Catherine and Katherine and the other patrons. You will be able to directly influence the fate of some of the other patrons as well as you listen to their problems and try to help them through it (non interactively). You will also be able to recognize some of these patrons as sheep in the nightmare levels though the characters won’t realize that they know each other in the real world till later.
In the Stray Sheep Bar, to interact with other characters
Another important aspect Confessionals, which occur in between every Stage in the nightmare levels, which also affect the “Mysterious meter” very greatly. They ask very interesting questions that are in a grey area such as “Does life begin or end at marriage?” You really aren’t quite sure what to say and your meter will change based on your answers. They are really deep questions that I had a fun time answering. You even get to see what other players answered.
A rather awkward question you must answer.
The main aspect of the game that keeps me coming back though is the nightmare levels. These are challenging and rewarding, the puzzle solving in the game was well thought out as they are difficult and can be unforgiving at times but they are rewarding. You have to think very quick and on your toes. The game offers several unending towers that challenge you to get as high as you can (can be done cooperatively too), a multiplayer mode against another player and higher difficulties in the main story mode that really change up the pace and even the layout of the puzzles with each difficulty. Though going through the story and making those choices can only last so many times, I greatly enjoyed doing it, it was one of the more engaging experiences I had in a while.
Game Atoms of Catherine
Now before I go into the Game Design of the week, I want to touch on the Game Atoms in Catherine since I just explained the story and gameplay. Now there are the elements in the game, which features…
Elements of Catherine
· Players – How the players in the game interact?
· Objectives (Goals)
· Rules / Mechanics
· Game State
· Game View
· Player Interaction
For Players, Catherine features several, in the main story mode, player vs environment, having to solve the puzzles in your path (this also applies for the cooperative mode). It also features 1 v1 (aka, Head to head) to beat another player by knocking him off the level or reaching the top first.
For Objectives, the goals of the game are to reach the top of the tower at the end of every level. This, in actual game design terms roughly translates to Race, and since you are solving puzzles along the way, uses the term solving as well. In 1 v 1 multiplayer, this applies negation (first not to lose) as well since you can either win by reaching the top (race) or being the first not to fall off (since you don’t actually have to knock the opponent off for him to fall)
For Rules, there are three steps, setup, gameplay progression and resolution. For Setup, basically the “board” is setup, but in this case it would mean the game loading the level layout, and the player avatars (also how many players if its single or multiplayer). For Gameplay progression, it essentially goes to explain all the things you can do during your “turn” or in this case, what you can do as you are playing in real time. Catherine defines the controls and rules you can do such as pushing blocks and what will happen when you push blocks certain ways or step on them, etc. Resolution basically means how the game will end, so in Catherine’s case, it is to reach the end in most cases. For 1 v 1, it is to reach the end of have the opponent fall off.
Resources are designated as everything that is under player control. In Catherine’s case there are in fact consumables(can be items in this case) that can be used to help the player advance. There is currency which can be used to purchase the items to help the player. There is score which is determined by how fast you move up the levels or creating chains by advancing higher and higher. Time is used as a determinant for score as well as a potential death trap if you take too long. Numeric information showing anything with value is present all the time in Catherine, how close you are to running out of time is even represented with a map that shows falling blocks.
For Game state, this means basically anything you might normally save in the world at a certain point. So an example is your location in the world. In Catherine’s case, your “mysterious” meter is saved, what level you currently on is saved, which sheep you have talked to is saved, your responses to the Catherine and Katherine is also saved.
For Game View – It’s simply how we perceive the world, so basically put, it’s your perspective. In Catherine’s case, a over the top camera is used during any nightmare levels. You never change perspective from that.
For information, there are various types, but among those that Catherine contains there is really only perfect information, which is information that everyone can see. The game doesn’t hide anything from you. How much time you have left is shown, what item you have available is shown, your mysterious meter is shown. Even during 1 v 1, both players can see everything.
For Sequence, this represents player “turns” and so in Catherine’s case, real-time is used constantly through the game.
For Player interaction, there includes Direct conflict and communication in Catherine. In 1 v 1 multiplayer, the opponents directly get in each other’s path and can even knock each other down. Communication is used in cooperative play to solve the puzzles in order to get up as high as possible. In single player, there is obviously no player interaction.
For Theme, it includes the narrative, backstory, setting, and emotional investment, all of which I already explain in the story section.
So those were the elements in the game, so how do these create a dynamic and interaction between players?
Well despite this being a single player game, the multiplayer included certain makes player interaction possible. Constant communication is used in the cooperative mode as you won’t be getting far without good team work. Cooperative games always require this sort of thinking and since Catherine is a puzzle game with cooperative play, it simply requires that kind of team work and good thinking. If you’re thinking only to yourself and not expressing your thoughts to your fellow team mate, things will get hectic and you will fail and very quickly. Even the best players won’t get too far without proper communication. Specifically because if one player falls down in cooperative mode, you both lose so that definitely reinforces that communication aspect.
In the 1 v 1 multiplayer mode, you are pretty much in direct conflict the entire time, you won’t be trying to help each other at any point. The mode is certainly not as in depth as the cooperative mode as the puzzles are simpler and the only type of communication you will be trying to do is insults at each other most likely. The more solid interaction between players in the game is the communication in cooperative mode.
Now there are some odd choices in the game, why did they go with these choices?
The game itself looks very weird at a glance. Sheep? Why are there sheep in this game, what on earth?
You are all sheep!
Well I do believe I can answer those questions. For the sheep, it is simply the concept of a herd of sheep, we all should know this concept that to follow in a flock of sheep is usually to lose individualization. (SPOILER ALERT). In Catherine, you discover that the reason you and the other sheep are sent to the nightmare world is because you’ve been cheating with your loved ones. Obviously Vincent cheated on Katherine with Catherine, so that is the reason he is there, and that is the reason many of the others are there too. (END SPOILER). The force behind the nightmares has sent all of you there as you are seen as sheep in the world, just following in life with no purpose. The “force” defines life with a purpose as being one to help pro-create and settle down, and since the cheaters aren’t doing that they are defined as sheep and sent to their doom so that only those that pro-create will remain. Though then the debate rises if the sheep are those that pro-create but I won’t get into that. That’s basically the reason sheep are so prominent in the game, various other theories can be thought of but this is what I believe.
Why did they make it so you’re climbing towers of blocks?
So many blocks and all of them the same size. So uniform.
As for the towers of blocks, obviously since it’s a dream it does not have to make sense at all. Dreams never have to and so putting a bunch of block towers fits perfect even though it makes no sense. Complete with spike traps, icy blocks, exploding blocks and such, it makes perfect sense while making no sense. But of course the designers also just wanted to get their gameplay in the game as well but the dream is the perfect way to implement these into the story.
Why aren’t there more multiplayer options?
Cooperative mode in Catherine
Well since there was so much emphasis on the story, they wanted to focus on the core single player gameplay and to make the levels in there truly unique and challenging. Companies always have limited budgets and resources, since they were already so focused on making the single player great, multiplayer is an after thought. We are lucky we even got any that’s decent enough.
Why choose Catherine and Katherine, it’s so confusing!
Catherine and Katherine were names chosen to represent the two sides that Vincent is struggling to decide over. Catherine essentially represents freedom while Katherine represents commitment and settling down. Making the two names that similar as to be similar was on purpose since they both represent two decisions that Vincent is weighing equally. Their equally similar and weighted names represents the theme of the game and helps represent the moral grey area between choosing between these sides. None of them are right or wrong.
And with those questions answered, I will leave my Game Atom and go to the Game Design of the Week!
Game Design of the Week: Choices in Games
If you have any interest in Catherine don’t read this and play the game instead. Or read this and play it anyways, do it!
Now before we talk about choices, last week in my post about “Gaming Vocabulary” I stated how there are always choices in games. This week I am talking about choices specifically relating to how the story is affected rather than the choices that are constantly done in games. With that out of the way, Catherine put a lot of emphasis on the choices you say in the game and how it would influence the game. Now I’ve looked into how these choices had actually changed in the game by doing multiple playthroughs of the game. My conclusion was that though the first time they felt quite meaningful, my subsequent playthroughs had me discover that some of choices did not affect story elements all that much. Now let’s break down a few of the things I had discovered.
Meaningful text messages
Interacting with Catherine and Katherine was usually done via texting through phone or the occasional visit to the bar. Responding to their texts certain ways would change the mysterious meter. Now, responding in certain ways would open up further options to send new texts their way. Simple enough, it added new choices based on my choice or got rid of some choices. But after that, I did the nightmare level and got back to the bar. Now one playthrough I had texts that were positive for Katherine’s side, and received a certain text message. Now the second time I tried to experiment and had texts that were positive for Catherine at that exact same point in the game. When I finished the nightmare level I got the exact “certain text message” anyways. So my choices had only really effected the mysterious meter in the end, I looked again and tested in other points in the game and the same thing occurred. The mysterious meter truly only affected the ending.
Now let’s look at another point, the other sheep I met in the nightmare levels, I talked to them, got them through their worries, helped save some of them. First playthrough I saved only a few of them, another playthrough I saved them all. What changed was I got to interact with them more, (since some died along the way before even the end) and eventually see their dialogue on how I saved them and such. I felt a satisfaction from saving them and it didn’t affect the ending involved between Catherine and Katherine.
Another awkward question
The “Confessionals” with the super deep questions I had, those were also merely morality affecting. They didn’t truly change anything else throughout the game. The only “Confessionals” that did this were at the end level, the last few that actually helped you choose which ending would occur.
Choose between Katherine...
Now, having explained all of these, now a debate rises in my mind as to what the extent of player choices should be in affecting the story. Catherine went with a traditional approach that many “Dating Sim” games have gone through, pretty much only affected the endings. There were some things that changed, such as the sheep dying early off but that was really the only significant dynamic part that changed. The only thing I lost from those sheep was a few hints and their dialogue of course. To me, it sort of depreciated the experience for me after realizing this, but in the end, I wasn’t that unhappy. I was fine with it, because I didn’t want the game to change too drastically anyways, I wanted to experience the story still and despite the choices made, the story still flowed well enough anyways. I will admit I was disappointed that it wasn’t a bit more dynamic, having maybe more varied cutscenes but they still had a various dynamic changes throughout the story, just not that serious.
When I begin to think of choices affecting the story, I immediately think to Star wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, both by Bioware. Knights of the Old Republic had many choices but in the end, affected mainly sidequests, a few party members at certain points and the ending. But it still had a bit more dynamics than Catherine I feel. Double that for Mass Effect, though I haven’t played through the entire game yet, I know it has even more choices that affect the world and story. However compare those two back to Catherine. For Catherine it’s not like the game was a sprawling massive story, it had to still focus on this small part of the story so I am not surprised they couldn’t branch off dynamically too much without ruining the story. Since it was never supposed to be a giant sprawling RPG like those two Bioware games, I can agree with myself now that Catherine was never supposed to change the story too much with choices. The choices themselves were very interesting anyways as many of them were choices that stemmed in moral grey areas and they really made you think about the question for a while. The 9 endings themselves are pretty significant enough and many aspects still change anyways so it feels to me like it succeeded in providing player choice.
Time for a Poll! (On the right)
Now the question is how dynamic do players really want their games? It certainly provides more opportunities for multiple playthroughs, it gives a lot of incentives. But do we want to miss out on massive opportunities just because of one choice? Do we want choices that will only effect certain big things like the ending? That’s what I would like to know, POLL TIME!