Tantalus made a pretty bad mistake: he pissed off Zeus. Not the most forgiving of gods, Zeus sentenced Tantalus to a cruel and unusual punishment. He was made to stand, for all eternity, knee deep in water amid trees bearing delicious looking, low-hanging fruit – except every time he reached for the fruit it would retreat from his grasp and every time he bent to drink, the water would drain below him. So it goes. You don’t mess with Zeus.
Playing Catherine reminds me of this cautionary tale. You can see the makings of a great game squirrelled away in there somewhere, but any joy derived from playing it always remains just out of reach. The Japanese creation follows protagonist Vincent, whose relationship with his girlfriend Katherine is getting a bit more serious than he’d like. So, he goes out, gets drunk and wakes up next to a young lady named Catherine (with a “C”). This incident – and his subsequent flirtations and encounters – coincide with the start of a series of horrendous Freudian nightmares in which he is chased by giant babies and swallowed by gnashing vagina dentata. This is where the more traditional “game” element comes in – you have to solve block puzzles to escape from the nightmares.
But while the puzzles are kind of fun, they’re also pretty basic, the kind of thing you’d expect to find on a smartphone rather than a console. The rest of the adventure is dictated by a series of not-quite-interactive-enough cut scenes. You can wander around your local bar and chat to your mates but it never feels like you have much of an impact on the action, despite the inclusion of a good/evil gauge that changes depending on your choices.
In it’s favour, Catherine is a game about the sometimes terrifying nature of relationships, a dominant theme in almost every other form of popular culture but one games have tended to shy away from. It’s inconsistent and often frustrating but it does come tantalisingly close to being something special.
First published in City A.M.