Catherine: Full Body – A perfect marriage of narrative and ludic action, Pt. 1, an overview

Wall-eyed loser can't decide if he wants to marry his hot, successful girlfriend

The following is an example paper I wrote for my students in a Videogames: history and theories course. You can find the instructions for the assignment here

 

Catherine: Full Body (2019) is a “romantic horror story” in which a player assumes the role of Vincent, a 32-year-old man who must make an important life decision amid a series of recurring (and reportedly deadly) nightmares. For this analysis, I am examining the Nintendo Switch version of the game, which was released in 2020.  This game is a re-release and expansion of Catherine (2011), adding new storylines, new game modes, and a new potential romantic interest, Rin. Both games were developed and published by Atlus, a Japanese company known for their unconventional and innovative games. Catherine: Full Body (shortened to Catherine from here) continues Atlus’ track record of innovation by successfully combining both narrative and puzzle gameplay to create a meaningful experience that is greater than the sum of its two parts.

Catherine features multiple game modes, some of which are multiplayer and focus on collaborating or completing in alternate versions of the game’s puzzle levels. However, this analysis will focus on the “Golden Playhouse” mode in which gameplay alternates between an interactive narrative and an action puzzle game. As the story opens, Vincent’s girlfriend Katherine has been hinting that she’s ready to move forward in their relationship, mentioning her feeling excluded when her friends group begin talking about their marriages and/or children. Vincent, on the other hand, feels comfortable with where things are and is reluctant to change. Players as Vincent are tasked with maneuvering through this interpersonal minefield by way of dialogue options, typically in the form of text messages but occasionally over phone calls. Beyond this relationship, players also encounter Vincent’s friends at their hangout at the Stray Sheep, the local bar. Players can speak with these characters to uncover narrative context or to advance the story through more dialogue options.

Essentially, these actions (among a few minor ones) comprise the story half of the game, excluding the cinematic cutscenes that typically open and end each segment. Players control Vincent as he walks around the bar and choose dialogue options that best convey their chosen attitude of the character. Each time Vincent responds to a conversation, players are confronted with a meter that represents Vincent’s “inner feelings” and that operates in roughly the same way that a morality meter works in other games. Responses that reflect a caring, thoughtful character move the meter to the right (blue), while selfish and avoidant responses push it to the left (red). Additionally, NPC behavior is also affected by Vincent’s responses.

Interspersed with these narrative episodes are Vincent’s “nightmares,” in which players must move Vincent to the top of a precariously terraced tower of blocks before time runs out and he falls to his death. These nightmares comprise the puzzle side of the game, and players must quickly organize the blocks to create a path to the top. Players may manipulate certain blocks by pulling and pushing them into position. However, some blocks move more slowly, some will break after players step on them, and others still may not be moved at all. The puzzles’ challenge arises from the player contending with a variety of block configurations while progressing quickly enough to keep from losing. As players climb, lower levels of the tower fall away, and players must outrun this or fall. In addition, unsupported blocks will fall off the play area, so players must be careful to not lose useful blocks. One affordance of the game’s rules that players must take advantage of is called “edging,” in which blocks stay suspended in midair so long as one edge is touching the edge of another block. Often, this tactic is required in order to reach higher levels from spaces without much room to maneuver. Another helpful, if not out-right required, mechanic is the “undo” feature, with which players may rewind time to undo a certain number of previous moves with the press of a button. These “undos” are finite in number, however players can replenish them as they reach higher levels of the tower. In later levels of the game, other climbers appear on the tower in the form of sheep (hinting that they too are men trapped within this nightmare) who hinder the players progress.

These levels are won by players reaching the top before the tower collapses from underneath them. Once there, they are presented with an evaluation screen that displays their score, which they accumulate through building up “combo multipliers” by quickly reaching higher levels of the tower. At the end of the stage, players are also awarded a “safety bonus” related to the amount of time (and thus, tower) remaining when they reach the top. Based on this score, players are awarded a corresponding statue of gold, silver, bronze.

After the player has completed the nightmare’s puzzle, they enter a safe space, a platform that exists seemingly between the various towers. In these liminal spaces, players are able to speak with Sheep NPCs (now no longer actively fighting against them) to uncover additional narrative detail, purchase items for use in later puzzles, and even learn some helpful hints for more effective climbing. Players may also perform important system functions here, like saving, before moving on to the next challenge. To exit this space, players enter into a confessional booth in which they are presented with a binary choice that pertains to the story’s main themes of relationships and marriage. After each of these questions, players connected to the internet are shown how other players responded, with results typically divided between men only and women only.

Catherine’s combination of action puzzler and interactive narrative makes for an interesting diverse play experience. I find myself intently focused on climbing the puzzle towers as quickly as I can while making as few mistakes as I can manage. The result is a somewhat stressful experience, and I find myself connecting with Vincent on an affective level. His fear is my fear – I just want to make it to the top and get the heck out of there! On the other hand, I find that I’m more relaxed during the interactive narrative portion of the game. The music and ambiance of The Stray Sheep, in particular, creates a peaceful and laid-back environment. This atmosphere promotes an introspective disposition when I’m texting with Katherine (or Catherine) or chatting with Vincent’s buddies. I carefully weigh the dialogue options presented to me and what I think I actually would want to say. Interesting, though, this portion of the game is not without its own tension: in how my responses will be received and how they’ll affect Vincent’s “inner feelings” meter. These experiences start to get at what I find so interesting about this game, namely how the juxtaposition of its narrative with its puzzle affects my experience of them both. I “feel” the puzzle more acutely and I “play” the narrative more attentively.

Ryan House

Ryan House is a PhD student in Media, Cinema, and Digital Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Twitter: @ludoscholar

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