Six years af­ter its re­lease, is Cather­ine a sex­ist night­mare or fem­i­nist para­ble?

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - START - Kim­ber­ley Bal­lard

If videogames were a phys­i­cal realm, it would be a hos­tile and po­ten­tially lethal place for women. This is an in­dus­try where fe­male blog­gers and de­vel­op­ers reg­u­larly re­ceive death threats, fe­male gamers are jeered simply for their gen­der, and it’s still hard to find a fe­male char­ac­ter who is val­i­dated for any­thing be­yond sex­u­al­ity or phys­i­cal at­tributes. Misog­yny, it seems, is still the fla­vor of the day.

Cather­ine is a game that ap­pears to feed into all the tropes women have been fight­ing: Woman as sex ob­ject, nag­ging shrew, and beastly bitch. The game be­gins with our hap­less pro­tag­o­nist Vin­cent, a slacker jour­nal­ist who has been suf­fer­ing from re­cur­ring night­mares of be­ing trans­formed into a sheep and forced to climb crum­bling struc­tures to avoid fall­ing to his death.

In the real world, things are just as frag­ile: Vin­cent’s girl­friend, the sen­si­ble-if-stern Kather­ine, thinks it’s time to get se­ri­ous and set­tle down. How bor­ing, and re­stric­tive! Vin­cent spends his time lament­ing this turn of events with his friends in a smoky bar, un­til one night he meets the gor­geous and volup­tuous Cather­ine, and starts sleep­ing with her on the sly.

When Cather­ine was re­leased in 2011, first in Ja­pan and Amer­ica, then in Europe a year later, the over­all re­ac­tion was pos­i­tive. Crit­ics praised its fiendishly dif­fi­cult plat­form puz­zles and night­mar­ish im­agery, yet didn’t think to un­pick the gen­der pol­i­tics at play or chal­lenge the way women were de­picted. A critic for the Guardian ap­plauded it for ex­plor­ing the com­plex­i­ties of love, while IGN de­scribed Kather­ine as the typ­i­cal nag­ging girl­friend, and Eurogamer con­jured her vis­age in Vin­cent’s night­mares as a “ra­zor-toothed crotch-maw”. It prob­a­bly won’t come as much of a sur­prise that these crit­ics were also male. Dream girls Nei­ther should it come as a sur­prise that most of Cather­ine’s pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial was ob­vi­ously in­tended for the male gaze. One of the most rec­og­niz­able shots (pic­tured on the left) zooms in on Cather­ine’s head and torso as the char­ac­ter re­veals her cleav­age and smiles coyly at the viewer. Other pictures look like screen­shots from a hen­tai film: One where Vin­cent’s head is caught be­tween Cather­ine’s spread legs is par­tic­u­larly sugges­tive; oth­ers where Cather­ine is on her back or side look as care­fully ar­ranged as a Play­boy Bunny cen­tre­fold. If sali­vat­ing males were Atlus’ des­ig­nated au­di­ence, the de­vel­oper did very well. But there are other rea­sons to play Cather­ine, too. De­spite its oily sheen of sleaze, the game is gen­uinely gor­geous to in­ter­act with. The ti­tle screen, for ex­am­ple, sees Vin­cent dan­gling from a ledge, scream­ing Kather­ine’s name against a fuschia back­drop, while she stares past him non­cha­lantly. The rest of the game fizzes with these pink-and-black strobes of color. The café Vin­cent fre­quents with Kather­ine is sweetly dec­o­rated in pale pink (a sug­ges­tion that Kather­ine is smoth­er­ing him with love?) while the nether­world Vin­cent finds him­self in ev­ery night is as black as an abyss.

Such a bold vis­ual pal­ette suits the plot per­fectly. Like a soap opera played out in the style of an anime, Vin­cent’s love tri­an­gle is told through a va­ri­ety of cutscenes where Vin­cent meets Kather­ine, hangs out with his friends in a bar called The Stray Sheep, and has sex with Cather­ine in his apart­ment. In a nifty touch, you can walk around The Stray Sheep, in­ter­act­ing with cus­tomers and an­swer­ing texts. Most of these come from Kather­ine, who ei­ther be­rates Vin­cent or lets glimpses of vul­ner­a­bil­ity slip. Each text is ac­com­pa­nied by the sound of a small, fem­i­nine sigh: a more po­tent method of ex­press­ing quiet dis­ap­point­ment than words could ever achieve.

The ma­jor­ity of Cather­ine, how­ever, takes place in night­mare, where the player must solve in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult plat­form puz­zles in or­der to sur­vive. Each level is di­vided into three stages, and each one is trick­ier than the last. What starts off as simply climb­ing a tower and strate­gi­cally mov­ing blocks around, be­comes im­pos­si­bly hard. As lev­els progress, boxes can fall on you, spikes pierce you if you step on the wrong block, and other men trapped in the pit push you off the edge.

If it sounds repet­i­tive, it is, but the me­chan­ics are el­e­vated by the game’s im­agery. The nether­world plays upon the essence of limbo: Of re­peat­ing a set of tri­als for all eter­nity or be­ing lost for­ever. Each level also ends with a mon­ster, which clam­bers af­ter you as you fever­ishly try to get away. Some of these crea­tures are de­li­ciously hideous, such as a pos­te­rior with eyes and a tongue that emits heart mist as breath. Then there’s the church con­fes­sional, where a mys­te­ri­ous, om­ni­scient voice calls to Vin­cent. Call­ing him a lit­tle lamb, the voice asks Vin­cent sly ques­tions on sex­u­al­ity, mar­riage and moral­ity. It’s cu­ri­ous, as you’re never sure whether you’re an­swer­ing as Vin­cent or as your­self.

If Cather­ine achieves one thing, it’s that mas­culin­ity has never looked so frag­ile. Char­ac­ter de­signer Shigenori Soe­jima based Vin­cent’s look on

Buf­falo‘66 di­rec­tor Vin­cent Gallo, but any re­sem­blance is purely ar­ti­fi­cial. Un­like Gallo’s smoky ar­ro­gance and dark good looks, Vin­cent is a pud­dle of nerves: Shak­ing, shiv­er­ing, and con­stantly doubt­ing him­self. Women are of­ten crit­i­cized for hav­ing no agency, but here the stereo­type is re­versed. Vin­cent doesn’t take any re­spon­si­bil­ity for his ac­tions, say­ing Cather­ine “forced her­self on him” and that “he had noth­ing to do with it” af­ter they sleep to­gether. He’s such a limp noo­dle, it’s some­times cathar­tic just to watch him die.

De­spite the wet puppy pro­tag­o­nist, di­rec­tor Kat­sura Hashino should be com­mended for tack­ling sub­jects most videogames wouldn’t. The game ex­am­ines the moral­ity of cheat­ing, and how hard it is to be an adult. Vin­cent feels stuck, not just in his re­la­tion­ship but his ca­reer; his friends act like over­grown teens, and he goes to the same bar ev­ery night. The two women come to rep­re­sent two halves of Vin­cent: The piece that wants re­li­a­bil­ity, and one that wants to be young and un­fet­tered for­ever.

The game would have felt more ma­ture, though, if it didn’t boil women down into their most ba­sic stereo­types. Kather­ine is the girl­friend we all fear: Beau­ti­ful but fright­en­ing, pick­ing apart ev­ery­thing he does. In Vin­cent’s night­mares, she be­comes worse. One scene sees her trans­form into a pair of giant hands that have the power to oblit­er­ate Vin­cent into a pud­dle of bones and blood if they stab him with a fork. Kather­ine isn’t a woman; she’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, and it’s not too hard to see that with a se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship comes death.

Bunny boil­ers

In con­trast, Cather­ine is the ob­ject of de­sire. She’s queasily at­trac­tive, with the face of a china doll and the body of a bo­da­cious woman. There’s a ju­ve­nile el­e­ment to her, too: Clad in knee socks and a rib­bon tied around her waist. Her body is a dream, but so is her out­look. The first night she meets Vin­cent, she says to him, “who wants to be tied down any­way?” She’s too good to be true. Ex­cept the big rev­e­la­tion is that Cather­ine isn’t a woman, but a suc­cubus: a de­mon that preys upon men and se­duces them by be­com­ing their deep­est de­sire.

“Kather­ine trans­forms into a mon­strous pair of gnarled hands that stab Vin­cent un­til he’s a pud­dle of blood and bones”

Play­ers asked, ‘doesn’t this make

Cather­ine the most fem­i­nist game of all time?’ She takes cheat­ing men and pun­ishes them. Not ex­actly. It then turns out Cather­ine is just work­ing for an an­cient Sume­rian demigod called Du­muzid, who hurts men for not pro­cre­at­ing. This just makes Cather­ine even more of a sub­servient char­ac­ter: Not only is she turn­ing her­self into what men want, she’s also do­ing it on the or­ders of an­other man.

End of the af­fair

When fe­male play­ers did be­gin to ques­tion the way women were por­trayed, the re­ac­tion from men was ve­he­ment and oc­ca­sion­ally toxic. “Women typ­i­cally hate videogames be­cause it takes them away from men,” one wrote on a fo­rum. “They hate men who don’t ob­sess over and serve them.” Ouch. An­other wrote that “Cather­ine just makes me hate women.” Al­though Hashino wanted to make a com­plex game with ma­ture themes, it seems the mes­sage was black and white for most play­ers.

It would be easy to look at the sex­ism that streaks through

Cather­ine. But the game plays much more upon gy­ne­pho­bia; the fear of women. Por­tray­ing both women as mon­sters may be heavy-handed, but it’s ef­fec­tive, and the mes­sage is even clearer: Women want to de­vour men, and they won’t rest un­til they’ve en­snared them. It’s a game where com­ments about sleep­ing with women and throw­ing them away ebb into darker ones like, “you’ll never know when they’re go­ing to stab you in the back”. This fear seeps into other char­ac­ters, such as trans woman Erica, who is only in the game to tick a fetish box; all she does is flirt with the boys and of­fer to wear stilet­tos.

In the end, six pos­si­ble out­comes awaits you. You can choose to set­tle down with Kather­ine, go solo, or be with Cather­ine. If the lat­ter is your end­ing, you may be­come a de­mon and have as many suc­cubi as you’d ever want. As a bonus, if you com­plete the game on the hard­est mode, the god­dess of love, Ishtar, will turn you into a god and have sex with you. What more could you ever want?

Since its re­lease, peo­ple have been more critical of Cather­ine. Al­though it’s a strik­ing game that tack­les brave top­ics, publi­ca­tions like Slate have writ­ten ar­ti­cles call­ing it the most sex­ist game of all time. And there is truth to that. Cather­ine isn’t afraid to take the worst fe­male stereo­types and milk them un­til only the barest sil­hou­ettes re­main. Per­haps the open­ing para­graph of this piece should be amended: If videogames were a phys­i­cal realm, women would be wel­come, but only if they were sub­servient and do ev­ery­thing that men want.

Pub­lisher Atlus, Deep Sil­ver / De­vel­oper Atlus / for­mat Xbox 360, Xbox One

top Cather­ine is the epit­ome of male de­sire, with her china doll face and sub­mis­sive gaze.

above Vin­cent spends most of his time in The Stray Sheep.

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