Maturity is currently the holy grail for many game developers. Many attempts at making a proper mature title have resulted in crass uses of bad language, sex and graphic violence which sadly demonstrate a stark lack of maturity in the games industry instead.
Catherine is a different animal altogether. Taking the cover art at face value you'd be forgiven for thinking that Catherine is just another one of these failed attempts at maturity, instead relying on sex to attract gamers instead of attempting something with more depth.
However, taking a leap of faith and delving into Catherine provides an altogether more impressive depth of experience than the cover belies. The game tells a story of a young man by the name of Vincent wrestling with the eternal question of whether he is ready to make a deeper commitment to his girlfriend Katherine. Sitting in his local bar, The Stray Sheep, alone one night he meets the mysterious and bewitching young woman called Catherine and finds himself slipping up in the fidelity department.
The game actually comes in two parts. By day you control Vincent, guiding him through conversations with friends and the two women currently causing his dilemma. This is all set against the backdrop of The Stray Sheep bar as Vincent discusses his problems with friends over pizza and rum and coke, chats to the other inhabitants of the bar and occasionally plays on the old Rapunzel arcade machine in the corner. All the decisions Vincent makes in The Stray Sheep affect how the overall story plays out and ultimately whether he can make his big commitment or not.
The other half of the game is played in Vincent's fevered nightmares. Vincent's dreams provide a stark contrast in terms of pace from the time spent in the Stray Sheep. In the dream sequences Vincent must escape a 'horrible' fate by ascending a tower of blocks that is falling away from the bottom as he climbs. Move too slowly and the floor will give way under him so climbing there is a constant sense of frantic desperation.
In order to climb up further Vincent must move the blocks that make up the tower in order to find a path to safety. This adds an extra layer of desperation as the levels require a number of increasingly complicated sets of block movements in order to proceed upwards. Each level is also populated by sheep struggling to make their way up and getting in Vincent's way in the process.
There is some respite though as each sequence is broken up by a landing section where the hero can catch his breath, save the game and chat to some oddly familiar sheep - some even yielding handy techniques for finding a way up - before again heading up the tower towards morning and the safety of waking life.
In dividing the game up into two intertwining parts there it achieves a very interesting level of pacing. In fact it captures the difficulties that face Vincent very well. On the one hand the waking sections slow pace embodies how brooding over a very important emotional decision can slow time down. On the other, the frantic pacing of the dream sections manage to portray the kind of panic felt by someone cornered and terrified of getting caught out when they're concealing behaviour they know to be wrong.
This is an exceptional achievement indeed as it allows Catherine to achieve the kind of emotional depth that mature games are all aspiring to. It also draws in the player and immerses him/her in Vincent's predicament from a very personal perspective.
One of the most important moments in the game is early on when it is revealed what is propelling Vincent up the crazy towers in his nightmares. He is being chased by a jealous, demanding and psychotic woman that resembles his girlfriend Katherine. This 'monster' woman represents all of the things he fears about making the commitment and guilt over his indiscretions. In fact, this mental apparition spends a large portion of its time swinging a knife at Vincent and knocking away the blocks from beneath him as he attempts to make it safely to morning time and is the reason that he will die if he doesn't escape.
While the metaphor is a fairly stereotypical one it is very admirable that the developers have even attempted to turn a story like this into a game and Catherine is most definitely a pioneering title in this respect. The real wonder of it all is that the game mechanics of the waking and sleeping sections really complement and enhance the overall feel of the game.
Catherine is a very strange game and sadly, most average gamers will pass it by for something a little more predictable - probably an FPS of some description. Anyone that does take the risk and delve into Catherine will find a very rich and entertaining experience that manages to show that videogames can tackle more mature subjects without resorting to crass use of violence and sex. Play it and you will be seduced by the game itself and not just the pretty girl on the cover.