Over the past couple of weeks I’ve finished up a playthrough of Atlus’s new game Catherine. It’s the hardest game I expect to play this year (unless I can make time for Dark Souls when that comes out), but if it weren’t as challenging as it is, it wouldn’t work as a game.
I’m going to forgo an in-depth description of the game’s basics—you can check out reviews for that. But to me, the interesting thing about the block-pushing puzzle sequences that take place in the nightmares of the protagonist, Vincent Brooks, is that they induce the anxiety of indecision in the player that Vincent feels in the real world as he tries to figure out what to do about his infidelity. In the Persona games (which are by the same team), the link between the video-gamey half of the game and the relationship-simulation half is more overt: you can easily see how success in real-world relationships grants your character statistical bonuses in the fantastic dungeons. In Catherine, though, the link between the two halves of the game is more emotional than anything else, and therefore more subtle.
If the puzzles were easier, or if they took place in a less oppressive environment without the nuisances of time pressure, noise, and bosses that ruin your plans to build stairways out of blocks when they’re not trying to kill you outright, then that anxiety wouldn’t be so palpable (and I can’t recall being quite so unnerved by a puzzle game—more often than not, puzzlers these days try to lure you into a trance state with bright colors and ambient beats). Catherine is a case of a work of art deliberately inducing an unpleasant emotion in the player in order to achieve a dramatic effect. When you finish a nightmare stage (which more often than not will consist of dying and retrying over and over and over and over again), the feeling isn’t so much of victory but of relief from anxiety, the same relief that Vincent feels when he wakes up.
I’m not entirely sure that I can say I enjoyed playing Catherine. On completion I felt a sense of accomplishment that I rarely feel from modern console games; at the same time, I was glad to be done with it. But it’s increasingly rare for a video game to try to provoke some feeling in the player other than mere wish fulfillment—while the characters of video games are often good with guns they’ve never seen before as soon as they pick them up, and their acquisition of godlike skills is guaranteed to happen as long as the player hangs in for long enough and presses the X button enough times, Vincent is a loser from the beginning of the game, and only gets better at the puzzle sequences because you get better at them. For that reason alone, I can see revisiting Catherine again (though I do admit to hoping that on a second playthrough, it’ll feel easier).