Catherine is a pretty damn good game.
Now, I like puzzles and I like moving blocks around and I sure as hell like shoving sheep-headed men to their deaths, but it’s been another aspect of Catherine that has actually made me recommend this game to my friends, and that’s sex.
It treated me as a player who possessed functioning genitals and whose interactions with the opposite sex didn’t consist solely of rubbing up against them on crowded trains.
When I say I liked it because of the sex, I don’t mean that I liked the sexy anime ladies with their improbable hair and their physiques crafted by manga pervert artists. No, I’ve never been enamored with the anime vision of female aesthetic perfection that fuses together the eyes of an owl, a balloon shaped cranium and the bodily measurements of a 10 year old Romanian gymnast. Rather, I liked Catherine‘s depiction of sex because it was complicated, adult and contained actual emotional conflict.
For those who haven’t played it, the game is the story of a man caught between his fear of commitment posed by his long term semi-serious girlfriend (Katherine) and the possibilities of consequence free infidelity and cartoon dicking with the alluring Catherine. Each night he falls asleep and navigates puzzles while being chased by spectres of commitment like giant babies and Katherine’s grasping hand. It was as I was being chased by a sixty foot infant up a pile of cubes that the phrase “exception that proves the rule” occurred to me, because this was one of the few games I could think of that had managed to make sex and relationships into a believable aspect of the narrative.
I’ve been tempted by infidelity. I’ve been faced with someone asking me to commit more than I wanted to. I’ve escaped from giant ghost hands through cunning cube placement. It was relateable and fresh and, importantly, it treated me as a player who possessed functioning genitals and whose interactions with the opposite sex didn’t consist solely of rubbing up against them on crowded trains.
And it’s sad that I never feel that way in most of the other games I love.
I love Metal Gear Solid. I always have, ever since I realized that allowing me to blow up tanks containing shamans and punching invisible ninjas was what the PlayStation was designed to do. But MGS3 and 4 have a feature that allows you to see through the eyes of Solid Snake during cutscenes. In MGS3 I first did this during a conversation with the double (or triple? Quadruple?) agent Eva. What was he looking at? Her breasts. Now, I’m not one to tell a legendary cloned supersoldier what to do, but when someone’s lecturing you on exactly how you should go about destroying the dinosaur-shaped megatank or explaining why nanomachines are accelerating your ageing and giving you a moustache, I believe it would behoove you to tear your gaze from her fucking tits. I have to believe that in a life or death exposition meeting, Snake can stay on topic and not just stare boggle eyed at the nearest exposed female flesh while breathlessly rubbing himself. And I would also want to believe that brilliant scientists and undercover spies (even if they happen to be sexy ladies) can take the time in the morning to do up all the buttons on their shirts or maybe even chuck on a bra.
But I shouldn’t pick on Snake, since that’s a good way to get your neck snapped. Let’s look at another dirty old man.
The issue of sex in games again reared its head with the regrettable decision to resurrect Duke Nukem. Now, discussing the game is a bit of a challenge since it’s a nostalgic and ironic throwback to a Nineties game that was itself a nostalgic and ironic throwback to macho Eighties movies that were themselves nostalgic and ironic throwbacks to the cro-magnon period. It’s a Rubik’s cube of questionable humor that’s able to deflect any criticism through its sheer self-awareness. We can’t expect a game free of strippers since “Shake it, baby” was practically the game’s slogan and we can’t expect Duke’s character, which was in part created as a reaction against perceived political correctness in the mid-nineties, to suddenly conform to it. So a certain amount of winking raunch is to be expected.
Even the most depraved gamer has to pause and think about the questionable implications of mashing a shotgun round into the face of a pleading young girl.
One thing’s for sure though: Imprisoning two women (who can probably pass for the game’s female leads) in what can only be described as a stalagmite made of rape and then having the player dispatch or ignore their deaths in service of a pun (“You’re screwed”) is in record-shatteringly bad taste. We can probably smile benignly at the strippers and the general leery atmosphere from a position of impenetrable superiority that comes from no longer being twelve- it’s Duke, after all, the videogame equivalent of your musky smelling and vaguely sinister uncle who takes you aside when you’re ten to show you a ratty porno magazine. But even the most depraved gamer has to pause and think about the questionable implications of mashing a shotgun round into the face of a pleading young girl.
Part of the sex problem in videogames have stemmed from the lopsided gender representation, after all it’s hard to build any relationship in a treehouse with a “boys only” sign outside it. Games like Mass Effect and the Dragon Age series have made a point of introducing gender choices and even sexuality choices to make your character capable of being representative of your real life even if you happen to be a lady. Even Gears of War, which previously boasted precisely three women in the game – one lives in a box and appears only to swoon and then get shot in her weak womanly skull, one is a naggy voice in your ear and the last one is an evil alien queen of a grotesque underground race – has joined a world where women might actually want to play as women even while chainsawing through a worm monster from the future.
Mass Effect 2 also offered an opportunity for making a relationship. The furore surrounding the game’s randy content had me thinking that I’d be engaging in hours of sci-fi fucking grudgingly punctuated by some shooting. Sleep with any of your crew? Create romantic relationships? I was intrigued, but in the end all it came down to were some suggestive dialog choices and a hilarious cutscene that had me humping a space Australian on a cold metal floor in an engine room (and then taking Garrus to my room because, c’mon, Garrus is awesome). It was an endgame bonus, a shallow little add-on with its own trophy that popped up, presumably at the point of ejaculation.
Even the smaller and odder projects have fallen prey to this sweaty, immature view of sex. Take Indigo Prophecy (aka Fahrenheit), a game that sets out with the best of intentions to detail an ordinary person doing ordinary actions thrown into an increasingly stupid plot. In this early non-idiotic portion of the game you are called to questionably woo your ex and then thoroughly sex her. And you get to do that. With on screen prompts for each thrust. To a soft rock backing and moans. I replayed that bit more than any other segment of the game. It took its quicktime event sex so seriously, thinking itself so adult it ironically appeared all the more immature, like a teenager who brags about losing his virginity and then spends forty minutes describing a vagina in enough detail to upset a gynocologist, just to prove that he’d been there.
Sex can come from love, hate, greed, lust, revenge or any amalgam of contradictory emotions but it can’t come from passing three speech checks and having a charisma modifier of +5.
So what differentiates Catherine and makes it the exception? I would say it comes down to emotion. In the other examples we have sex or sexual imagery thrown in as a kind of bonus. Shepard could screw nobody and the Collectors would be equally dead, Martin Sheen equally illusive. In countless games the romance is included as an act of ticking a storytelling box or trying to up the stakes, and if sex is involved it’s for “Snake vision”-esque titillation (hee hee, titillation) or out of the tired feeling that that’s the usual hero’s reward. In Catherine we have sex as a byproduct of human emotion and mistakes. When Vincent has sex with Catherine we can see he’s fleeing from commitment and we can care about that. When we see Commander Shepard have sex with Miranda we can see it’s … uh … because we chose the right dialog options and this is our reward. Sex can come from love, hate, greed, lust, revenge or any amalgam of contradictory emotions but it can’t come from passing three speech checks and having a charisma modifier of +5 because a context free sex scene in a game, like a superfluous fuck in a summer blockbuster or airport paperback thriller, simply serves to show how lazy your storytelling is.
We all graduate from our fumbling gropes and baffled entrancement with the opposite sex. We grow into more complex relationships, usually at the end of high school. Our medium needs to show that same maturation. We’ve had those curious tingles and found renewed interest in rumble packs, we’ve ogled and joked and drawn genitals on the bathroom walls, but now it’s time to stop giggling about tits. It’s time to graduate.
Martin McLauchlan is an aspiring freelance game writer living and working in a field in Scotland. He writes about games in an attempt to assuage the creeping existential dread that is his existence. So far, no dice. You can read more from him at http://godhatestags.blogspot.com/.