Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Being Annoyed by Catherine

I usually avoid writing about a game before I finish it, but this week I'll make an exception for Catherine. I've held off on reading much criticism on Catherine, but I know it has generated a lot of insightful criticism, especially from Jorge and the rest of my fellow PopMatters writers. I'm looking forward to reading more of their commentary on Catherine's treatment of gender, relationships, and design after I finish the game. But before I do, I feel the need to gripe about what is probably a comparatively shallow topic: the game is extremely annoying.

Hell's bells

I get it: the constant, ominous ringing of the church bell at the top of the tower represents Vincent's inexorable progress towards an uncertain fate. It's a nice metaphor (if a bit on the nose) and it provides some heightened tension towards the end of the stages. But does it really have to keep ringing after the level is over?

Maybe it was specifically designed to grate on my nerves? I don't know how Vincent feels, but the maddening tempo and tone of that bell has become one of my most despised video game sounds. I find its constant ringing far more dreadful than any of the monsters that pursue Vincent as he scrambles up the tower.

I've taken to simply skipping most of the optional dialogue between levels in order quiet that infernal chime. It's a shame, as the dialog and voice acting in Catherine is reasonably good (if poorly mixed, but more on that later) and I'd like to talk to all the other wayward sheep. However, the price for being social is listening to that incessant ringing and my sanity just can't afford it. It's bad enough I have to listen to the game say "edge" every time two blocks become attached at their sides. As if the blue light that signifies a connection and the hundreds of previous "edge" announcements hadn't clued me in...


As an (admittedly) amateur audio editor, I appreciate the difficulty of achieving consistent sound levels over multiple audio tracks. Jorge and I try to keep the sonic peaks and valleys to a minimum on our podcast, but sometimes mistakes happen. However, the sound mixing problems in Catherine are truly baffling.

Why are the cutscenes drastically louder than the in-engine sound? Why must I adjust my volume between the bar and the tower sequences just to hear the dialog? I am honestly interested in the answer. I mean, when all else fails, can't you just ratchet down the gain? What about giving me some in-game audio options instead of making me reach for the remote every time the scene changes?

"What we got here is a failure to communicate"

Catherine is largely a story about miscommunication, and its dialog systems to an irritatingly good job of conveying this theme. Your responses to the game's questions flings the morality meter to and fro with little feedback as to why certain choices elicit moral shifts. Honestly, I can't get too worked up over this, as I think it is actually a clever representation of how seemingly benign conversations shape people's perceptions of one another. Sometimes you just can't make the rules in a social situation, but you're still bound by the very forces you don't understand. Still, being the downtrodden Cool Hand Luke to Catherine's arbitrarily punitive "Captain" can get wearisome.

Vincent's texting habit is also clever, but suffers from frustrating usability issues. Sending texts in lieu of having real conversations is the natural way to communicate for an evasive loser like Vincent, but the actual act of sending those texts is exasperating. Cycling through each reply option necessitates inputting and erasing the same line repeatedly until the choices repeat. While this isn't efficient, I do see the artistic statement that is made by forcing the player to mirror Vincent's indecision. Who hasn't deleted and restarted a text or email half a dozen times?

However, I think it's fair to say that most people have a "tone" in mind before they begin writing. This idea could be integrated into Catherine's dialog options in much the same way Mass Effect handles its communication: players could choose an abridged message option that hints at what will eventually be said. The player could choose from "apologetic" or "angry" without having to continually backtrack through dialog options. This would eliminate superfluous inputs and tedious backtracking while still allowing the writers creative room to give the final responses unexpected connotations, causing the player to erase them and choose something else.

A Slippery Slope

This is perhaps the most subjective irritant I have, but it's an important one. Something about the Catherine's controls feel off. It's difficult to articulate, but after multiple stages, Vincent's movement still feels unintentionally unpredictable. You would think that a game in which movement is locked to a grid would be precise, but I am constantly finding myself guessing as to how long I have to press a button down in order to get Vincent to move.

This is a problem when the stage is falling away at my feet and Vincent inexplicably climbs to the back of the tower rather than to the left like I expected. All too often I find myself frantically hanging off the side of a block, scooting past the square I want to be on, and messing with the camera. Maybe I've been spoiled by VVVVVV's precision movement or maybe Vincent's spastic clambering is a conscious decision. All I know is that it is frustrating.

Despite all this, I fully intend on finishing Catherine. My stubbornness and masochistic streak will ensure that. I do find the themes and concepts in Catherine interesting, but I keep coming back to the same question: Where is the line between purposefully pesky and accidentally aggravating? Once person's challenge is another person's nuisance, and I'm trying not to let my exasperation cloud my sight. Even so, it's awfully hard to admire a game that is so annoying.


  1. Regarding your first point, I think the worst thing a game can do is annoy the player. Worse, any game that INTENTIONALLY annoys the player for the sake of artistic intent is a little too far up its own butt to salvage any enjoyment out of the experience.

  2. Yeah even the demo kind of annoyed me as well. I think the puzzle gameplay is amazing but the bells do make me want to rip out my ears.