Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week sees the Japanese re-release of a strange one-off title that captured the hearts of its players. For this remarkable game we are trying a new format—with Damien and Daniel trading the story back and forth.
#46. CATHERINE, by Damien Lawardorn and Daniel Pereira
Damien: Catherine was one of the most surprising games not just of 2011, but of the whole of the previous console generation. The team behind the Persona series opted to cut its HD teeth on something smaller than the massive RPGs it is best known for, with the result being a bizarre hybrid of puzzler, platformer, and visual novel.
Perhaps on paper, the game should not have worked, but the disparate elements were woven together into an unexpectedly cohesive whole thanks to an uncompromising vision of infidelity that dares to question the nature of virtue, while also presenting a bildungsroman narrative that skews older than the YA audiences and characters common to the genre.
Daniel: Though Catherine manages to combine elements of different genres into a cohesive experience, everyone’s initial experience with Catherine will feel unique and personal. As a game directed towards a niche audience, Catherine holds a lesson to be found by anyone who attempts to climb its towering story.
Those who walk into the in-game locale of the Stray Sheep Bar for the first time may expect an experience similar to Catherine’s Persona relatives, only to find that the gameplay requires more thought and skill to accomplish its puzzling challenges. Players who are able to overcome the nightmare are treated to a narrative that overreaches its supporting cast and communicates directly with its audience.
Damien: Where most games are entrenched in their fiction, inviting players beyond their fourth walls only through control, Catherine goes further. Between levels, Vincent—and by extension the player—receives questions designed to test his moral judgement: do you focus on personal happiness, or are you willing to sacrifice that in service of a perceived greater good?
Vincent’s long-term girlfriend Katherine desires marriage, but the commitment-phobic man is unprepared to take that step. At the same time, the young temptress Catherine appears to test his fidelity. With the character torn between these two lovers, the player’s beliefs—as well as the actions they push Vincent to take while in the Stray Sheep Bar—will determine the path he takes and the outcome he earns.
Daniel: The moral conundrum that Catherine asks the players to participate in is important because it represents the real-world implications that Vincent’s struggle holds. While far from perfect, Vincent finds himself in a situation that questions the morality around desire and virtue. Although the entirety of the narrative is bound within the context of the gameplay, the situations that patrons of the Stray Sheep find themselves in are reflective of a subsect of society at large.
Part way through the game Vincent realizes that the other sheep he encounters within the nightmares are fellow men in the real world. While he does not necessarily recognize them, the player can connect the dots with each sheep’s confession of infidelity with the problems faced by the patrons of the Stray Sheep Bar. This important plot-point of shared stress in Catherine’s narrative symbolizes the reality that many members of society face. The concept of being shunned by your peers due to straying from society norms is a reason why many individuals, Vincent included, create their own falsified public persona.
Damien: Is life—or at least the state of living—then an illusion? Catherine never seeks to answer or even directly ask this question, but it nonetheless looms large over the narrative. The threat of death as a result of falling from the tower may be real, but the nightmare setting lends Vincent’s plight something of the uncertain. Are the dreams intrinsically connected to his duplicitous waking life or are they mere manifestations of his fevered fears of commitment? Both possibilities are equally viable, as the monsters that pursue him draw inspiration from both Catherine’s and Katherine’s words and actions.
Furthermore, through discourse with fellow Stray Sheep patrons, Vincent (and, by proxy, the player) learns that each man faces unique nightmares based on their own situations and histories, which further brings into question what deeper meaning, if any, the dreams might possess. However, the most prominent questions pertaining to reality stem from Catherine herself. To Vincent, she is the perfect woman, yet she is capable of the impossible. Without fail, she appears in his bed every night, even when Vincent has not seen her in his waking day. This cycle is what brings to Vincent his moral crisis and the nightmares.
Daniel: Vincent’s nightmares reflects the guilt and burden of shame he carries around each day. Vincent’s inability to escape his inner demons causes him to experience the nightmares every time he falls asleep. Within the constant nightmares, Catherine presents another metaphor to be found within society. Even when awake, Vincent is haunted by his actions as they begin to eat away at his psyche. Regardless of whether he survives the nightmares in bed, during the day he will encounter more as he continues his masquerade.
As a species, humankind is driven by the desire to be socially accepted by others. This often results in the masking of one’s personality to reintroduce a persona that is more accepted by public eyes. As a result of his actions, Vincent feels shame, preventing him from being completely open towards anyone else but his most trusted compatriots. The ever-ensuing nightmares are a result of Vincent’s refusal to address the problems he has created, insinuating that his torment is a product of his own volition.
Damien: What torments! What nightmares! The beasts that chase Vincent are manifestations borne out of his subconscious, amorphous in nature but always reflective of his waking life. Over these twisted forms, the player’s actions have no influence, but nor should they. Catherine tests Vincent, while Catherine tests the player: their morality, honesty, and, of course, their skills. This latter aspect takes up the bulk of the play time, challenging the user to clamber up a disintegrating tower, often while thinking laterally about the placement of blocks.
In a way, the game owes a debt of gratitude to Tetris, but inverted, and those inspirations are folded into a character platformer. Combining this already odd coupling with the horror and life-sim elements results in an experience that remains almost unmatched in its novelty and oddity, even now eight years on from its launch. Nonetheless, that uniqueness could never last forever, yet few could have predicted that Catherine would be matched only by Catherine, as the game returns this year in a new, expanded form.
Daniel: Catherine is truly a unique experience. Despite its stylistic barrier to entry, the journey that Catherine asks players to witness speaks volumes towards societal standards and the vices found within them. Perhaps the greatest flaw within the game is how players are asked what they would do in each situation, then reminded that Vincent is a man of his own actions.
Catherine: Full Body is set to relieve some of the frustration of falsified agency, as it adds an additional K(C)atherine into the mix referred to as ‘Rin’. Those who experienced the original love triangle with Catherine will find that Full Body’s introduction of Rin has the potential to either alleviate some of Vincent’s stress or cause even further chaos. The PlayStation 4 version of Catherine: Full Body will be released in English later this year, with new interactions, gameplay features, and decisions to be made with Rin. The introduction of a third love interest for Vincent will provide players with enough new material to prove the relevance of Catherine’s convoluted narrative within today’s society.
Thanks for checking out this soon-to-return cult classic. Next week, we discuss another game from a fantastic developer whose work has already featured in our list once. For more single player games content, keep it locked to OnlySP and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
OnlySP’s Favorite Games #49—Spec Ops: The Line
Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we look at a deceptively terrifying tale of war … an epic tragedy in the clothing of a boring shooter.
#49. SPEC OPS: THE LINE, by Sep Gohardani
Looking at the cover of the 2012 shooter Spec Ops: The Line, no one would be blamed for rolling their eyes. The cover shows a man holding a gun aloft, his piercing blue eyes staring intensely, cajoling you towards some mindless, indiscriminate shooting in the style of the most dreary Call of Duty games.
Smoke can be seen in the background, no doubt from one of the many explosions that the player will delight in setting off as they commit wanton murder. A helicopter also menacingly glides through the sky, offering the most generic of seals of approval. Yawn.
Except Spec Ops: The Line is not that game. Retract that yawn, because this is a game that belies expectation, instead proving itself to be the antithesis of a mindless shooter. Spec Ops is a game that puts story first, and heavily emphasises its characters and its setting not just as wallpaper to facilitate the firing of bullets, but as vehicles to tell a gratifying and worthwhile tale.
The game is set amidst a succession of natural disasters in Dubai, which, prior to the game’s events, was beset with a series of intense and horrible sandstorms that are at first downplayed, but which continue to escalate until Dubai is practically rendered unliveable, abandoned by the upper classes and inhabited only by those who cannot escape. War hero Colonel John Konrad is trapped in the city along with his battalion, who he volunteers to try to help with relief efforts despite orders saying he should leave. After little to no communication for an extended period, Captain Martin Walker is sent in alongside a couple of others to try to ascertain what exactly the situation is.
If that description gives you Heart of Darkness vibes, it should, since the game takes a lot of inspiration from it, twisting the classic story to explore similar its themes in a new way. Walker could easily have been the stock grizzled, burly white main character of almost every modern shooter and he starts off that way, but soon, as every good Heart of Darkness adaptation should, the story starts to bend and twist that mould.
Walker and his two NPC companions Adams and Lugo have their preconceptions about what they are going in to, but those are soon challenged as all three are forced to evolve and adapt to the situation. The characterisation in these moments as each of them comes to realise the magnitude of events and what it means for them and their companions is executed well, and a lot of the strength of the game lies in the dialogue between these characters, and how each is affected.
The way their mentality changes as the game progresses is also indicative of the game’s analysis of the themes of heroism and intervention, forcing the player to ponder the idea that their role as saviour is may be questionable after all. It uses that idea to spring a number of surprises, and the more that the line starts to blur and the player is forced to make difficult choices, the more the player realises that the situation is a whole lot more complex than it seemed.
Therein lies the game’s true strength; its handling of its central storyline and the themes associated with it are an example of excellent game writing. The title does not bother with a morality system in the style of an RPG simply because choices are not black and white. The game has no ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’, only a gradually worsening mess that is snowballing no matter what is done against it. This idea serves to both amplify the tension, making for a more exciting experience, and allows for character development of the central trio. Unlike what its genre counterparts want you to believe, Spec Ops is not afraid to show that war, even in game form, is a whole lot less heroic than it is made out to be.
Both graphically and gameplay wise, the game is pretty unremarkable. The environments are nicely rendered but its counterparts had graphics just as good, if not better at the time. In terms of gameplay, Spec Ops hung its hat on the cover-based combat systems that continue to be so popular in shooter games these days.
In the context of the game, the combat works really well because of the prevalence of guerrilla-esque warfare amidst the nicely animated desert setting and manages to make several set piece fights feel as intense and immersive as they should be, with the aid of an excellent soundtrack and score. One of the game’s triumphs, however, comes in the animation of these fights.
They are not the sanitised, free-for-all funfests of an arcade shooter game, but rather an attempt to show that ‘heroic combat’ is far less heroic than it sounds, and far more gruesome than you expect. This is a game that aims to mitigate the dopamine rush you get from a cool headshot with a gruelling depiction of what that does to the victim’s head. Spec Ops is all about consequences.
Unlike an RPG, the title lacks an option to avoid doing what you are doing once you have doubts about it, and much like the central trio, the player is locked in for better or for worse. So in amidst all the game’s set-pieces and cutscenes, that are impressive and could rival other shooters in the genre, is a lingering sense of regret that the game works hard to achieve. As the characters come to doubt themselves, so do you.
Mention must be given to Nolan North’s performance in the central role of Captain Walker. His performance is one layered with nuance, and of a standard necessary for the player to understand the true gravitas of what Walker goes through over the course of the game. North again plays with the idea of the hero; the grizzled, determined type who does what is right at all costs, and shows what happens when that idea is challenged, and when Walker comes to realise that it has never been that simple. Without that kind of performance, the game certainly would not have been as impactful as it is.
Spec Ops: The Line did not sell well, and those involved in its development have since made clear that it was a harrowing experience to say the least, rubbishing the idea of a sequel. But the game does not need one. This is a game that dared to try something darker, something more thematically interesting and powerful than its counterparts, and it succeeded. The title succeeded not only in being a gripping experience, but in belittling and undermining jingoistic oversimplifications of warfare and the idea of heroism in a complicated conflict, directing its lesson not only at the characters, but also at the player. As one of the sardonic loading screen hints say: “The United States Army does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?”
Spoiler Corner with Chris Hepburn (SPOILER WARNING!)
Spec Ops: The Line offers a story unlike any other in military games. Players enter a battle—one that dares to show the true horrors of war. For example, the historic White Phosphorus scene has the player kill enemies through computerised imagery, except truth lies elsewhere.
Many times throughout the story, main character Captain Martin Walker receives a radio call from the main antagonist egging him further into battle. Not until the end is the voice revealed to stem from the character’s mental health issues, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, emphasised through flashbacks comparing what the player experienced to what really happened. The mental health issues progress into hallucinations, driving the player to choose their concluding actions—suicide, become a crazed killer, or go home living with the past.
Most war games romanticize war, pitting players against hordes of generic enemies, calling them evil and saying shoot. The challenge of winning is a pull and, usually, the game features a main antagonist written to be despised. Spec Ops: The Line instead pits the player against a typical antagonist but, by the end, the reality of the battle starts to blur. The true enemy is mental illness brought on by the stresses of war. Not every game needs to make a player feel like a hero. Rather, the individual can experience a situation or limitation like they never can elsewhere. For example, in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the player delves into a world ruled by mental health issues, with the objective of getting out the other side somehow and someway.
The part of Specs Ops: The Line that pushes the characters to breaking point is the White Phosphorus moment. Some critics argue that the white phosphorus is a major showing of Walker’s descent into madness. Rather, the scene can (arguably) be read as a representation of the horrors of blindly taking orders or fighting. Taking the method of attack into consideration, the player and characters only see a silhouette of an enemy through thermal imagery.
The player can only blindly relate the just-seen enemy to the white silhouette, eventually confusing a mass of citizens as standing soldiers in the immediacy of battle. The player is blindly looking at who is at the end of the cannon. Through the lens of the cannon, dead enemies do not show the molten skin, nor can their cries of pain and anguish be heard. Furthermore, the player can not tell the difference between a standing soldier and a citizen. Therefore, when the blindfold is pulled off or, rather, the silhouette is detailed, both the player and the characters see the true damage that is done and have to live with it.
Veterans of war can come back with many mental health issues—a major one being PTSD. War is not a happy-go-lucky place; the truth is that the battlefield holds many saddening, scary, and traumatizing moments that can scar a person both physically and mentally.
Spec Ops: The Line dares to tell a story that keeps the player engrossed in the fabrication of ‘doing the right thing’, just to pull the curtain back, leaving the player with the ultimate choice of how to deal with what has happened. Games have the potential to make people feel or experience a situation that a movie could not, and not every experience in the world is a positive one. While games such as Battlefield and Call of Duty romanticize killing in the name of righteousness, Spec Ops The Line questions what—and how—in war people perceive their actions as ‘right’.
Thanks for joining us again with this disturbing, but fascinating and thoughtfully crafted entry to our 50 favourite games list. Next week’s action extravaganza is certainly much more exciting than disturbing, but no less thoughtful in its examination of conflict from the perspective of a soldier. For the latest from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP.com, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and join our community Discord server.
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