The cardinal line from Shakespeare’s famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue appears only briefly onscreen at the beginning of Catherine, but not without significance.
Spoken in As You Like It by a perpetually melancholic fellow named Jaques, the full monologue details the seven ages of man – from drooling infancy to dribbling old age – and emphasises the triviality of any one individual life in the grand scheme of things.
It’s a fitting quote to use, and paired with a gloomy score it foreshadows a tragedy that is about to unfurl in typical Shakespearean fashion: with an admirable yet flawed protagonist who, although possessing free will, slides unrelentingly towards his doom, perhaps with the aid of a supernatural entity or two.
The entire game of Catherine is framed as a TV show – a modern play, if you will – the hero of which is earnest yet spineless 32-year-old software designer Vincent Brooks. Unhappily dating the ambitious, uptight and overbearing Katherine, Vincent seemingly allows himself to be seduced one night by the free-spirited Catherine, whose values and outlook appear diametrically opposed to those of her namesake.
Racked by guilt, but curious and unsure what action to take in the wake of this infidelity, Vincent finds his life taking a turn for the surreal when he begins having vivid, death-soaked nightmares after learning that local men his age are mysteriously dying in their sleep. The gameplay of Catherine is split between Vincent’s nightmares and waking life, as a 3D puzzler and social sim respectively.
When he sleeps, Vincent must scale tall towers by shifting their component blocks horizontally to form crude staircases he may then scramble up. The laws of physics mostly apply to these constructions, except that a block will remain magically suspended in midair provided any of its edges are touching those of another block. This one wrinkle vastly increases the creative possibilities available to the player, but challenge is introduced not only by the tough level design, but also because each tower is steadily crumbling from its base upwards, placing what often feels like a seemingly insurmountable time pressure on top of the puzzle solving.
Later, other climbers and special trap blocks make the vertical going extra challenging. Fortunately, helpful items such as block creators are found within the nooks of the towers, and a generous number of attempts are available before the game is over and Vincent must start again from the last landing he passed.
It is at these landings that the other climbers may be spoken with, and items purchased. All other climbers take the form of sheep and react differently to being thrown in the same predicament as Vincent; some pout or openly lament while others offer climbing tips, yet all hold out hope that their ascent is not in vain – that salvation exists somewhere up there in the void.
As in the waking sections of the game, choices made by the player during these interactions may affect Vincent’s demeanour, making him less or more sympathetic, which in turn affects how he is received by others as well as which ending the player will receive upon completing the game.
Generally speaking, each of Catherine’s eight climbing levels consist of a couple of climbing sections split by a landing, followed by a section where Vincent is chased upwards by a boss; a twisted manifestation of his greatest waking-life fears. Should he escape the boss in time, Vincent awakes and may now explore the ‘real’ world looking for answers. Then he sleeps, and the cycle repeats.
As many do, Vincent and his mates pursue the truth to the bottom of multiple glasses of whiskey at their local bar, the Stray Sheep. Here Vincent may chat with his friends or approach other patrons or staff in the bar, looking for information. Each interaction fills in a small piece of the story. Text messages will arrive from each of the women in his life too, and these may be replied to line-by-line with the player selecting that which best fits what they wish to say.
There is even a perfectly realised, completely playable NES-style version of Vincent’s nightmare climbing game in the corner of the bar, except now the emphasis is on economy of movement rather than time. How’s that for meta? Other life scenes find Vincent face-to-face with Catherine or Katherine, answering their questions and moving the plot forward.
None of these waking life interactions are essential and indeed the exploration and many limited-animation cutscenes can be completely skipped, although doing so completely amputates the soul of the game.
Catherine is very challenging, even on normal difficulty, and the waking life segments aren’t for everybody. It is, however, extremely rewarding to finally make it to that next landing after 30-odd heartbreaking attempts, and the controls are seldom to blame for an errant death. At Catherine’s centre is a sharp, cel-shaded look, but the periphery is a soft-focus blur, reflecting Vincent’s uncertainty and the slippery nature of his reality.
The voice acting is strong too, the plot surprisingly gripping, and the game as a whole doesn’t shy away from the absurd or the gratuitous, which is rather fitting when dissecting a topic so absurdly gratuitous as modern love.
The Bard has it right of course: we are all insignificant when it comes down to it, but as poor Vincent knows all too well, sometimes life’s dilemmas really do appear to be a matter of life and death.