There is a strange overbearing nature to Catherine, something that is reflected in some of its characters. When Vincent, or perhaps more accurately the player, makes a decision, the game judges him (and you) for the decision. A bar pops up showing that one path, represented by a devil and the other represented by an angel, indicating that you just made a moral choice. The little bar goes away, only to come back when it has an effect on the story or when you make a choice.
As the credits rolled for Catherine, I began to ask myself…wait, whose morality was this game just judging? And why?
(This post contains spoilers of varying sizes for Catherine, Tales of Vesperia, Mass Effect 1 and 2, and Dragon Age 1 and 2. It also acknowledges the existence of sex and has pictures you may not want to have on your screen at work. You have been warned.)
Catherine is fairly binary in its moral choices, you pick Catherine or Katherine. On the status bar, Catherine is represented by a devil, while Katherine is represented by an angel. Right off the bat, the game is essentially telling you what to do. The game, or at least that one meter, wants you to consider that Katherine stays beside you through thick and thin while Catherine just blew in to your life (no pun intended) and is not intended to be considered the “good” choice.
Catherine, in this sense, represents a schism in definitions of morality between Japan and the West. Aside from the cheating angle, which I don’t mean to diminish, the choice between Catherine and Katherine is more morally grey. It asks of you, the player, to choose between an emotionally distant girlfriend with whom Vincent has a history and what is, essentially, the perfect dream girl Vincent has always wanted. The Japanese view of morality and society thinks it would be weird and alien to choose the new girl when the girl that Vincent has been dating for years is still there and still willing to continue a relationship, regardless of how far apart the two of them are.
This doesn’t take away from Catherine as a game, mind you. In fact, in a lot of ways, I think this concept of morality differing across cultures adds to it. While the game itself may seem like it’s judging you for making whatever choice you do, the fact remains that the choice is still there. Vincent’s friends share advice ranging from staying with Katherine to dumping her and choosing to just go full hog with the younger, more infatuated Catherine. The game’s aforementioned moral preference almost makes a choice to go with Catherine, a relationship born of Vincent cheating on his significant other, a more “brave” choice. Staying with Katherine would be easy, a point the game illustrates by showing how Vincent tends to just coast within the relationship. To not care what society thinks and abandoning your current life to start fresh with someone else, that’s not acceptable in Japan, it’s immoral.
Part of this might be an issue with how both cultures perceive separation and divorce. Japan has a divorce rate of 27%, essentially meaning that one-in-four marriages end in divorce. Meanwhile, marriages in the U.S. have divorce rates that vary based on which marriage number it is, the 1st, the 2nd, etc. (which alone should say something), but no category is below the 50% mark.
To put it another way, in Catherine, it is more willingly accepted to stay with someone you are not sure you care about. It was not until repeated nights with Catherine that Vincent realized he wanted to stay with his girlfriend. In the beginning, he was simply more concerned that she would find out and it would break the status quo that he values so highly.
Jessica Presler, a writer for New York Magazine, once pointed out an odd phenomenon she picked up on in the New York Times’ wedding notices. There were couples sharing their stories of meeting, falling in love, and getting married…despite at least one person involved being married at the time. There was no shame or attempt to dance around the idea, it was simply accepted that the relationship began during another relationship. In America, while this idea is probably not socially accepted, there is little social pressure against it. Catherine pushes the opposite idea: Vincent is in a relationship, that’s where he should stay.
The gulf between Japanese and “American” moral choices does not lay solely with sexuality. Examining western video game moral choices, they de-emphasize the ideas of relationships as drama and more with, well, violence. To kill this person or not, to genocide this race or not, to punch out this reporter or not. This isn’t to say there’s anything inherently wrong about this difference, if anything, it’s to be expected. Japan is a country with no military, strict gun laws, and an intentional homicide rate about a tenth that of the United States’ and dropping further every year. There is less of a culture of violence, something the entertainment industry there uses to provide contrast to normal life, but provides little context to draw off of when providing moral choices.
The reason for this difference might be no more complex than a simply the cultures differing. While sexuality can be seen through a puritanical lens in America, Japanese culture has all but banned expressions of it. This may be why forced indecency rates in Japan are higher than in most Western countries. The response to this in Japan has been to turtle themselves further, effectively patting themselves on the back for the low crime rate while ignoring the real issues with sex education, essentially forcing society to view sexual morality different from the west. This gives context to a game like Catherine, where the central moral question does do a bit to hack away at Japanese preconceptions of right and wrong relationships, but also does nothing to subvert it.
The way western games do view sexuality is often with an odd kind of reckless abandon. Characters like Kratos will mourn loved ones while simultaneously engaging in meaningless, implied sex in what amount to Grecian hot tubs. In games like Mass Effect, the moral choices that affect your partner rarely question whether you should or shouldn’t sleep with them, but rather who your character is going to sleep with. While it’s fully possible to just never romance anyone, the games tend to make no big deal about sexual excursions. You can talk a partner in to bed in under six conversations, totaling less than half a hour of talking to them. The possibility of sex is just not a “moral” choice – it is a preference. Do you want to have sex in Dragon Age or don’t you? If so, with who? There’s no moral “better” here, though one could argue that both sides have rather large flaws in how they approach the subject.
The climactic moment in Dragon Age 2 involves a member of Hawke’s party, having just killed a building full of seeming innocents, letting Hawke choose his fate. Essentially, the player is given the choice of punishing the character for his crimes or letting him go. Letting him go does not necessarily express agreement with his plan, but punishing him provides little fallout or discussion. This is, perhaps oddly, a place where Japanese and western morality systems seem to agree. Capital punishment has been legal in Japan since well before the 20th century, with over 500 people killed since 1946 alone. The U.S. varies state by state and, well, opinions on capital punishment are mixed. Video games tend to frame capital punishment in terms of absolutes – it’s good if it’s a bad guy, it’s bad if it’s not. One Japanese game, Tales of Vesperia, actually tried to approach it from both sides. The main character, named Yuri, chose to dispatch of villains by murdering them rather than letting the justice system take their swipes. It is important to note that there were other options, shortly after killing one ne’er-do-well, a compatriot of Yuri’s swears that they will bring the villain to justice (and is in a position to do so), only to be told he’s gone missing. Vesperia’s main conceit is that no entity (be it a human, ancient race, or government) should be allowed to decide whether someone lives or dies, because there is the chance they will choose wrongly. Even though Yuri is unrepentant of his crimes, and many would argue that he did the right thing, he becomes aggressively hypocritical about it when others wish to sentence his friends to death. While there’s no moral choice in Tales of Vesperia, as Yuri will do these things whether the player wants him to or not, it does show that some developers choose to express discontent with a long-legal “moral” execution in that culture.
Going in to these games with the added context provided here…doesn’t really change anything. To some extent, it does explain why Japanese games rarely provide moral choices, as the increased focus on appealing to the west would essentially be broken down when you simply can’t cross that cultural barrier. I have pointed out before that I think Catherine is one of the few adult (note the small a) games in recent memory, offering a semi-relatable situation and invoking thoughts and fears most people have had in relationships. Because of these cultural barriers, though, and the way these games present their choices, is it really possible to play the game the developer intended or are we always going to view these things through our own lenses?