The argument about rather video games should be considered art or not has been ongoing for years now. There seems to be no gray area, with people either arguing that all games are art, or that games are not art at all. I believe that there is a gray area - some games are extremely artistic, and others are not. So what makes something art in the first place? I think for something to be art, it has to be intellectual - there is a meaning and a purpose behind the things involved in the work that culminate into something special. That is also the perfect way to explain Catherine, and it is my belief that Catherine is indeed a work of art, and the kind that shows up very rarely.
In Catherine, you assume the role of Travis. He's your average 20 something year old guy who lies hanging out with his friends and having a few beers. He has a steady relationship with a girl named Katherine that's been going on for a couple of years. Just when he starts to feel pressured into marriage, a pretty little number walks into his life and suddenly, everything changes. He awakens next to her, with no recollection of the previous night, though he does recall a terrible nightmare. But what is he to do? Should he tell Katherine, or should he hide it? Should he even tell anybody?
Decisions such as those comprise a lot of Catherine, and how you treat others effects a karma meter than gravitates between order and chaos. If you've been as fair to people as you can lately, the order side will take dominion, and Travis will handle situations with as much finesse as he can muster. Act selfishly, however, and chaos reigns, causing Travis' emotions to get the better of him, and treat others unfairly. Playing this way will oftentimes get him out of the fire, and into the frying pan. The beauty of Catherine is that the more you play, the more you put yourself in Travis' shoes - the more you "become Travis". His burdens become your burdens, and for that hour or two that you sit in front of your television, you start to feel the weight of his stress yourself.
Catherine is split into two gameplay phases. During the day, after a series of cutscenes, Travis usually meets up with his buddies at the Stray Sheep, their favorite bar. Here, you can carry on conversations with various people, and even help them figure things out in their life. How you treat them effects your karma meter, as does the way you choose to reply to texts from Katherine and Catherine. The other half of the game takes place after Travis falls asleep, and are known as Nightmare stages. during these dreams, Travis must climb a very metaphorical tower. Reaching the top will grant him freedom. These stages are very puzzle like, and even though you're basically playing a more deadly version of Tetris, it never really feels like you're playing a puzzle game. You must move blocks around in ways that will allow you to climb higher before the ground bellow you falls. Not far into the game, you come to realize other people are having these dreams with you. But what's causing them? Why is it only men, and why are they being forced to climb this tower? Catherine's plot and gameplay are interwoven is a beautiful and almost seamless fashion. Characters you meet through the game also show up in your nightmares, though it may take you several hours or even multiple play throughs to make all the connections, as everyone else appears as a sheep in your dream world, just as you appear as a sheep to them.
The further into the game you go, the more strange and surreal things become. Travis comes very close to losing his sanity a couple of times, and he's lucky to have suck good friends to fall back on. Catherine isn't all stress and torture though - there are plenty of comedic moments that will have you snickering long after the credits roll. One particular bathroom scene comes to mind. The characters are all very interesting, from Travis who has a tendency to be both extremely selfish, but also extremely giving and indecisive, right down to Boss, owner of Stray Sheep, who stays hidden behind sun glasses at all times. the game's narrative really sticks with you, and that's one of its strongest points.
Catherine is a very difficult game when it comes to the later stages of the game. This difficulty spike is sudden, and jarring, and very rage inducing. Even on easy difficulty, the last few stages made me want to squeeze my controller into powder. Usually, I recommend starting on normal at least in every game, but this is an exception. Jumping into this game on normal without any practice is like suicide once your each the halfway point. I also found the nightmare stages to be far less interesting than the cut scenes and interactions at the bar. I often rushed through them with little regard for my rating or points just to see what was going to happen next. Even though they're technically the meat of the game, the nightmare stages pale in comparison to the rest of the game.
Catherine is a very mature game that deals with very adult problems. It would be easy to throw some partial nudity and F bombs into a game, then make nightmare stages with dead babies chasing you up a tower. But would that be artistic without meaning? Everything in this game is a metaphor. Nothing is as mundane as it seems. Catherine is the kind of game that comes out very rarely, in the same league as EarthBound. It's completely captivating, and weird, and it doesn't let you go for a second. There are also 8 possible endings, not to mention how much various situations change depending on Travis' temperament a the time. You can get as much or as little out of Catherine as you want to, but if you don't try to play multiple times and change the situations and outcomes, you're severely limiting yourself. As soon as the game closes, it practically begs you to try again. So what will it be? Catherine or Katherine? Maybe neither? Chaos or Order? The choices are yours, and for Travis' sake, you better make the right ones.