Choice in Catherine

Catherine - Decision

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers…”

Choice is perhaps the most overrated aspects of interactive storytelling. Sid Meier defined a game as a series of interesting choices after all. So in order to hammer in the idea of choice, many game developers focus a few, very prominent decisions. What inevitably happens is that little decisions are being left behind and the game becomes less interesting in the process. Catherine is a good example.

Funny enough, there are lots of choices in the game. At some times, it feels like you are filling out a fracking psycho test straight from Cosmopolitan. “Does life end with marriage?” “How would you react if you were naked in public?”. But as always, all the decisions neatly collapse into a 1-dimensional good vs. evil meter. And as always, the actual consequences of the decisions are being back-loaded so the developers don’t have to invest the extra-effort of dealing with alternate story branches.

Catherine - Meter

Good/Evil Meters – Where choices go to die.

Of course, good vs. evil is pretty shallow so in a desperate attempt to add variety and depth the developers managed to split the hairline plot into 8 endings in the very last minutes of the game. So which ending you get isn’t decided in the hours of conversations and questions during the game. The real important decisions are being settled in the very last level of the game by yet another series of questions. No reason given why they are important and the others not. They don’t seem different and they CERTAINLY don’t even closely relate to the actual ending you get.

But that’s not even the disappointing part. The disappointing part comes as you finally get to your ending. What happens when you dilute an already paper-thin plot even more? You get meaningless filler. You get a game where a character constantly struggles with the choice between two very different women for 10 hours, only to completely ignore and drop the issue altogether in the end. The ending I got was the so-called “Freedom Good” ending. It actually features neither Catherine nor Katherine. And from what I heard in the Experience Points Podcast, there are worse. I could have been hit by a car.

Over the years, games like Catherine made me weary about the concept of choice in games. For example, I rarely find alternate endings effective. The mostly end up being less interesting and they often just muddle the game’s themes. Here are some of my observations on how to treat choice in games.

  • Show consequences – decisions are only meaningful if you can actually witness the consequences. There are even more interesting if you can react upon the consequences. The consequences don’t have to be big. Sometimes, a single line spoken by a character can be incredibly effective.

  • Small and often – many, small decisions often work better than one, simple, big one. Big decisions are mechanically thin and often summon expectations the actual consequences can never live up to. Better to aim low and surprise than to aim high and disappoint.

  • Nuances instead of broad strokes – for some reason, game developers are obsessed with having the most diverging options in a choice: stroke the puppy or KILL IT. It seems like want to cover the widest spectrum of choices possible. But what the win with breadth, they lose in resolution. The choices and consequences end up feeling plump and cartoony. They fail to address the sophistication of the issues at hand. Plus, they make the characters seem like bi-polar sociopaths. What many don’t realize is that it’s the details that draw our attention. Having essentially the same option but with subtle differences can be much more meaningful. As a positive side-effect, it creates less headaches caused by significantly diverging plot lines.

  • Don’t ask questions you don’t want to hear the answer to – this is perhaps the most important observation. If your story doesn’t work when the main character choses not to save the world, don’t ask them about that (I look at you, Golden Sun). If you can’t write even one meaningful ending to your story, what makes you think that having 8 of them would be a good idea?

  • Catherine is guilty of having made each of those mistakes at least once. Which is a pity because it’s not that bad of a game. There are actually some very interesting side-characters. There are intriguing details to the story. And the way of interacting with characters by socializing with them in a bar or text messaging is actually innovating and promising. It just a shame it has been ruined be focusing so much on one singular choice that can’t even begin to hold it’s promise.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

4 responses to “Choice in Catherine”

  1. Alexandre

    Choice is perhaps the most overrated aspects of interactive storytelling.

    Erm… Sorry to be so bold but…

    With all due respect, this statement may explain something of an issue that I’ve had with TRAUMA. While its concept and execution are to be commended, the game left me dissatisfied because it restricted “choice” just a bit too much. Sure, there are alternate endings and one can choose the order in which some actions are taken. But much about the game would have benefitted from a deeper sense of exploration while much about the art would have benefitted from a variety of interpretations.
    What’s funny is that some of this may be “faked”. Opening up a space which isn’t part of the explicit endings. Allowing for “absurd” actions such as cutting through a fruit or lifting a tree. Adding a minigame in the middle of nowhere. Easter eggs. More opportunities for dialogue… Maybe I missed some of this, but I ended up with little in the way of this sense of discovery which makes interactive storytelling such a unique experience.

    Had never heard of Catherine but, at the risk of being too blunt, I must say that some of the things you say about it may resemble some of the things people think about TRAUMA.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      You are right. I specifically avoided multiple endings in TRAUMA for the above reasons. And I don’t think that having then would have benefited the game. In fact, most of the things you’ve mentioned have nothing to do with multiple-choice-style branching storytelling. The things you’ve mentioned are additional activities.

      But yes, in general you will probably find many ways in which my work contradicts the insights I write about. The blog is as much for me as it is for others. ;)

      1. Alexandre

        Glad you reacted this way. It’s clear that you have it in you to participate in the creation of something truly groundbreaking. I just feel that TRAUMA was a first step in that direction.

  2. Mini-series: Moral Choice – Part 2 « Quick-time Tangents

    [...] player exactly how the game will perceive them, as either one side of the bar or the other. Source: chaos vs order meter in Catherine grants the player immediate consequence for their actions, [...]


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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