The Difficulty of Catherine

I have been playing Catherine some more. It’s a game that is considered by many to be particularly difficult. I had my share of struggles even on “Easy” difficulty. On my second play trough, I decided to crank it up to “Normal”. But it didn’t actually get a lot more difficult. Different, but not difficult. Which made me consider difficulty in games once more.

Love is Over

This is what you see most often playing Catherine. You think the game is trying to tell something?

As Jesper Juul already suggested, what is perceived as “difficulty” is in actually probably a very complex mixture of different qualities. Some of them don’t necessarily have to do with the game per se but with how it relates to the expectations of the players. Considering this, here are some observations on how Catherine generates difficulty.

  • Time constraint – is perhaps the most apparent gameplay feature to be considered unfair. It’s also probably the most subjective one. Catherine is a puzzle game where players are punished if they are too slow. This happens in two ways. In a more obvious fashion, you are climbing a tower that is collapsing at the bottom. If you don’t climb fast enough, you die and need to replay the level. In a less obvious fashion, the game also has a combo system that needs to be kept alive by climbing in at a steady pace.

    Having a time constraint punishes players for just stopping and thinking. It forces them to desperately muddle their way trough the puzzles. Interestingly, that’s doesn’t have to be a design mistake. It’s just a somewhat different kind of play experience from what we are normally used to. In fact, plenty of puzzle games have some sorts of time constraints. Catherine is just more dramatic about it. But it’s deliberately designed to be like that. Even on Normal difficulty, I quickly collected over 99 lives without even trying. The game just expects you to memorize the solution to a given puzzle and repeat it until you can execute it quickly enough. In that regard, it reminds more of a racing game than a puzzle. That isn’t wrong or unfair per se. It just seems unfair if you are expecting a slow-paced mind bender.

  • Abundance of Choice – is a less obvious difficulty and a less subjective one. It’s a common issue often seemingly overlooked by game designers. Puzzle games, that offer a lot of choices are more difficult than puzzle games with more restrains. This sounds counter-intuitive. We usually associate having more freedom with ease. We think that more choices means having more ways to solve a given problem. In reality, the opposite is true. In a puzzle, having less choices is easy because it takes less time to eliminate wrong choices. Catherine is a good example. It’s a game whee you can climb, hang, push and pull blocks, where there are different blocks and power ups and where blocks can fall. To add insult to injury, everything is 3D. The amount of choice at any given point is often paralyzing. The solutions are difficult to see because there is so much you can do. Even trying different solutions takes more time. It’s no wonder that the game actually shows you videos to teach you “techniques” on a regular basis – it demonstrates certain patterns and strategies that can be applied in many cases, boiling the wide range of options down to a bearable selection.

  • Delayed feedback – … but even the techniques are not as effective as they could be. Another feature of the gameplay that I found to be particularly frustrating is the fact that the game never tells you if you are on the right track. The way the levels are designed, it’s entirely possible to pull out some blocks at the bottom to make the entire level on top collapse down. The results are difficult to predict. I remember one very early level where you are introduced to the a puzzle where you can hang off a block and shimmy across an obstacle. Only I haven’t realized that that’s what I had to do. I started pulling some blocks. Soon enough I had the most wicked, chaotic landscape of blocks in front of me. I kinda slowly made my way up, but it was disturbingly complex compared to the previous puzzles and the subsequent ones. I went to watch a YouTube tutorial afterwards and realized that this part was supposed to be a breeze when you didn’t mess with it.

    And this is why the game is actually easier on “harder” difficulties. It also gets easier in the latter levels. The puzzles get less forgiving. There is less room to mess around with them. Some of the latter levels are very rigid “tests” that require you to use a certain technique in order to proceed. Sure, you probably fail more often. But at least you know when you failed instead of burning yourself out while desperately trying to salvage a FUBAR situation.

  • Punishment of Negligence – and then there are some typical Japanese game design features that can drive you up the wall. A lot of the mechanics in the game don’t actually increase the complexity, but the punish players for slips of attention. The ice block, the vortex block and especially the trap block aren’t used as actual puzzle elements. Their function most of the time is to kill players, who accidentally press the wrong button or press the right button too late. Combined with the finicky controls, prone to trigger unwanted commands, this turns out to be a major source of frustration. I’m guessing the idea was to create the sense of a hazardous environment. The game developers certainly succeeded, but not in a good way.

  • Random Punishment – and finally, nothing breaks the designer / player relationship as much as random punishments. Of which the game has plenty. In the latter levels, the game introduces blocks that turn into a random block upon stepping on it. This often makes the puzzles unsolvable or just kills the player on the spot. There are also blocks that move around randomly, often breaking the puzzles in the process. Some “bosses” trigger effects that can kill the player without any warning. Perhaps the most annoyingly – there is even an escort level. You climb the tower with an NPC. Surprisingly, this has almost no effect on the gameplay. It just introduces another, frequent random punishment. The “boss” in that level triggers attacks that the player can dodge by carefully watching certain cues. However, the NPC ignores the warnings and happily walks into their death, forcing the player to restart the whole level.

Catherine is not a difficult game. It’s a game where the difficulty is out of control. The game’s designers had a good grasp of the mechanics but haven’t seem to understand how apply this knowledge to guide the experience. It’s easy when it should be hard. It’s hard when it should be easy. This wouldn’t be unusual. It’s a difficult thing to pull off and many puzzle games suffer from similar problems. But every now and then, it’s just controller-crushing frustrating.

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.

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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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