Anne Ladyem McDivitt is the Digital Humanities Librarian for the University of Alabama Libraries. Her research is on the history of the video game industry in the 1970s and 1980s, with a particular interest in gender. She received her PhD in History with a minor in Digital History from George Mason University and her MA in Public History from the University of Central Florida. In her free time, she plays video games and co-hosts a podcast about video games, anime, and manga.
Catherine (Atlus, 2011) became a bit of a cult classic after its initial release. It is the story of Vincent Brooks, a 32-year-old man who is pressured by his girlfriend Katherine to get married. Eventually, he meets a younger woman named Catherine, and he begins an affair. While this occurs, Vincent begins having nightmares where he is surrounded by sheep who are all tasked with climbing walls of blocks in order to survive. After each stage, Vincent sits in a confessional booth, and he is asked a series of questions that eventually determine the ending the player will get. While he is awake, Vincent sits in the bar called the Stray Sheep, drinks, plays arcade games, changes music with the jukebox, texts with the women he is involved with, and talks to the different regulars at the bar. It’s essentially a puzzle game where you play as a scumbag hanging out in a bar trying to solve his relationship issues. If it sounds like a wild concept, it is. It has even shown up at Evo (Evolution Championship Series) since 2015, where Catherine is played competitively.
In 2019, Atlus rereleased Catherine as the revamped Catherine: Full Body, including a new romanceable character named Qatherine, or Rin for short. Within days of the announcement of Full Body in December 2017, there was controversy regarding the character Rin. On Twitter, there were reactions to the trailer showing a naked Rin standing in front of Vincent, who looks horrified. Many began to question if Rin was a trans woman, and whether Atlus was going to play that up for laughs and fall into the “trans panic” trope.
After all, Atlus already had a trans woman in Catherine. The waitress, Erica Anderson, is revealed to be a trans woman in the true Katherine ending. However, there are also transphobic hints thrown within the dialogue of the main characters. One of Vincent’s friends, Toby, falls for Erica. Whenever Toby mentions his affections for Erica, his friends at the bar either quickly try to change the subject or make jokes at Erica’s expense, indicating that they are uncomfortable or see the situation as a joke. Eventually, he and Erica have sex, and Toby tells his friends proudly that he has lost his “V-card.” Once it is revealed in the ending that Erica is a trans woman, Toby laments having slept with her and asks for his “V-card” back. Erica then responds, “Sorry, but once that hole is punched, there’s no refund!” If that weren’t bad enough, Atlus took it one step further by dead naming Erica in the credits. The voice actress for Erica, Erin Fitzgerald, stated that the localization team was working to be respectful of the subject matter. Given this track record, as well as recent issues of LGBTQ+ representation in other Atlus games like Persona 5, the fears about the treatment of Rin’s character in Full Body are and were entirely justified.
While there was hope that Catherine: Full Body could fix the narrative issues from the original, it does the exact opposite. Catherine (either version), in essence, is a game where you play as a character who is -phobic and misogynistic, surrounding himself with others who mostly think like him. Vincent is sleazy, but we are encouraged to support his quest since he is the “hero” of the game. However, Vincent rarely learns that his behavior is abhorrent—the only time he has repercussions for his actions are in the “bad” endings of the game, and even then, there is no indication that Vincent would change anything about his behaviors. His friends continue to support him, including Erica who is often the butt of his -phobic jokes, and ultimately Vincent is rewarded in the end with either the affections of Catherine, Katherine, or getting to live out his dreams. This narrative does not change in Catherine: Full Body. Frustratingly, Vincent conducts himself in the same way, but this time, we have a new love interest for him—Rin.
Rin is introduced running from the shadow of a man when they run into Vincent and somehow fall directly onto his face crotch first. Vincent decides to protect Rin, and he then learns that they are an amnesiac and does not know who they are or where they’re from. He takes Rin to the Stray Sheep, where the Boss and Erica find them a place to stay (conveniently in the apartment next to Vincent!) and a job playing piano for the bar. Throughout the game, Vincent is able to text with Rin, speak with them during the Nightmares, and chat with them at the bar. There is a conversation in the game that felt like a heavy-handed attempt at being progressive, with Erica even calling Rin over to ask how they felt about same sex couples. It feels unnatural with the delivery and writing, as if Atlus was trying to get kudos for being progressive by adding this one conversation. Another major issue with this conversation is that while Rin states, “As long as you love each other… that’s all that matters, isn’t it?” and Jonny responds, “So they don’t even need to be human?” While this is foreshadowing a later reveal in the game, it comes across more as a slippery-slope narrative that you often hear in relation to same-sex couples.
Rin also shows up during the nightmares–the only romanceable character to show up at the landings–but also the only one who does not appear as a boss fight in the climbing stages. Vincent is also given the opportunity in the confessional booths to answer questions for “new opportunities,” such as whether he would be okay with a significant other having a secret, which ultimately leads to a Rin romance route.
This is the point in the game that things take a very bad turn. The scene from the trailer occurs, and it is just as many had feared–Rin’s towel drops, Vincent sees Rin’s genitalia, then when Rin tries to talk to Vincent, he slaps their hand away and they run off. Eventually, Vincent goes to Erica for advice, and she tells him to find Rin and apologize. Vincent then laments the scenario with Rin to his friends at the Stray Sheep, with Jonny even stating that Rin was “packing heat.”
This reveal is very poorly done, to say the least. When you have LGBTQ+ narratives in games such as SWERY’s The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories (2018) that provide realistic characterizations without making the LGBTQ+ character the butt of a joke, it makes Rin’s portrayal in Catherine: Full Body feel exceptionally tone deaf. While The Missing has a purposefully grotesque gameplay mechanic to represent the feeling of discomfort and self-destruction that J.J. Macfield has for herself, the reveals of her character are done in a way that feel respectful. Meanwhile, Rin’s characterization is full of harmful tropes, and the discomfort felt from this narrative is due to the transphobic nature of their “reveal” rather than the empathetic feeling of discomfort in The Missing. Kotaro Uchikoshi’s AI: The Somnium Files (2019) is another example of a Japanese developer including LGBTQ+ characters in a respectful way. While there are certainly some issues with a character named Mama in the game, two significant male characters are revealed to have been in a romantic relationship, it’s not fetishized, and it never once was treated as a joke. There is also optional dialogue with 12-year-old Mizuki in which she praises the LGBTQ+ community for their strength, creativity, and sympathy. This demonstrates that some Japanese developers are trying to create positive and realistic portrayals of LGTBQ+ people within video games, and while Atlus had the perfect opportunity to adjust their poor original narrative, they instead chose to double down and make Vincent and friends even more abhorrent than they already were.
Eventually, Vincent resolves his inner conflict by determining that he loves Rin so he will fight for them. He continues to climb the blocks to free Rin from Thomas Mutton, the Boss of the Stray Sheep who has been the cause of the nightmares all along. Vincent confesses his feelings, and Rin and Vincent decide that they will be together. Once they’re out of the nightmare, Rin and Vincent are summoned by Rin’s brothers. They’re huge, referred to as angels, and a conglomerate. They tell Vincent that if he intends to be with “their brother”—referring to Rin—he must pass their trial of more block climbing. There is a lot wrong here. One issue is that the brothers treat Rin as their property, which is never okay. Rin is not an object they should be allowed to control, and while narratively, I understand the dialogue, it still comes across as an unhealthy possessiveness. Another issue related to the possessiveness is that the brothers go as far as to say that they plan to take Rin, erase all their memories, take them back home, and “re-educate” them, which sounds suspiciously like conversion therapy when put in conjunction with an LGBTQ+ character. It may not be the intention of the dialogue, but it’s difficult to overlook. Finally, Rin never gets an opportunity to self-identify within the game. The only time there is remotely a sense of self-identification is during the reveal scene where Vincent says, “are you a guy?” and Rin responds, “Oh! Yeah that’s right.”
However, there is never a conversation with Rin about how they identify. Vincent and co immediately begin referring to Rin as “he/his/him” or “guy.” The brothers repeatedly call Rin their brother. While Rin never objects to their identification, it would have felt sincerer and more realistic for Vincent to give Rin some opportunity to speak for themselves instead of him stealing the show. While writing this, I struggled to figure out which pronouns to use for Rin. I’ve chosen to go with gender neutral pronouns due to the fact that Rin was never properly given the chance to self-identify. What we do know is that the brothers dress Rin up to this point, as one of them states in the ending that they are sad that Rin will no longer wear the outfits they have for them, including a new frilly dress. This, again, feels like an attempt on the part of the brothers to control and possess Rin. When Rin does choose their own outfits in the Rin True Ending, they continue to wear dresses when performing piano across the galaxy.
Once Vincent climbs the blocks and conquers the brothers, we get one more reveal–the angels that we have been seeing are actually tiny aliens in their true form. They are essentially mascot characters with one eye, pink skin, a light on their heads, and vaguely penis-shaped heads. The game has been egregious so far in its treatment of Rin, but the implication that Rin is actually an alien is othering them as a character. While Catherine is no stranger to the supernatural, especially given the demonic nature of a few characters, making the only romanceable LGBTQ+ character in the game a literal alien is problematic to say the least. While the original “angel” reveal made Rin a supernatural being already, they served as a foil to the demonic side of the game. Now, Rin has been othered in a completely unnecessary way.
The design of the aliens is another aspect of the game that could easily be seen as transphobic. Each alien has a little antenna on their head with a light at the end–much like an anglerfish’s esca. Most notably, female anglerfish have esca on their heads that they use as a trap to catch fish. While I cannot, as a historian, pretend to know exactly every detail of how anglerfish work, what I do see here is a comparison that can be made. An internet meme that became popular in the early 2000s features Admiral Ackbar yelling, “It’s a trap!” in the Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi. Since then, a meme featuring the character and his catchphrase have often been used to refer to transgender women, crossdressing men, or those who have no immediately apparent gender. The last example is more often used when referring to characters in anime, video games, or manga. The implication from the phrasing is that the person being referenced has “trapped” straight men into being attracted to them, which is also the basis of the “trans panic” trope which was previously employed in the original version of Catherine with Toby and Erica’s relationship. While I can never be certain that that was the intention of the design of the aliens in which Rin is a part of, it’s hard to overlook their similarity to anglerfish and the idea of “traps”, especially in the context of the rest of the game where Atlus has no qualms about othering Rin and Erica.
Catherine already failed to include positive LGBTQ+ representation, especially due to the inclusion of transphobic statements from the main character, Vincent, and problematic narratives such as Erica having the nightmares that are exclusive to men. This isn’t even counting that in the new Catherine True End, Catherine time travels to be with Vincent since high school, and for some inexplicable reason, Erica has yet to transition despite the wedding of Catherine and Vincent taking place in the same time period as the original narrative. It felt unnecessary and odd. One positive addition that Catherine: Full Body added into the True Ending for Rin is that Toby and Erica are happily in a relationship in this version. Erica is trying to become a women’s pro wrestler as she dreamed. This is a fantastic scene compared to the problematic dialogue of Toby asking for his “V-card” back.
Catherine: Full Body had the opportunity to take the missteps from the original game and update them to a less -phobic narrative, but Atlus chose not to take that route. While there are some improvements, for the most part Atlus kept many of the issues from the original game intact. While it could be argued that these characters, especially Vincent, are meant to be problematic, -phobic, and misogynistic, it is not a satisfying arc in a video game to not see any type of repercussions for this disgusting behavior.
As a big fan of the original game, while acknowledging that it has issues, it becomes harder to defend a game that had the ability to correct these awful narrative choices and chose not to do so, while also adding more into the game that demonstrates that Atlus does not understand or care about the criticisms of the original game. It’s hard to buy that this is something that Atlus couldn’t have easily addressed and improved. Instead they chose the route of continuing to make LGTBQ+ characters into the butt of the joke or othering them.
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