Friday, July 29, 2011

Atlus' Catherine: Long Inverview with Creator Hashino Katsura

Catherine, Atlus’ hotly anticipated quasi-spin-off to the Persona series, has finally hit Western shores with all its naughty bits intact despite the initial hullabaloo over potential censorship. Reviews have been glowing—Finally, a “mature” game that lives up to the moniker without defaulting to insular prepubescent fantasies of sex and violence.

Producer/Director Hashino Katsura steps up to the mic on behalf of all men making plans for their impending midlife crises and explains how dangerously stable girlfriends, a night out with the guys, and Nintendo Hard design sensibilities found themselves joined in holy matrimony to create one of the most unique next-gen gaming experiences ever.

(Interview originally featured in the April 2011 issue of Dengeki Gamers Monthly.)

Games for adults ‘gotta cut to the chase.

-Generally speaking, Japanese games use young protagonists while foreign games feature adults. Any insight?

Hashino (H):The Japanese view adulthood as some sort of bogus trick, all smoke and mirrors. I guess being an adult is pretty bogus when you get down to it (laughs). But on the flip side, this makes us idolize our youthful "glory days."

At the risk of going off topic, those of us in the Famicom Generation grew up with video games there to provide us dreams, and many of us still pick up the controller seeking entertainment. I think this group of 30-40 year olds came out on top in life. I mean, we’ve got all these awesome games waiting for us as we grow old (laughs). Of course, things will be more virtual by that time, and communication tools will be leaps and bounds beyond today’s standards. So while most current games feature youth protagonists, as the Famicom Generation starts aging into its 40’s and 50’s, I think we’ll see more games catering to them over the next 10 years.

-When creating entertainment for adults there’s always the issue of self-censorship of expression.

(H): We wanted to base Catherine around the disconnect between the title’s worldview/characters and erotic elements, with this disconnect as the selling point. This brings up all manner of self-censorship issues, but in the case of Catherine, the characters are old enough that this isn’t a problem, and we’re able to use eroticism as a means of expression. The visuals themselves aren’t erotic… Well OK, maybe they are a bit erotic (laughs).

It’s tough to make the call between erotic and pornographic,but you're not supposed to go into the game looking for that. If anything, I want the player to get pumped up thinking about the unique experience waiting for them in the puzzle segments. It’s better to let your imagination run wild about the other stuff. I mean, we're all adults here.

The common ground adults all share: Love and marriage.

-How did love become one of Catherine’s dominant themes?

(H): The initial scenario called for soldiers on the battlefront sharing a communal nightmare between skirmishes. But then I thought, soldiers? Really? How many people have combat experience?

On the flip side, everyone can relate to the framework provided by a high school setting. It offers these “that’s totally me!” moments. But with 30 to 40 year olds, everyone has different jobs and lifestyles. There’s no catch-all framework. The only common experience that rings true is dealing with relationships.

For adults, romance and marriage creep into all aspects of our life, some more than others. It’s a reoccurring theme of TV shows, but there’s never been a game that tackled it head-on. I knew I was on to something.

-Talking about games and romance calls to mind dating simulations and their ilk. How is Catherine different?

(H): Dating simulations are all about wooing the girl of your choice. Catherine cuts out the smooth talking. You and the heroine are dating from the start. If anything, this time she’s putting the squeeze on you. (laughs) We’re telling the story of what happens after you jump through the hoops and win the girl.

-I’m curious as to how women feel about the game.

(H): We factored that into the equation as well. When we had our female staff sit down with it, the littlest things Vincent did would set them off. “I hate the way he’s always talking down to me!” and so on. After their critique, I’d ask them if they could forgive Vincent for having an affair, to which they responded, “A one night stand means he’s out the door!” (laughs)

We massaged Vincent to be more amiable over the course of development, but apparently not amiable enough to get away with sleeping around.

-Did the female staff help come up with the selectable e-mail responses you send to your girlfriend and mistress?

(H): To some degree, yes. But at their heart, the e-mails are structured like a guy’s mind. (laughs) Even so, our female staff had a blast playing these segments. Telling you girlfriend “I’m at work” when you’re really drinking at the bar with your mistress opened up a portal to another world. It gave them a rush.

-Naturally males and females have different reactions to the game, but what about the married man and the single guy? I can imagine much of it hitting home, and perhaps even below the belt for the former. How would the latter take it?

(H): While every one’s take on the game is different, there’s always a certain element that draws them in. No one’s immune to love sickness, so even though the content may be questionable (laughs), the barrier to entry is low.

-Judging from reviews and feedback online, a segment of gamers feel repelled by titles with romantic elements. They want their games to be straight fantasy, almost as if they’re afraid that otherwise it’ll come back and bite them in the real world.

(H): That’s precisely why the protagonist doesn’t follow the Persona model—He’s Vincent. Not you. Making the player a spectator helps lessen the blow. And although you mentioned that some fans don’t want their games to be serious business, I don’t think that’s the case. Catherine's story isn’t totally grounded in reality. It’s more of a dreamlike vignette that ties up neatly at the end. Even without the romantic element, the game still stands on its own merits.

-Your decisions over the course of the game dictate your ending. I can see how the player’s bias towards love and the opposite sex could shape their destiny.

(H): That’s one of the interesting things we tried to do with Catherine. Be you married or single, people flock towards romance aptitude tests. (laughs) You hear people joke, “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” A better question would be, “What’s your ending?” At the very least it’s great bar talk.

Jerks get all the chicks

-Let’s talk about the characters. Vincent isn’t your standard hero by any stretch of the imagination. Why make a dopey dude the protagonist?

(H): We were aiming for a “sexy loser” kind of vibe. The sort of guy whose wishy-washy and can’t commit, but eventually does deal with his problems, albeit in his own roundabout away. It’s easier for the players to project themselves.

One thing I was adamant about: He needed to be a snappy dresser. If he looked like a shlub I figured no one would buy the game. (laughs)

-That sounds just like Vincent Gallo’s character from Buffalo ’66.

(H): Gallo was the model for our Vincent. He’s the perfect example of a guy whose actions back up his cool posturing.

-Who was the girlfriend Katherine based on?

(H): Stop me if you've heard this before: A guy's been dating his girlfriend for so long that he can’t remember how or why they started, but she’s beautiful, and everyone’s jealous of him for snatching her up. She’s a straight shooter with a respectable job. Other people say “Dude, she’s hot, what’s stopping you from marrying her?” But once they hear about what goes on behind closed doors, they clap you on the back and sigh “Man, that’s rough.” Katherine is a reflection of this.

-How about your mistress Catherine?

(H): There’s no tiptoeing around it—Young girls are attractive. Not only is Catherine sexy, she knows exactly what to say to us “young old men” in their 30’s-40’s, making her an ideal catch. She’s a day dream come true. Imagine what it would be like for this sweet young thing to make a pass at you. Just to give you a peek into my creative process (laughs).

-Vincent’s friends are quirky and unique. Did you pattern them after adult male archetypes?

(H): There was a resurgence of weddings right when we started work on Catherine. Prior to that, the dominant philosophy was “Men don’t want to marry.” Then all of a sudden it shifted to “Everyone get married!” This clashed with the theme of the game so I hoped it would all quickly blow over. (laughs)

Reading books and magazines during this period, I found examples of men who either couldn’t take the plunge or be bothered to marry. These guys form Vincent’s entourage. The four of them spend their time shooting shit at the bar. I couldn’t help but think to myself during production, “If these were the protagonists from Persona 4 they’d have something more upbeat to say.” (laughs)

-You mentioned that Vincent and his crew get together at the bar Stray Sheep. Where did the idea to base the game around a watering hole come from?

(H): Going back to the romance angle: What place do all adults have in common? More ambitious people might be active after work, or go experience nature on the weekend, but most end up simply going out for drinks. I decided on your run-of-the-mill corner bar, the kind of place you drop by because going back home is such a drag.

-Now that you mention it, although the setting is outside of Japan, it feels somehow familiar.

(H): Whatever impetus there was to make the cast non-Japanese was so trifling that even I can’t remember why. I must have had Vincent Galo on the brain. That reminds me—When I first decided to make the protagonist a cool adult, I faltered between either Vincent Galo or Paul Newman. But Paul Newman’s pretty far up their in years, so I gave that part to Boss, the barkeep.

His friends are named after Hollywood heart throbs—Jonathan is Johnny Depp, Orlando is Orlando Bloom, and Tobias is Toby Maguire. (laughs)

The “Nintendo Hard” of next-gen gaming

-When Vincent falls into a nightmare, the game transforms into an action/puzzler. How did you hit upon this unique mix?

(H): The Persona Team messes around with their own pet projects once the latest game is in the can. A climbing box puzzler was one of them. Originally created five years ago, it was shelved because machine specs at the time couldn’t support it in true 3D and it was too simplistic without a story to back it up.

When production on Catherine began, I got the idea to create a world based upon the logic of this mini-game. Struggling hand over fist in your climb upwards—It gelled with the story.

-Why did you include adventure elements, rather than leave it a simple action/puzzler?

(H): I thought that by capitalizing on our storytelling skills in a genre outside of RPGs we could broaden our range as game makers, which is part of the reason we took a crack at an action title.

-Catherine is different than anything you’ve done before. Did you have trouble balancing the difficulty?

(H): People that get it, get it, and people that don’t never well—We don't run into this situation when crafting RPGs, which made things crazy hard.

During the first incarnation, block placement was random, meaning no prescribed solution. The player would have to stumble their way through with what they had and gradually make their way upward without fully realizing how they did it. And while this trial-and-error style game play was satisfying in its own right, we found out that it just didn’t click with some people, hence the decision to create stages with defined solutions.

By the way, the Japanese trial version uses randomly placed blocks, so it’s closer to the true spirit of the game. It was so wicked that the only way to see the ending is to look it up on Youtube. (laughs)

Let me put it this way—We had 20 debuggers testing the final stage, and only one of them cleared it. And only two of our highly trained developers were able to clear it, myself not included!

-At first it seems impossible, but each session brings you closer to that breakthrough. The sense of satisfaction from getting better the more you play reminds me of games from the Famicom era. I think that’s another turn-on for adult gamers.

(H): During the first play, you’ll get flummoxed wondering why you can’t figure it out. Then as you progress, the in-game hints show you new ways to approach the puzzles, only to let you hit another plateau later on. And another after that. And another after that… That trial-and-error process is a lot of fun. It’s like gnawing on a bone to get to the marrow.

The puzzles aren’t all about reflexes and skill. You need strategy, serendipitous luck, and instincts. There’s no single solution to a stage, and finding your own way is half the fun!

With thanks to Dengeki Games Monthly for running the original Japanese interview.


  1. Catherine is a very unique game. Kinda does make me wonder how much things will change game wise in a few years. Unfortunately for me I own a Wii and almost all my money go's to my bills. Speaking of future check these gizmo's out.

    I don't own one but it would be nice to play games with one.


  2. I've never heard of this game before but it's definitely piqued my interest.

  3. Such a great interview : )

    After watching Pewdiepie's play through, man, this story is absolutely amazing. Need to pick this up for myself asap : )