So I was really looking forward to my time with Catherine. Sex, deception and psychoanalysis. It sounded exciting - a chance to let some fresh, rich characters wriggle under my skin.
I wanted to 'click' with Catherine - for it to chat me up, buy me a drink and squirrel me away to the bathroom. And then I finally got round to playing it, and our date hit the skids before the breadsticks and sparkling water arrived. I would have been crushed, had Catherine not so expertly sewn up my withered emotion gland.
I'm not blind to the premise of Catherine - that the game is lead character Vincent's figurative struggle between growing up and staying young, and literal struggle between choosing from two not-very-likeable women. But I'm not the one struggling with these decisions, Vincent is. I disconnect from both women the moment they start speaking, largely because whenever one of them talks, Vincent gasps a lot, hangs his head, waggles it about and makes those angsty anime whinging noises. The kind of noises that are usually subtitled as "?!"
That's where Catherine failed me. It presents Vincent's feelings without having the decency to let me decide my own. Despite all of the game's emotional telegraphing, I wasn't feeling guilty, or conflicted. I was feeling annoyed at Vincent for being such an unlikeable wuss, and at the game as a whole for reneging on its promise to make me feel something.
THAT'S NOT MY GIRL
The 'Catherine Problem' crops up a lot, especially in games which use romance as a much shallower device for plot-driving. The games for manly-men in which some bullet-strapped meat-fridge rips out the galaxy's intestines because someone, at some point, nicked / murdered / shagged his wife - Gears Of War, Dead Space, God Of War, et al.
What Catherine plasters over with its front-and-centre focus on relationships is the same basic problem: I won't care about someone just because you tell me to. I won't be spurred to any kind of action just because the doik I'm piloting around for ten hours gets a bit weepy about a character I've never seen, or (in Catherine's case) characters I actively dislike.
So here's my counter-example, my anti-Catherine - the best way I've encountered to build a relationship between a player and an NPC. It's an unlikely love story, set as it is a mile underground in the wake of a nuclear war. Fallout 3's tutorial sequence takes you through different stages of your character's childhood in an underground vault. As a baby, you learn basic movement controls. As a ten-year-old, you learn how to navigate the menu system. At 16, you pick the skills you'll specialise in, and then at 18 everything goes wrong and you scarper off into the wasteland, bullets pinging up the sand as you go.
But at every stage, while you can just stone-facedly ignore your fellow vault dwellers and rush to start the game proper, there's a side character hanging about called Amata. When you're both ten, she's helped organise your surprise birthday party. At 16, she's getting picked on by bullies. And when you break out of the vault, she gets tortured for information about you by vault security.
You can ignore her altogether if you like - you're not forced to be nice. You can tell her the party's crap and let the bullies know she's sensitive about her weight. You can leave her to her fate and slip out of the vault and never come back again. But you don't want to, because your connection to this character is something you've built yourself - and all without some spectral matchmaking game designer pointing over your shoulder and shouting "Her! That one! Look at her! Feel something!"
Nobody likes being told what to think or who to care about. And I'm not saying every game should be forced by law to include progressive candle-lit dinner minigames in which you can flick potato gratin at your NPC date or woo them with your free-form jazz poetry. But games have the opportunity to create the most organic connections between characters in a way that films and books don't - to make a relationship that's built, rather than one that's pre-fabricated. And if you want me to feel something, that's worth a million foppy-haired anime men whining at me about their marital problems.