Why Catherine's marketing team did a disservice to video games as an art form
I'll start by saying this: I have yet to play Catherine. As a broke college student, I don't always have $63.59 lying around to pick up the latest releases, awesome or not. However, I have done my research in the form of ravenously devouring every review of this game I have come across to get an idea what it was about. My presumptions were proven wrong and I must say that this forward thinking title will soon be part of my collection. Once I compared the reviews to the advertisements I have seen everywhere, though, I must say, I'm insulted.
To quote an adage that has been around for quite some time: sex sells. I have countless friends that went to see the Transformers movies simply because Megan Fox was in it and then were hesitant to see the third one because she wasn't. Many in the hip-hop world argue Nicki Minaj wouldn't have been as successful without her bodacious booty (I'm not one of them). Pornography is one of the biggest industries in the world. You get the picture: sex sells.
What makes video games different from these fields, however, is that they are still looked down upon as a child's play thing despite the copious amounts of statistical data that runs contrary to these presumptuous critics' view of video games. Roger Ebert refuses to look at them as art, just a few weeks ago a popular morning talk show laughed at the notion of any man in his 30's playing a video game and I have been given sideways looks every time I passionately get into a discussion about my favorite video game with someone.
Now for my point: what in the hell was the marketing team behind Catherine thinking? To whom did they think this game was being marketed and what did they think it was about? I’ll feed you the information in the order it was given to me; advertisements first and reviews excerpts second to see if you are thrown for as big of a loop as I was.
There’s the cover art:
Now for some advertisements:
So, give me a few wild guesses on what you think this game is about given what you have seen here. A porn simulator for some kid discovering his first boner on the playground? A game providing a big box of ammunition for some CNN or Fox News pundit to jump to conclusions about? Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball: The Some-Random-Chick-With-Her-Leg s-Spread-Named-Catherine Edition? And hey! You can even head over to the official site for some more misleading photos! Score! Sure, further reading gave me a better idea concerning the meaty content the game had to offer and changed my mind a bit, but why did they have to plaster up-the-skirt shots all over the site? How do you think that would look on the 5 o'clock news?
Before I get to the review excerpts, I’ll shoot some honesty your way: I dismissed this game almost as soon as my eyes fell on it. Sure, I saw the pictures in previews that depicted some puzzle solving and some jibber jabber about a story but what was sitting at the forefront of my mind the whole time were those photos. I wrote the game off as some low brow trash targeting what some marketing team thought would be a desperate never-had-a-girlfriend type (oh, wait, we’re gamers! I forgot that we’re all like that. My bad!) longing for something pretty to look at.
But imagine the shock I went through almost as soon as I saw the review scores pouring in this week:
At 1up (who rewarded the game an “A”):
Catherine surprised me. Plastered with scantily clad ladies and come-hither artwork, Atlus' marketing materials make it look like yet another sleazy, pandering gal game from Japan. The reality of the game is far different, and considerably more nuanced. It's sometimes sexy, and it's often sexual, but it uses its "adults only" tone in a genuinely adult way.
At Gamespot (who rewarded the game an 8.5/10):
This story-heavy puzzler is mature and occasionally profound, exploring themes like sexual fidelity, personal responsibility, and trust. Catherine doesn't just challenge your hand/eye coordination: It challenges your intellect and your emotions.
At IGN (who rewarded the game a 9/10):
…but it's the fact that the game deals with two issues in particular that gaming pretty much never broaches -- a fear of commitment and cheating on your loved one -- that lends to its uniqueness.
Doesn’t seem like much of a juvenile walk through the more perverted corners of your mind so much anymore, does it? This is a game that is challenging the conventions of our medium with thought provoking themes and questions about human nature and what does it get presented as? Some sleazy, pandering, exploitation of women that just exemplifies one of the many stereotypes that us gamers are tagged with every day by the rest of society.
What makes it worse is that movies and books have dealt with similar themes for years and somehow have managed to market themselves in an adult fashion. Movies like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Presumed Innocent” are all considered great examples of film and were presented in a mature way. “The Scarlett Letter” has also dealt with this theme and is considered a classic. Why does this video game, in all of its maturity, get neutered by such a cheap marketing scheme?
The thing about video games' biggest critics is that they are usually the least informed on the topic. I did my research as I'm sure anyone reading this blog will have as well. Do you think that the naysayers of our culture will do the same? One look at the advertising material will send uninformed people into a frenzy. If we want to be taken seriously, we have to present ourselves in such a way.
Don't take what I am saying the wrong way, though. I would never suggest we censor, water down, or alter in any way the content of the game, that is not the problem here (The sexual content, from what I understand, is actually not as prevalent as the cover would lead you to believe). I am not opposed to having Catherine on the front cover either. But can't it be done in a more tasteful manner? How is this going to be taken seriously if she is posed in lingerie like some cheap pin up on the cover? She is much more than that to the story and even if Catherine moves more units because of the cover, it isn't selling for the right reasons and defeats the purpose of the game's narrative.
What if "The Scarlet Letter" had a depiction of Hester Prynne having sex with her lover on the cover? In addition to not being taken seriously, the book would have been utterly misrepresented because the actual sex plays a very small role in the overarching plot in the book despite being the thing that set everything in motion. To use an example from video games: what if L.A. Noire's cover depicted Cole Phelps in the passionate throes of forbidden love with Elsa Lichtmann? Sure, it had a big impact on the story, but does that belong on the cover?
One thing that I want for this industry (and hopefully you do too), is for it to get some recognition. Not the type of recognition it has gotten so far in the vein of condescending reports on news channels, the witch hunts that plague it and burn it at the stake after every sad and tragic school shooting or the court cases that try to insist we can’t monitor ourselves, but the type that you can be proud of. In order for that to ever happen, this type of marketing and thinking about the things that appeal to our crowd has to not just stop, but change altogether.