Extra Credits did a fantastic analysis of sexual diversity in games using Persona 4 as the primary example. Then I started thinking more seriously about Atlus. Then I heard about Catherine.
It's got naughty pix abounding, and on the surface seems like your average sleazy Japanese game. But the developers insisted it was a deep exploration of sexuality and adulthood, so I remained interested.
Since Catherine was released in North America last month, plenty has been written about its elegant handling of sexual identities and mature themes. Something fewer people have touched on is the context of all this arty stuff.
It's not an RPG. It's a puzzle game.
You read that correctly. Catherine's gameplay is split into three parts: lengthy anime cutscenes, RPG-style nights hanging out at the local pub, and the core of the game--Q*bert-style block-climbing puzzles.
We're stuck in the idea that puzzle games have to be simple. All the most iconic puzzle titles are incredibly minimalist: Tetris, Bejeweled, and Lumines don't really have anything at all resembling a story. In fact, they don't even really have a "fiction"; they're just abstract images used to convey gameplay.
There are a few popular puzzle games with slightly deeper fictions. Puzzle Quest features some fantasy RPG elements, and the Professor Layton games feature Studio Ghibli-style art. But in both of these games, the stories are only superficial packaging for the core gameplay, which is still simple puzzle fare at heart.
Yes, this is still superficial. The puzzles would work without the story. But through their connection to the fiction, they made me feel more invested in Vincent as a character during the non-puzzle sections. We understand the puzzles as explorations of Vincent's psyche, and that immerses us more in the story. As great as Puzzle Quest and Professor Layton are, neither are able to accomplish this, and as a result their stories come off as much more unnecessary. With Catherine, I loved the puzzles, but I can honestly say I wouldn't have enjoyed them nearly as much if it weren't for their deeply-bedded connection to the storyline.