I Wouldn't Have Transitioned Without Catherine

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I Wouldn't Have Transitioned Without <i>Catherine</i>

Catherine attracted a fair deal of controversy when it launched, much of which had to do with the game’s overtly sexual nature. The 2011 Atlus cult classic was a game about sex for mature audiences, and 12 years ago, that was still a lot for America. Some retailers stocked alternate, less risque covers, which was easy gaming blog headline fodder. The game’s content itself garnered a fair degree of controversy, too, what with its half-naked anime girls and central theme of infidelity.

But this was only the surface level discussion. As the decade wore on, Catherine found itself under fire for one particular side character: Erica Anderson. For most of the game, Erica just seems like a sweet-natured and flirtatious supporting player. She waits on the men at their favorite bar, the Stray Sheep, and acts as a moral foil to their generally boorish behavior. The central male cast—Vincent, Orlando, Johnny, and Toby—acts standoffish towards her, even though they apparently go back years.

We’re not clued into why that is until a late game reveal. After some awkward flirting that takes place during the main narrative, Erica and Toby eventually have a one night stand, after which Toby seems particularly distressed. This is still shrouded in ambiguity and vaguespeak until Toby tells Erica, “I used to know you as Eric.” It’s a moment that gives full context to the men’s discomfort with Erica, and only after that do we get Erica’s full story.

Erica disappeared during high school after a break-up, where she lived at a friend’s house until things blew over. When she resurfaced in her twenties, she’d already transitioned before she got back in contact with the old gang. After her transition she’s a much different person—outgoing and cheerful versus shy and reserved. It’s a transformation that feels strangely true to life. How many contemporary transfemmes have an awkward pre-trans photo in that green-and-yellow Zelda shirt?

(You know the one.)

Thing is, we don’t get much of Erica’s pre-trans life in the original release. She gets a complete arc in the game, but players never get a true read on her relationship to gender, what prompted her transition… anything. It’s the original game’s biggest shortcoming, and one that holds it back from being truly excellent representation on its own merits. Yet it is—in context—beyond the pail of what we had in 2011. Characters like this were non-existent in releases of that scale back then. Erica was groundbreaking.

She was especially groundbreaking to a Southern teenager trying to figure her shit out. A teenager whose only exposure to gender fluidity were jokes in Family Guy, fetish porn, and drag queens. To her, Erica was the first inkling that something existed outside of traditional masculinity. That the vivacious, sexy girl she fantasized about being wasn’t a delusion, but a possibility. And that maybe—just maybe—that girl could run away for a few years and come back as that ideal version of herself.

It took a little longer than planned, but I did okay.

By the time I’d actually started HRT, the re-release cycle had come for Catherine. After college and four moves, I was in the same Caroline Street GameStop I’d bought the first one eight years prior. Edgewood—a drab shopping district that played no small part in gentrifying the area I lived in through high school—had hardly changed. I had. This go-round I was in denim cut-offs with a side shave and nose piercing, early traces of tits-to-be peeking out from my shirt. In 2019, a revised Catherine had a lot to prove to this budding woman.

Catherine: Full Body delivered. The game follows through on the promise of Erica, with more sensitive dialogue in the American translation and further fleshed-out backstory. We’re given a brief look into Erica’s pre-trans life through a new ending, which is another groundbreaking moment. Delivering any sort of ‘egg’ phase narrative is a dicey proposition for most storytellers, as it threatens to trip up on pronoun use et al from the start. However, these narratives are as important as transition timeline posts on Reddit. Trans girls don’t just start out like Erica—it takes time and effort to get there.

Further, Full Body boasts a new cast member that turns the narrative (and Erica’s relationship to it) on its head. Qatherine —or Rin—is a cis male crossdresser and Vincent’s third potential love interest. Vincent is initially attracted to Rin because he’s under the impression that the dainty, pink-haired cutie is cis femme. When he discovers the truth, however, it forces the protagonist to confront his own internal bias.

Is Vincent gay? Bi? For the first time, the lead has to ask these questions. It matures the remaster into a richer experience than the original, as the core experience now grapples with meatier questions than ‘controlling woman’ vs ‘fun woman.’ The added endings, too, indicate that Vincent is at his happiest and healthiest when with Rin. This reframes Catherine as a story about a man trying to reconcile his same-sex attraction with his own internal bias and compulsory heterosexuality.

Full Body also features ample conversation between Erica and Rin, differentiating themselves from one another. The difference between transness and crossdressing is—if not defined—at least distinguished. Beyond that Erica is a general friend to and advocate for Rin, landing him a job at the bar and encouraging his passion for piano. It’s a tender dynamic, and one that makes good on some of the pitfalls in the original.

Despite these tweaks, however, Full Body went largely unappreciated by detractors at launch. True, it sits at 81 on MetaCritic. Of the 60 reviews documented, however, the majority were written by cis folks. (I counted.) While the average score is positive, those perspectives did little for the queer critics who went in prepared to hate it. What trans discussion of the game existed was few and far between—consigned to Twitter, a select few freelance pieces, and my own coverage at a then-budding content mill. Like so many discussions, it boiled down to an online dogfight of a game being “good for” or “bad for” trans people. Perspectives were reduced to sound bites, then quote-retweeted ad nauseum.

The conversation became, “this game is getting good scores, but you shouldn’t play it because it hurts trans people.” More culture war fodder.

It was a frustrating experience, made more frustrating by the fact that I was a trans person with a positive perspective on the game. The most exposure my perspective had was not in my own writing, but in a friend’s article—select quotes juxtaposed with more critical perspectives on the game. My own pieces didn’t exactly do numbers, even after we reposted and altered the date around release. Ultimately, I—along with other trans critics—became a sound bite for well-intentioned cis friends and allies to trot out like a cudgel.

This is the unfortunate reality of being a trans person with an opinion on… anything. Even when it comes to our own representation, the conversation ultimately turns to the cis majority. We’re the spark and they’re the gasoline. It’s a process we’ve seen repeated this year with Hogwarts Legacy, and will likely see every year until all of us are dead. Because we’re a hyper-minority, our opinions will ultimately never hold the same weight or water as the majority. It’s why the threat of extermination is so scary for us: because it would be so easy.

Humans, however, are good at learning. If there’s something to be learned from Catherine: Full Body and its lack of complex discussion at release, it’s that cis folks ought to pay more of us instead of just asking us what we think all the fucking time.

Madeline Blondeau is a Georgia-born, PNW-based editor, writer and podcaster. Her words can be found on Anime Feminist, Anime News Network, Screen Queens, and Lost In Cult. She’s also the creator of Cinema Cauldron—a long-form audio essay series on film. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @VHSVVitch.