Catherine is a 2011 horror-puzzle game about a commitment-averse 30-something whose fears about relationships manifest in his dreams as massive, unstable block towers that he must summit to avoid death. Competitive Catherine is about two sheep (bear with me) locked in a contest to see who can survive the same type of scenario. But how does a prospective player get good at a game like this?
The competitive version of the game’s actually been featured as a side tournament at Evo, the biggest fighting game tournament in the world that’s held annually in Las Vegas, since last year. (Which is to say: Evo itself doesn’t sanction the tournament, but it happens anyway.) While hitting sheep with pillows doesn’t sound like typical fighting game fare, that doesn’t stop the community around the game from treating it like one. They’ve even created a makeshift set of rules for competitive play.
Unfortunately, Catherine and its base set of rules is not particularly easy to begin with. At a glance, it vaguely resembles a weird, mature version of Qbert, and its sadistic gauntlet of puzzles will seriously test your mettle before the credits roll — which, by the way, is required to unlock the two-player Coliseum mode that tournament players use to compete.
As a primer: the basic goal in Catherine is create a path to the top of a tower by pulling and pushing the blocks it’s made up of, using strategies like creating steps and shimmying across blocks by hanging off them. You have to move quickly, because the base row of each tower will crumble, dropping the next row down to replace it. If you’re on the bottom when it happens, you die.
Scott Williams, a QA tester who worked on the game at Atlus, says that playing Catherine competitively isn’t too different from playing the single-player game, only you’ve got someone else to worry about.
“You get that added element of unpredictably of another player going up against you, and it gets pretty wild,” Williams says. “A game can end very quickly. You really have to think on your feet to beat the other person.”
This is largely because playing Catherine against another player means you have to contend or make use of both with the obstacles, hazards, item pick-ups and layout of the stage itself. As the game goes on, trap blocks and other dangerous elements are thrown into the randomly-generated make up of each level — as well as an opponent who is trying to attack or undermine you.
Interestingly, and unlike single-player, playing competitively also means you can fight your opponent rather than simply racing to the top, which players often choose to do. You can hit your rival with a pillow or fall on them from above to stun them, which can lead to combos as you continually knock them one row at a time toward the base, assuming you can properly master the timing. Smacking the other player can also lead to them instantly falling off a stage, if the block below them is not one that can be grabbed.
Williams says that taking to higher ground is a good basic strategy.
“You might want to get up to a good spot where you know [an opponent’s] going to have a hard time getting around you, even push a block on top of them,” he says. “You’ve got to be watching what the other player is doing and what the blocks [positions are] as you’re climbing up.”
John Hardin, Atlus’ PR head who helped host the publisher’s tournament during its 2015 Evo debut, says it’s also smart to take advantage of the stages themselves, which have the same exploding and spike blocks as well as environmental hazards like slippery ice found in the single-player game.
“Even if you’re not ahead, the other player can basically psyche themselves out in trying to outdo you and just make a mistake, “ he says.
Another tip is what Williams calls cornering, where one player moves into a position on the tower where the their opponent is forced to get around them — usually a tough prospect.
“You work to a point where it’s just kind of a bottleneck,” he says. “If you get there first, that puts you in a good position to either try to knock the other player off or to work your way further up and then make it harder for them by pushing blocks out of the way that they need to get up.”
Hardin says a common move he’s seen is to use weak, cardboard-type blocks, which a player can only stand on a handful of times before they disappear, to keep an opponent from reaching the same row.
“Players would jump on those blocks, go a level above, and jump on them again so they’d disintegrate and hop back up,” he says. “It would just make the person below them have to work that much harder to find a route up.”
A more difficult tactic, with potentially a very satisfying payoff, is trying to push or pull a block out from underneath an opponent, either stunning them or outright winning the match if they fall to their death. It’s situations like these ones that make competitive Catherine more akin to a fighting game, and the tables can turn to favor either player in a matter of seconds.
In any case, with as much going on as there is, learning the intricacies — and how to navigate them — takes some time.
“It’s not just situational awareness [involved],” Hardin says. “It’s also spatial awareness and a lot of other things that are going on at the same time. Which is I think what makes it really unique as both a puzzler and a competitive fighter.”
Not taking enough into account is usually something new players do.
“You can’t just be reactionary to what your opponent is doing you have to have your own strategy going into it,” Hardin says. “From my perspective, it’s just that single-minded mentality of getting to the top. That’s the biggest mistake that starting players make.”
And while there are certainly some more complex approaches players can take, it’s best not to panic above all.
“If you’re not experienced with the game it kind of be overwhelming, but if you’re calm, you can find the game will slow down for you, as it were,” Williams says. “If you’re panicking and [only] trying to climb, you’re probably going to get yourself into trouble very quickly.”
Difficulty aside, Hardin says it’s great to see a community spring up over a five-year-old game — and it’s amazing to see the depth players have found in its design.
“Once you kind of understand what’s going on you’re like, ‘holy shit, how do these guys do that?’” he says. “The fact that it can change so quickly and decisively in a very short period of time makes for some pretty exciting matches.”