A Kentucky resident thoroughly passionate about games and gaming culture. I do graduate work in English, and all other times I'm likely doing something gaming related. Is that unhealthy? Actually, don't answer that.
I've been a member of Destructoid for probably three years now, but this is my first time contributing to the community, though I have always loved this community.
Tomorrow Corporation’s recent announcement of the success of Little Inferno, having sold 250,000 copies, has got me thinking a lot about its counter news story, Square Enix’s list of their fourth quarter failures – Tomb Raider (3.4 mill), Hitman: Absolution (3.6 mill), and Sleeping Dogs(1.76 mill) – despite each of the game’s figures dwarfing Little Inferno’s sales by ludicrous margins. It’s almost unfathomable for me to consider this discrepancy.
I preface my conversation on the basis that I am no Michael Patcher (though some would say that’s a good thing). I am no sort of trained business analyst. My views are informed about what I see in the industry and what I read, so take my perspective for what it is. But I would highly doubt anyone else would look at these two stories together and not get frontal lobe whiplash. How exactly is it that Tomorrow Corporation can claim its fireplace simulator which has only sold a quarter of a million a success when the behemoths of industry fail in their pursuits and sell 15 times as much as Inferno?
In all honesty, it isn’t really that hard to explain. Tomorrow Corporation boasts a staff of three, whereas Square Enix (and other big publishers) craft development teams of 200 plus; obviously, there’s a lot more mouths to feed. It’s great that such large quantities of people are getting work, but that still causes financial burden to the AAA developer and publisher. That’s not to even mention the development of cutting-edge graphics technology, to which such a financial risk must be countered with a multi-million dollar marketing campaign to try to make sure the consumer is aware of your financial investment. When you just look at it, it’s not hard to see why the independently developed Little Inferno gets to claim an easier victory. In fact, you could almost say that Little Inferno is an apt metaphor for the AAA philosophy: burning itself out through excess.
But when you think about it, the story seems all wrong. Aren’t the independent devs the ones who are supposed to be scrounging for every dollar they can find? I mean, they’re supposed to be like the gaming industry’s starving artist, aren’t they? Well then why does it seem like the only one starving these days are AAA developers? I realize that not all indie studios are rousing successes, but when you see success stories the likes Team Meat, or Supergiant, or Dennaton Games, it clashes with what you hear on the opposite side of the industry. Not only have development teams been steadily downsized by publishers over the past several years, but publishers themselves have been collapsing while indie development grows. THQ has sold more games than Tomorrow Corporation will likely ever sell in its lifetime, but THQ could not withstand the financial pressures of the AAA industry.
What makes things stranger is how rapidly this all seems to be happening. Deus Ex: Human Revolution sold 2.18 million copies between its release in 2011 to November of that year. This was considered successful at the time. But in 2013, Tomb Raider shatters those figures in a month, but is deemed a failure. Resident Evil 6 suffered the same fate, and the Dead Space franchise is on hiatus due to what EA considered poor sales figures for Dead Space 3. For as much as it puts out, AAA development really does seem to be grinding its gears in the background, starting to fear its own productions will start hemorrhaging money.
Meanwhile, games like Hotline Miami and The Binding of Isaac are doing so well that they are getting adopted onto mainstream consoles. These two games buck about every norm of AAA philosophy. They are not graphically flashy. They do not cater to wide audiences. They feature themes in games that are wholly unmarketable from a cultural perspective; Binding of Isaac suffered for that very reason in its restriction from Nintendo’s eShop, though since then, Sony has opened its door to them, and Dennaton Games as well. And it’s not that these games shouldn’t be this successful, but when comparing them to the likes of AAA developed games, they shouldn’t appear so much more successful.
The heart of the matter seems to be in a growing separation of development philosophy between AAA development and indie development. And it’s not to say that the philosophies are vastly different. Both take place within the context of capitalistic intent, to make a product and sell the product at a profit. But AAA philosophy seems completely broken in its utilization of capitalism. The philosophy seems to be to throw as much money into a project as possible, but only in the ways to see the return of investment and not on a personal vision of the game, the identity that can draw in a consumer. The goal has become to flatten the identity of the game to garnish the broadest sense of appeal and lose the risk of not appealing, the great “greyification,” as I’ve come to call it. Irrational Games and Yager Development certainly seem the strange beasts in the AAA industry these days, considering what they explore in games like BioShock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line. It’s not like AAA development is the first to take part in greyification – it’s a natural part of capitalist endeavors, to be able to sell to as massive an audience as possible. But while their audience is massive, their returns are paltry, at least according to them.
Again, indie philosophy is in tune with capitalistic endeavors, but their pursuits seem to utilize capitalism in all the right ways. Perhaps their greatest advantage comes in the way they treat the consumer. Speaking from personal experience, when DLC Quest recently released on Steam, I contacted Going Loud Studios to ask if they were by any chance giving Steam codes to people who had purchased the game on Desura, letting them know that I obviously would understand if they weren’t. Their reply: a Steam code. No questions asked. No excuses. Just a Steam code and a thank you for my participation in their game. I thought to myself about what kind of hassle it would be to get the same treatment from an AAA publisher, especially considering the fact that its digital content. EA certainly wasn’t willing to honor refunds for Sim City, and Ubisoft has consistently demonstrated an antagonistic relationship with digital consumers. One could also use Anodyne's recent success for an example of consumer-friendly capitalistic strategy. Its makers literally give the game out for free as a torrent and then ask for donations from those who enjoyed it. All in all, buying an indie game just seems more worth it and rewarding from a consumer standpoint, not only because its makers treat their consumers better (well, most of the time anyway, Hammerpoint, cough), but because it feels good to be a part of something that will likely be considered successful in the future, at least creatively if not financially.
My intent here is not to make the AAA industry out to be bad guys, or say that indie devs are just soooooo much better, or that AAA development is doooooomed or the like. I love playing AAA games. I love their bigness – their lavishness. And, again, without it games like BioShock might not be around. But perhaps that’s part of the issue; their bigness. Capitalism often pushes the “go big or go home” ideology, making the grandest experience you can. But all that bigness does come at a high price, and for AAA development that price isn’t nearly justifying itself. I adore the beauty of a fine crafted AAA game environment, but I realize that there are people needing to put food on the table. I don’t want AAA developers to sacrifice themselves on the spiked-bed of graphics perfection. If we want everyone to win, there’s going to have to be some acceptance of the financial limitations from the AAA publisher and the AAA consumer.
If AAA development is going to regain the success of its past, it is going to require a serious consideration of their philosophy. Indie philosophy, on the other hand, appears to have a pretty good beat on itself at the moment, with the exception of some of its more polarizing figures. Furthermore, its growing success and popularity should erase any of the mounting anxiety current AAA philosophy evokes. People like to talk of an industry collapse, but if that was to happen, it would likely only be on the AAA side of the industry. Indie development and games would still be around, and the leaders of the indie world would then eventually become the next generation of AAA developers, hopefully bringing their own philosophy to the bigness of AAA games. Rather than come to that, however, I would prefer to see AAA publishers rethink their philosophy, hopefully in a way so that all of us can win. Maybe that’s optimistic to hope for, but it’s not beyond impossible.
What are your thoughts, Dtoid community? Do you see the AAA and indie philosophies growing further apart, or do you see them as more similar than would appear?
Like many others who have played through the beginning hours of the new Tomb Raider, I have found myself pondering on the recreation of Lara Croft and the methods in which Crystal Dynamics attempts in order to expand the character and help her find relevancy in today’s gaming culture. And yes, the game isn’t perfect, but I couldn’t help but myself really getting behind Lara as a character. I mean, I’m only human, and witnessing the kind of abuse she endures in those first few hours is gut-wrenching. But, more importantly, the abuse that she suffers is explored through the way the character reacts to her suffering. Camilla Luddington gives a stellar vocal performance as Lara, and when Lara hurts, Camilla can perfectly capture that empathic suffering – her pain just doesn’t physically hurt, it emotionally hurts. The pain is destroying the fabric of the person that Lara Croft is.
That’s the tragedy of the new Tomb Raider that, at least narratively, helps it surpass its similar island-survival simulator Far Cry 3. Both Lara Croft and Jason Brody start out as wet-behind-the-ears, and both have their share fair of pains, both emotional and physical (watching Jason repair his dislocated thumb made me squirm every time). But with Jason, I never got the full brunt of that emotional destruction that I felt with Lara. Jason never seems to have any kind of identity before the events of Far Cry 3 and discovers himself through its story, whereas Lara – though physically active – sees herself as more of a marginally withdrawn academic, engaging with her family lineage while rejecting the darker side of it, a dark side that she finally must succumb to in order to survive and save her friends. My intention here is not to pass judgment on Far Cry 3, but instead frame a significant difference between the narratives: Far Cry 3 is about power, Tomb Raider is about trauma.
You could extend this claim into the very different island representations the games portray. Far Cry 3, while having a few dilapidated structures, flourishes with wondrous jungle landscape, bright and colorful, urging primal instincts and releasing the animal in the human. Tomb Raider’s environments are far more unpleasant and repulsive; the game is littered with crumbling structures centuries old, dark and ugly caves, rooms of corpses, pits of blood, and unpredictable nature. Even forest areas can appear dingy and uninviting at best. The island of Tomb Raider is a world traumatized, broken by the depravity required to escape and survive. And even if Lara Croft escaped that island, she died there. Trauma killed the person she was.
Trauma is Crystal Dynamics’ tool for getting us to relate to Lara Croft, and it has proven quite effective. And why shouldn’t it? Trauma represents a huge part of empathic connection from the audience to the protagonist. When I say trauma, I’m directly referring to the mentally scarring sort. As Tomb Raider proves, physical trauma is more than capable of rendering an empathic response from the audience, but I think it has to go deeper than just specifically the physical. Take Nathan Drake, a character whose current incarnation is much like Lara Croft’s original character. Drake has suffered a series of physical traumas on his adventures, but the guy just never seems that shaken up about the whole thing. “Oh, climbed a train falling over a cliff. Okay.” Again, I’m not badgering this portrayal; I’m just saying that it’s not empathic. The physical trauma of Nathan Drake is just that, a physical ailment that he can shrug off. It asks the audience to admire him, but not necessarily relate to him. You should just feel good about being empowered.
And that’s the core of emotional trauma and why it causes so much discomfort, it implies weakness; that something was taken forcefully from the protagonist and – by extension – the player. Furthermore, this kind of trauma takes something intangible away, something that you can't get back,no matter how hard you try. Popular gaming tends to gear itself more towards power fantasies, so trauma in the mainstream market is often ignored or portrayed as kitsch. That, of course, isn’t always the case, as Tomb Raider has proven, along with a variety of other popular games which have thrived due to their honest and personal analysis of trauma.
The survival horror genre itself has been built upon player depowerment, often utilizing trauma in the stories in order to make the horror of the narrative to appear all the more impactful. Trauma could essentially be rendered as the most significant element of the Silent Hill games. You feel the mental and emotional exhaustion of characters like James Sunderland in Silent Hill 2, and the above pictured "There was a hole here" is a direct ironic commentary on James' own trauma; the hole is still there, just covered up by flimsy paper. Perhaps more importantly than James is Alessa from the first game, as she personifies the trauma of Silent Hill's narrative and, by her mother’s admission, she “Suffers a fate worse than death.” Alessa’s physical trauma transcends into the emotional, which then transcends back into the physical, and it is the center of the entire set-up for the Silent Hill franchise. More modernly, Daniel from Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a walking disaster of trauma, driven to madness by the monstrosities chasing him to the point of complete divorce from any kind of resistance other than flight.
Speaking on Amnesia, the indie market often gets an opportunity to analyze the nature of trauma in gaming narrative with a bit more leniency than mainstream games. Edmund McMillen’s The Binding of Isaac is the very definition of a gaming narrative about trauma. McMillen has talked about his religious upbringing, and how he wanted Isaac to demonstrate the “self-hate and isolation it instilled” in him. What makes this so interesting is the fact that the story of the game is fairly bare-bones – Isaac escapes his zealot mother and then must defeat her in mortal combat in the depths under his house. McMillen opts to tell the story of Isaac’s trauma through visuals and gameplay. It’s not enough that Isaac battles enemies with his tears, but the physical effects of items do much to portray Isaac’s abuse and subsequent trauma. One power-up in particular, the Wooden Spoon, increases Isaac’s speed, which at first seems strange – that is until you look at the back of Isaac’s head to see a huge spoon-shaped welt, indicating Isaac running from his mother as she struck him with it. It’s some really chilling stuff, and showing Isaac’s trauma elevates the maturity of the game, despite the game's immature artistic aesthetic.
The success of Telltale Games’ Walking Dead series has attributed much of that success to the game’s story, and the franchise as a whole is a narrative about trauma. Getting into spoilery territory, the story of Telltale’s Walking Dead isn’t really about protagonist Lee Everett. Rather, The Walking Dead is the story of Clementine and her coming to grips with trauma at a young age. Clementine has often received accolades as one of the best (if not the best) child character in gaming. Again, much like Camilla Luddington’s voice work with Lara Croft, Melissa Hutchison knows how to show trauma, and has won awards for her work with the character. Hutchinson’s work notwithstanding, I’d argue that Clementine’s appeal comes from the way in which she absorbs and processes the traumas we see her endure. We feel for her, knowing that she has to carry these events with her for the rest of her life, her childhood robbed from her by a horrific fate. The ending furthers this as Clementine and Everett’s story comes to a close, and the events of Walking Dead will be carried with Clementine into Season 2, and perhaps through the rest of the Telltale series.
We could even take Rocksteady Studios’ work with the recent Batman games as more proof of how demonstrating trauma helps to elevate narrative. The Arkham series is the break-out hit of the Batman video games, Rocksteady opting to demonstrate a true Batman simulation moreso than any other game starring the character, which they do in two ways. First, they make you feel like Batman in the gameplay, allowing you to be the master crime fighter Batman is in stealth, combat, and detection. Second, Rocksteady understands that to truly simulate the Batman experience, they must hit on one of the significant points of the character: the trauma he experienced witnessing the death of his parents. Batman’s trauma is portrayed both in Asylum through a Scarecrow sequence, and in City by seeing both visions of his parents and visiting their murder scene in Crime Alley. And much like Lara Croft “dies” on the island due to trauma, Crime Alley is where the child Bruce Wayne “dies” to be eventually reborn as Batman. Capturing this trauma was essential for Rocksteady to explore the Batman mythos, as it truly is the defining feature of the character, not to mention that doing so helped elevate the Arkham series, both games receiving “Game of the Year” acclamations.
My intention here is not to say that, for a game to be good, it has to examine trauma. There are plenty of light-hearted games that are artistically rich and satisfying, and those games need to exist. We also need games like Far Cry 3 because, dammit, power fantasies are fun and a joy to adventure in. My point is that anything with true aspirations of tackling mature narrative themes must take trauma into account. All of us experience something that affects us on a deep level, something that changed the person we would be forever, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. It is an uncomfortable truth of the adult life. And when writers and developers can tap into that truth, the work they do becomes all the more provocative. While the future of the Tomb Raider franchise is yet to be seen, I'll always feel the trauma of it, and Crystal Dynamics would be wise to keep that in mind for the future as well.
Every time someone has brought that up to me, they say it to me like, “Oh God, Nick, you’re going to be… *thunder clap* thirty. Starting to feel… old… yet? He he he cackle!” I never really know how to respond to this kind of talk. I mean, 30 is still so young in the broad scheme of things. Sure, it’s not my twenties, but given that there is still so much more for me to experience it’s hard for me to say that I feel old at all. Turning 30 isn’t going to magically transform me into some sort of age-bracket appropriate automaton. It’ll be a process of learning and adapting, just like all other decades of your life.
These discussions on turning 30 have left me wondering about my age in relationship with my passion for gaming. I remember being a kid, burning away on multi-hour gaming session, my mother and father shouting at me from the bottom of the stairs to “turn off those games and do something constructive, like read a book or go outside!” It’s not like I never went outside, and I read extensively too, but to them, more than thirty minutes playing a video game was over-doing it. Who could blame them? To them, being raised very traditionally in a southern, small town, video games looked like Pong and flashing colors on a screen with no true substance. They were a purely childish endeavor that gave nothing meaningful back to the user, like eating a pile of Snickers. And, perhaps not surprisingly, that stigma persists to this day in culture. Yes, video games are more widely-accepted than ever, even getting use as educational tools, but gaming’s relationship with youth identity seems continuously purveyed, probably one of the biggest reasons any pundit who advocates for banning violent video games is given any sort of credence. So it leaves me to wonder – if gaming is to be associated with youth, does that mean that the gaming community has tapped into the fountain of youth?
Though I realize I’m talking metaphorically, it still stands to reason that gaming culture has a knack for making me feel youthful. If I’m ever feeling the oppressions of aging and responsibility, all I need to do is boot up a game and *poof, I’m casting spells and/or punching aliens/Nazis/zombies in the face with the butt of my shotgun. When I think of all of the wonderfully goofy, surreal, over-the-top things I’ve seen and done playing video games, I can’t help but feel giddily exuberant about it all to the point of geeking out like a six-year-old on a Surge binge:
Like chasing down a purple octopus hell bent on disrupting the opera by dropping an implausible four ton weight on my ice mage.
Or riding and jumping from missle to missle as they are launched at in impenetrable alien-ship that I for some reason can take down with my machine gun much easier.
Or crawling all over a giant bee to pick star pieces out of her hair.
Or slicing up thugs with a laser katana while they explode into a shower of blood and coins.
Or flying around a tropical island on a hang glider before dropping from like 30 ft only for my fall to be broken by landing on a pirate.
Or racing against my nemesis’ anthropomorphic turd.
Even games with a serious tone do little to completely sway my mind away from youthful exuberance. I giggle along at Max Payne’s constant string of glum statements as he effortlessly guns down five guys, or Niko Bellic’s swearing of reform while he’s backing the car over grandmothers, or Alex Mercer’s pseudo-heroism while he’s running a tank over a street of pedestrians before hopping out and eating a couple. The aesthetics of maturity aside, today’s popular gaming scene features many games that run the gamut of all sorts of cartoonish activities. And I’m certainly not calling them out for this – Saint's Row as a franchise has for a while now ditched any pretense of adult melodramatics, and the series is all the better for it. They do it to be fun, and that’s where it counts.
But what am I suggesting? That older people don’t like to have fun? All older people are trying to get the ski lodge shut down so those pesky teenagers got nowhere to hang out? Looking at the ESA’s 2012 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry, the average age of today’s gaming public is 30, and 37% of those who game are 36 and older, the largest slice of the pie. And as time goes on, that slice is going to get bigger. If anything, statistics would indicate that gaming is done predominantly by older people, and as a 29-year-old I’m currently BELOW the average, which is pretty strange for something that is supposedly comprised of "the young people." So is it fair to say that perhaps all of the things that I associate with youth culture are actually more and more largely being adopted into adult culture?
Not only that, but what about games that are oppressively adult in the themes that they explore? Games like DepressionQuest, or The Cat Lady, or Cart Life are all games that take inspiration from the uncomfortable realities of the mature life. Even Max Payne 3, cartoonish action notwithstanding, utilizes a portrayal of Max that is often a very heart-breaking representation of depression and addiction. And while it is all too possible for these things to happen to kids (Limbo and The Binding of Isaac would attest to that), these themes’ proper understanding require time and experience, both of which are part of the aging process.
I feel like I’m spinning my wheels here, but then again I don’t know if I’m qualified to make a conclusive statement on the nature of gaming and its relationship to age. The human condition often attempts to make meaning of events by categorizing activities with certain levels of appropriateness, and the youth-stigma that clings to gaming culture seems more or less systemic of such. But regardless of that narrow categorization, games tend to mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and even more multiplicities within those meanings. I can be just as enthralled by frantic levels of goofiness just as much as I can be immersed in unflinchingly mature situations. I will always appreciate that games have the impact on me that they do, and whether or not the contradictions of youth-stigma and adult content ever come to a settling point, I will still be gaming until I can’t game no more.
I was in a game store, looking at the wall of new releases, and while scanning I came across an ugly-looking cover of some weird face screaming. Deadly Premonition, it said, and seeing that it only had a $20 price tag, I couldn't resist picking it up to look at it. But one look at the back of the box and I instantly became suspicious of its quality. I mean, those graphics... what year was it again? It seemed obvious to me that this box was attempting to over-assert the game's graphic, mature horror, and the price tag was a last-ditch effort by some publisher who left this game on top of the closet during Spring cleaning and now was trying to make a little back off of its investment. Needless to say, Deadly Premonition seemed like a gag, and I left it to the shelf.
Writing all that with hindsight is hard, because little did I realize how special that game really was. I was willing to let first impressions cloud and rule my judgement, even at a time in my life when I really should have already been passed that. But a trip to Destructoid helped me put things in perspective, and now I can say I have played Deadly Premontion, twice.
When Deadly Premonition came out in 2010, I was just starting to get into Destructoid. I appreciated the site for its honesty and frankness in delivering opinions on gaming culture, and I appreciated the persona and demeanor of the community. Getting on one day, I was surprised to see a big banner depicting the review of Deadly Premontion, confused as to how this game had gained any kind of attention. I figured that the reason this review was front page material was due to it being really as bad as I thought, so I opened the page to get myself ready for a good dose of schadenfreude. Even though it can be a nasty habit, I scrolled to the bottom of the page just to see what the score was before I read the review.
And then, staring at me in the face, was a "10/10."
I took a hard look at my computer screen. The words "Flawless Victory" danced beside the numbers, mocking my preconceived notions on how Deadly Premonition would fair. I immediately went back up and started to read through the review, determined to understand how something that looked so low-budget could be a superior gaming experience. This review persists to be one of the most notorious of the site, but one cannot deny Sterling's passion for the experience that he felt for the game. And his case for it ultimately made sense to me - I watched films all the time that were "bad" but still entertaining. Why couldn't games do the same things? So, taking the review to heart, I went and purchased Deadly Premonition just to find out for myself what I thought about it, and I didn't regret it a single moment.
I blasted zombie-ghouls limbo-ing towards me! I outran an axe-wielding maniac with glowing eyes! I solved a series of grizzly murders based around a seed! I filled my gas tank! Deadly Premonition offered me such a bizarre experience that I too was swept up by it. I thought back to the day where I had first looked at its box, shaking my head that this was a game that I had almost passed up on just because of its budget veneer. The proverbial "egg" was on my face, and I felt foolish for passing such a rash judgement on something that, while terribly flawed, was all the more compelling for its flaws.
This moment for me really can be described as your typical "Looks Can Be Deceiving" lesson, which I had learned before (and obviously needed to learn again), but this really changed my relationship with Destructoid. It made me realize the true potential that games can have, not only in what they can be, but what you can experience through them. That's what's so surprising about Deadly Premonition as a gaming experience; to think that something so self-aware and absurd could present a character-arch that is emotionally gripping, bittersweet, and rewarding all at the same time. Regardless of aesthetics, the game finds a way to make you feel something.
I will always remember Destructoid for helping me get to that clarity. Giving Deadly Premonition a 10 indirectly opened up an avenue of gaming experiences that I would have never experienced in the first place, had I continuously turned a blind eye to them just for being aesthetically unpleasing and creating false impressions of what a game can be. Sometimes I'm rewarded for my branching out (Jurassic the Hunted, Two Worlds II), and sometimes I'm punished (Arcania: Gothic 4, Alone in the Dark 2008), but regardless, I still know that I give any game a chance to surprise me. So Happy Birthday, Destructoid! Many others and I wish you many more!
So I purchased The Cat Lady on Desura a couple of nights ago. I beat it the next day. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to make the game sound like it scrimps on content. In the midst of getting school work finished ahead of schedule that morning, I decided to indulge myself with an all-day gaming session. I had picked up a few new games with my tax return, Cat Lady being one of them, so I figured it’d be a good time to put a dent into them before they vanished into the obscurity of the backlog. But after I started getting deeper into The Cat Lady, it was clear to me that it was the only game I was going to be playing that day. Call it a hunch...
Actually, call it more than that. Call it a lot more things. You'll have to play The Cat Lady to figure out what you're going to call it, but for me, I call it something so brutally honest in its portrayal of heart-breaking psychological damage and human depravity that I can only call it one thing: beautiful. You need to play The Cat Lady.
Created by Harvester Games, The Cat Lady is horror-adventure game that offers a sober meditation on depression, friendship, and brutal violence, amongst other things. Playing as Susan Ashworth, you just might be the most unlikely of gaming protagonists – a forty-year-old plus cat lady suffering from extreme (and likely clinical) depression. She keeps to herself in her lonely flat, only allowing herself the company of cats. Within moments of the game introducing her to us, she attempts to take her own life with sleeping pills. Following her suicide, Susan enters a surreal world and meets an old woman with a ghastly voice who tasks her with eliminating five “parasites,” psychopaths who torture and kill. These murderers aren’t your colorful cooky types like in Suda 51 games, nor do they attain the level of cathartic glee one sees in the likes of villains such as The Joker or Handsome Jack, nor do they provide some kind of psychological confrontation with Susan. These parasites are visceral, vile outliers of the social fringes, and Susan’s pain and death is their perverse joy. They are awful, significantly disturbed people.
In order to complete her task, the old woman grants Susan immortality, but her definition of immortality is a spin on the concept of player immortality; while she can be killed, she can never stay dead. This is the first thing about The Cat Lady that stayed with me as I went through the game. Yes, we, the player, are accustomed to experiencing a multitude of pains and deaths in the course of a game. But once that checkpoint or save state has been loaded, that death is ultimately irrelevant in the course of the story. But for Susan, that’s not the case. She must endure each death, and after death, transcend back into the world of the living. So regardless of her immortality, Susan experiences each death, victimized time and time again by savages with only her wits to defeat them.
For fans of classic adventure games (your Monkey Islands and the like), The Cat Lady will be right up your alley, though you won't be pointing-and-clicking through the game. Gameplay takes place in a 2D plane, controlling Susan's movement with the left-right arrows, and observing environments and items with up. Once Susan has picked up an item, the down arrow will take you into your inventory, which is always displayed at the bottom of the screen. It's an incredibly easy game to pick up and play, granted that you are willing to observe some bleak nastiness and gore.
“Bleak” may be one of the best adjectives for The Cat Lady. It’s not enough that this is a game in which a defenseless sufferer of depression is killed and tortured; the game’s color-palette is filled with black and grey. The graphics very much evoke a sort of bizarre graphic novel style, using real pictures as backdrops for the animated characters. There are moments of color, and though it can be beautiful, color is rarely soothing. Red blood looks filthy as it spills over ugly walls, and other colors generally create more of an off-set other-worldliness to environments, some environments providing mind-fuckery on the level of Silent Hill. Speaking of other-worldliness, character animation sets out to create this atmosphere as well. Many characters often move about like freakish marionettes. It looks like a Monty Python animation if Monty Python was off its anti-depressants. It adds to the detachment Susan feels with humanity, making all other characters appear… well, off, which compounds the game’s bleak feeling.
But while The Cat Lady is chocked with bleakness, the game is incredibly heartfelt. Susan eventually meets someone who won't let herself be pushed away, a twenty-something woman named Mitzi, and the growing friendship between Susan and Mitzi becomes a driving force of hope in the game. Initially coming to her as a potential and pushy flatmate, Susan is none too happy to have an interloper in her sad life, but as they spend more time together, Susan comes to depend on Mitzi’s friendship more and more, and the audience depends on that friendship as well. Through Mitzi, we are able to learn Susan’s past and understand her depression better. Soon, you appreciate Mitzi not just for her moments of social relief for Susan, but you also appreciate that knowing her means knowing Susan. The game's dialogue is especially noteworthy. While some may find an occasional melodramatic line, the voice acting is exceptional from basically the entire cast, and the way in which people talk to one another is often genuine and believable. When characters speak, their sincerity and their feelings are clear.
And that's what makes The Cat Lady such a haunting experience; its dedication to feeling. Borrowing something from a fellow Dtoider, Xenoxen, when discussing alternate names for To the Moon, The Cat Lady is a game in which the "feel train never stops." There is not a single moment in the game that doesn't try and make you feel something. Every new room and new scene is ripe with atmosphere, the emotions of the characters spilling into the physical world. With this game, you can just feel the personalness of it all. In an industry where creative teams are 300-600 sized behemoths, often getting lost behind a myriad of explosions and quick-time-events, it is so wonderful when you really feel an intimate connection with those who make their game.
There's more to say about The Cat Lady, but it I feel it would be a disservice to go on any longer and just let you experience it for yourself. If you're a fan of horror, of adventure games, of bizarre graphics, or of great game narratives, you should do yourself a favor and dig twelve bucks out of your pocket and go pick this up. A game like this is a rarity, and much like Lone Survivor, its essentially made by a single person who has been seeking to publish the game on Steam through Greenlight, but so far to no avail. But people should take notice. The story of Susan Ashworth is not for the squeamish, but it is a story that beautifully haunts my psyche. I've often been haunted by games before, but not quite like The Cat Lady.