So I purchased The Cat Lady on Desura a couple of nights ago. I beat it the next day. Donít get me wrong, I donít 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 itíd 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 Ė 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 ďparasites,Ē psychopaths who torture and kill. These murderers arenít 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 Susanís 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, thatís 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.
ďBleakĒ may be one of the best adjectives for The Cat Lady. Itís not enough that this is a game in which a defenseless sufferer of depression is killed and tortured; the gameís 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 appearÖ well, off, which compounds the gameís 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 Mitziís friendship more and more, and the audience depends on that friendship as well. Through Mitzi, we are able to learn Susanís 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.