The Cat Lady opens with a woman deliberately ending her own life. It’s a violent and disturbing story about depression, suicide, suffering, and terrible violence.
It’s also a heartfelt and touching story about trust, hope, and friendship. But if you’re in a position where morbid and powerfully emotional stories about death, loss and despair could have an adverse affect on you, it could be a very rough ride.
Back in 1992, there was a game on the Amiga called Dreamweb. A point and click adventure game set in the near future, you played as a man plagued by vivid and disturbing nightmares, which wreck his emotional state and eventually have him convinced that he has to murder seven people to save the world. It was momentarily notorious for showing almost several pixels of sexual activity between two pink creatures, one or more of which may have been a human. It seems quite ridiculous now to think that it caused a minor media stir. After all, today we think little of games depicting graphic murder, and interrupting some frankly workmanlike sex in order to shoot a dude while he clutches a pillow over his tackle seems fairly pedestrian. The game over screen was pretty great, though.
But that’s an aside. My real issue with Dreamweb is that it wasted its potential. An emotionally disturbed man who comes to believe he must murder seven people to save humanity? Who regularly hallucinates, and abuses the trust of people he loves to get closer to his targets? Who despite everything, can never be sure whether he really is the saviour of humankind, or just severely ill?
Well, no. Dreamweb almost immediately made it clear that yes, it’s all real. And you use your girlfriend to get close to one target in the same way you use key on door, and then she might as well never have existed. It was a huge waste of an opportunity.
The Cat Lady came almost 20 years later, and finally took up some of that slack. It’s Dreamweb crossed with Planescape’s deathless protagonist. Dexter via The-Crow-except-not-terrible.
I ought to state my bias here. I’ve written about my life-long depression before. I’ve contemplated suicide. Several people I love very dearly have self harmed and attempted suicide. I am not an expert on mental health, nor on suicide, but let’s maintain some semblance of order and suffice to say that any game about either subjects is one that I will observe with a particularly critical eye, but will also be prone to take very personally.
The protagonist of The Cat Lady, Susan Ashworth, wants to die. She kills herself during the game’s introduction. It pulls no punches.
But death, apparently, is no more fair than life, and no sooner has our Susan left the world of the living than she’s punted straight back into it, only now she’s immortal, and charged with killing five people before she’s allowed to die for good.
These five people are described as “Parasites”, but on hearing their introduction, anyone who’s had a close run-in with a psychopath will find their breath shortening, their pulse quickening, their muscles tensing. It is an emotionally charged game. That opening death is no mere gimmick, nor is it the last suicide you’ll see, nor the last time the threat of the Parasites will set your nerves on edge.
Structurally, TCL is very simple. It’s a work of interactive fiction presented as a fairly basic adventure game, with the player controlling Susan’s movements and actions through seven chapters, solving simple puzzles and picking sometimes-meaningless dialogue options as she goes about her day.
There are many works of fiction that rely on shock value, on borderline voyeurism, or on the simple sadism of ‘torture porn’. On the face of it, The Cat Lady is about serial killers doing awful things and the protagonist killing them. But to lump it in with the Saws and the jump scare ghost trains would do it a grave disservice. Rather, the irredeemible cruelty of these people is used to give them a real, primal sense of tangible threat, and to give a guilt-free sense of triumph when you manage to turn the tables on them. Its gore and grotesquery serve not to titillate but to induce revulsion and anger, and their constant threat and unpredictable appearances (not to mention the nonlinear narrative) aren’t just a plot hook – they also convey the subtext of intrusive thoughts. In some respects, the Parasites are a metaphor. It’s never overt or crude enough to turn them into cartoon avatars of mental illness that you can kill to cure yourself, but it’s there, a faint shadow beneath the surface.
The psychopaths in question are the Hollywood kind – transparently monstrous serial killers, cannibals, bogeymen with carefully ironed shirts. They’re the tiny minority of psychopaths who also happen to be insane sadistic murderers, not the regular, non-lethal emotional manipulators most of us will fall afoul of at some point. I confess that I was hoping to see more of the latter, but that would make it a very different game. Indeed, the opening had my head spinning with the possible directions the story could take. The setup opens up doors for Susan to become the deathseeker, the heroic serial killer, a vigilante fighting cruelty over crime, the cosmic plaything, the supernatural who might just be imagining the whole thing. That it never fully commits to any of these narratives is a double edged sword, but it does manages to bring together elements of all of them into a mostly coherent whole.
For her part, Susan is much more realistic. She doesn’t have Hollywood Depression (symptoms include being a bit sad, complaining a lot, and being an attractive young woman holding her head in her hands) nor does the game suggest her feelings could be vanquished overnight. She is severely depressed, and genuinely wants to die. The news that she’s now immortal, and later, the fact that she’s done brave and impressive things, don’t magically make everything okay. On the face of it this might seem dissonant, but to anyone familiar with depression, it’ll be all too close to home.
Then there are the Parasites-as-concept, and the paranoia their existence brings. If you’ve tangled with a psychopath, you already know that when someone gains your trust and betrays it, you question everything and everyone. Your dearest friends are suddenly cast in the light of suspicion and fear. It drives you to mistrust everyone when you need someone to reach out to the most.
Both these aspects turns the game into two stories – there’s Susan the paranoid, miserable hermit, and Susan the hero, but they’re both the same, and that’s kind of the point. It’s a horribly violent game of death and mutilation, and it’s a sweet and simple game about pain and friendship. Neither would be very interesting on its own. It’s the weird juxtaposition of the two that makes the game interesting, and also hits so painfully home. Depression isn’t consistent. It’s not the same behaviour every day. It’s smiling to hide how terrible you feel, it’s doing great things but hating yourself anyway. It’s feeling emotional equivalence between saving someone’s life and your neighbour being mean to you. It’s Michael Rosen’s Sad Book.
And that’s where TCL is truly great. Susan, openly calling herself The Cat Lady within an hour of playtime, in a scene straight out of superhero fiction, represents an immortal avatar of righteous vengeance, and at the same time, a vulnerable, lonely, desperately unhappy sufferer. She can do something wonderful, and then come home and want to die.
If you’ve been there, you’ve been there. But even if you haven’t, I can see it being pretty powerful, because the game isn’t only about her. From your first interactions, it’ll be clear that Susan’s being dragged into the world she tried to leave, and one way or another is going to have to deal with that. Just because you can’t die, doesn’t mean you can live, and by the end of the game you’ll be past merely trying to stop the Parasites, and faced with the question of what comes after they’re gone, when you’re suddenly mortal again. There’s one long scene in particular, a sudden oasis of calm and slightly dull normality in the middle of all that drama and carnage, that’s the most important scene of the game simply because it presents hope, in a form that requires no magic, superpowers, or unavailable resources.
It’s not without its problems. The story falters in the middle. The animations are crude and repetitive, and the game almost lampshades a few times, deliberately moving the camera away from the action because those animations were too complicated or expensive. A few characters sound like they’re delivering their lines by telephone, and while the voice acting works for the most part, there are a couple of performances that fall woefully short, and even the good ones falter, often at the moments that should be the most dramatic.
I don’t blame the actors, who with one big exception do a decent job – it seems like a simple budget constraint more than anything. In fact, that’s characteristic of most of my complaints about the game. It’s clearly constrained by available resources. There are also scenes and characters who are unconvincing or a little too ambiguous, with one of the Parasites in particular making little sense, and meeting a very dissatisfying end, and some characters’ reactions to events left a lot to be desired. It’s a real test your suspension of disbelief.
Its weird art style sits uncomfortably at first, and its music sometimes feels a tad too dissonant – notably the sudden lyrical pieces, which frankly were a mistake. It shifts abruptly when scripts are triggered, which is most jarring during dramatic scenes. Nonetheless, it achieves a lot with what little it does have available. Both sound and graphics come into their own in establishing the tone, and Susan’s present state of mind, with her monochrome flat a stark contrast to the vivid colours seen when fighting the Parasites, and most of her time at home accompanied by rain on the windows, interspersed with angsty whinge rock and the unwelcome intrusions of telephones and too-loud knocks on the door.
It goes without saying that The Cat Lady isn’t a game for everyone, and may even be divisive among people who’d be interested in its subject matter. Its impact hinges on few characters and sometimes shakey performances, and its inconsistencies and rough edges might be too much for some to swallow. I could definitely understand if either puts you off, but even if I’d given up after the first hour, I’d still rank it as one of the most memorable and emotionally affecting games I’ve ever played.