This is the opening paragraph where I explain for the hundredth time the virtues of low budget indie games and how the lack of corporate resources and oversight spurs creativity while offering a low-cost alternative to gamers fed up with endless AAA hype. Yay indie! Alright, now that that’s out of the way, allow me to point out 2012’s delightful British horror game, The Cat Lady, and how it manages to be awesome with a mere two dimensions to its name (what is this, 1987?) when so many larger titles struggle to create an effective horror atmosphere or interesting story.
For one thing, you can’t get around the fact that the game is art. No matter how you look at it, it is at least as much art as it is video game, seamlessly blending themes of personal psychological struggle in with the disturbing violence we horror fans crave, a story of true friendship, sparse but extremely effective mood music, and some unreal hellscape and dream imagery. It’s an unforgettable story that’s amazingly well-told and engrossing in spite of the fact that in terms of gameplay it consists almost entirely of walking back and forth.
Sure you can pick stuff up and look at stuff and use stuff on other stuff, but most of your time as The Cat Lady is spent either standing there listening to dialogue or walking right-to-left or left-to-right with limited animation. And this in the age of Resolutiongate and full 3D open-world environments with crazy physics and explosions and motion capture and hundred hit combos and towering multi-stage monster bosses. How do you stand out as a horror title amongst all that eye-popping awesomeness?
You give them the unexpected. You make something that speaks to people. The Cat Lady had already perfectly fulfilled what Depression Quest aspired to be without all of the unfortunate baggage that ended up coming with that noble attempt at bringing the experience of suffering individuals to gamers in a language they could understand by taking the soul-crushing experience of living with depression and translating it to a video game. But this one has crazed serial killers in it too, making it equal parts personal psychological journey and visceral horror story.
At one point our middle-aged heroine, Susan Ashworth, wanders across the screen while a song croons “in my head it’s all hell”. The story begins with her attempt at suicide, but she is somehow saved and brought back by a mysterious supernatural woman who tasks her with eliminating a number of “parasites” from the world; people whose very existences are an abomination. But as we get Susan through her first tribulations and back to her flat, we find out bit by bit about her life and experience firsthand the mental state that led her to end her life and continues to make her existence miserable.
The game’s chapters are divided up into a diverse array of tasks; including everything from escaping a mental ward to choosing which one liner to say before ending a deserving bastard’s life to hunting down an out-of-control internet troll, crafting a ghost story to frighten a jerky neighbor, or even simply enjoying coffee and a cigarette. The last one is particularly intriguing because it’s accompanied by two meters. And you know how we gamers love meters. These two represent neither HP nor MP, or even a hyper bar. One is Susan’s level of anxiety, and the other is her satisfaction.
As you walk back and forth accomplishing menial tasks within her apartment, aggravations increase the bad bar and fulfilling goals like eating and showering give you good bar. If you fill the latter first, Susan can finally relax and fall asleep. I had no such luck (thanks to an asshole crow and that dickhead from upstairs) and she collapsed in a heap weeping as her beloved cat looked on and I was sent to the next segment with some disturbing words to think on. “Behind closed doors, I have fallen in love with the razor…”
Eventually, we meet a cheerful (and terminally-ill) girl named Mitzi. The game poetically spells out the contrast between the two women and their individual struggles with depression. Susan -who is immortal until she completes her mission- declares “It feels like all I want is to die, but I have to live” while Mitzi ironically responds that “I feel like I want to live, but I have to die”. Both are tragic victims of inevitability.
In addition to the refreshingly honest portrayal of the tortured and sympathetic heroines, The Cat Lady throws in plenty of classical puzzle-solving in your journey to find and eliminate the cast of nasties that end up in her orbit with some pretty interesting solutions. One dreamscape segment requires you to acquire a lock combination where the 2D presentation becomes an important element when certain background and foreground objects line up as you traverse the screen to put the solution literally in front of your face (although you likely won’t notice it at first). In another drug-induced dream, you are tasked with carving open a giant spider’s heart in a hospital lobby to acquire a narcotic to bribe another patient with. This transfer of physical objects from dream state to “real life” and vice versa is another interesting element giving the player something to think about in terms of where this story is really taking place.
And then, of course, there is the dialogue. While the speech sometimes comes off a bit stilted due to delays between responses, the game does a good job with its characters and in giving players the option to express themselves through dialogue choices, which is always a plus. For example, when confronted by the mysterious woman at the beginning and end who gives you your missions, you can assent to do as your told and agree to the choices she presents, or you can do what I always do: pick the “fuck you” option.
The “fuck you” option (which doesn’t necessarily contain that combination of words) is always sign of good storytelling to me. After all, when someone gives you a choice between two things you don’t want to do, the right thing to do is probably your own thing. Even if it doesn’t affect the outcome, there’s satisfaction in seeing the aghast reaction of a character you’re supposed to listen to when you tell them to piss off. Sometimes in life you’ve got to appreciate those small opportunities to assert yourself, you know?
The story is full of moments of horror, weirdness, poignancy, and even beauty. Try and think of a game that evokes this combination of feelings for a minute. It’s kind of amazing to run across such a unique title that gets so much done with so little. It’s one thing to make a visual novel with player choices and call it a game, but to combine the storytelling strengths of that medium effectively in a true game where you directly control the character is an elusive experience in modern gaming.
In addition to Susan and Mitzi’s metaphorical journeys through the horrors of their own lives, the antagonists symbolize the inhumanity hiding in plain sight all around us in forms such as authority figures abusing their positions, impotent internet trolls seeking to do harm the only way they can with words, or sometimes just random monsters in human form, unseen until they choose to reveal themselves. These disturbing encounters keep the game from feeling pretentious with plentiful doses of violence, badass vengeance, and grisly imagery to counterbalance the more meditative and surreal qualities of the story.
All in all, I was really impressed that such a low-budget title was able to draw me in the way it did. The Cat Lady represented a several firsts in gaming for me by not only putting me in the shoes of a middle-aged woman and making me feel her hopelessness on a personal level, but by telling a story that works on so many levels and keeping me invested and excited when pretty much all I was really doing was walking back and forth. No jumping, (almost) no shooting; just solving a few puzzles and meeting other people. It was a pretty remarkable experience that I would recommend to any fan of indie games with love for psychological horror.