Death becomes her
The Cat Lady is a messed up video game. Everything you encounter is ‘off’ in some way or another. It is a dark and twisted little adventure game that explores some incredibly sensitive subject matter and yet somehow manages, within all its brutality and weirdness, to handle them with care and insight.
You play as Susan Ashworth; a 40 year old woman suffering from severe depression, who, at the game’s opening, has just tried to kill herself. She is soon given a reason to stay alive, but her task is one that will lead her into trouble and demands blood, and as she makes her way through the darkness of the story and her own mind, the game has no qualms with making her and everyone she meets suffer greatly.
Thematically the game takes on thoughts of suicide, living with depression, cancer, the influence of the internet, and features brutal murders, mutilation, bondage, kidnap, gas masks, hallucinations, shotguns, and an ‘interesting’ use of bleach. It’s horrid and at times extremely brutal, the low rent aesthetics are almost a relief as a full 3D rendering of the events depicted would be genuinely hard to stomach.
The characters, especially Susan and her friend Mitzi, are well written and very human inasmuch as they are flawed. No one in The Cat Lady is perfect; pretty much everyone is broken, fucked up in some way or just plain weird. Part of this might be due to the varying quality of the voice acting for the supporting cast, but often there was this sense of being in a strange land where people are not as they seem yet somehow recognisable as people you could well meet in real life.
However the real triumph of the story is how it manages to confront its themes with well thought out dialogue. It doesn’t trivialise the topics it covers and makes the important step of having likable and sympathetic characters be the lightning rods for the discussion. As someone who owns four cats, and has a dear friend who suffers horribly from depression, it was a tale that naturally sat close to my heart and no doubt had increased emotional impact as a result. But it isn’t all blackness and sorrow; there are good moments of humour and heart, which are important to stop things from becoming an exhausting slog through the grimness of it all. But to be sure, this is not a happy game.
From a gameplay perspective it is very much the typical adventure game, but everything here is played through the keyboard alone. The arrow buttons move you left and right while up and down is used to access your inventory and select items. This system works perfectly fine as the game exists out on a 2D plane but it certainly makes the game feel odd to play, as if it were not odd enough already.
The puzzles are perhaps the weakest point here; often solutions are obscure and don’t always make the most logical sense in the context. The nature and location of many items are also not very believable sometimes, where even the characters’ attempts to explain them come off as rather far-fetched. Finding a bottle of some weird extract sown inside an abandoned sofa doesn’t strike me as something you’d come across too often. Nevertheless they don’t get in the way too much and there is a good variety to way in which you discover how a particular hurdle should be overcome.
It also has to be mentioned that the game looks and feels quite cheap. The backgrounds and sprites are very basic and rough, but again the oddness of the look of the game helps it feel more unique and striking as a result. The music and sound design also do their bit for the atmosphere, although some tracks will be subject to taste more than anything.
The Cat Lady is a hard game to discuss without spoiling it; its greatest virtue is its story and its characters and how it manages to tackle some very tough subjects. It’s a dark story of psychological horror, angst, and trauma. It’s not pretty or fancy, but it’s beautiful in its own fucked up way, where all the clunky controls and odd puzzles only serve to heighten the sense of weird that is The Cat Lady’s calling card.