Haven’t written anything here in a while. Been busy. But when my partner gave me a lovely gift last month (the flu), I finally got around to playing The Cat Lady. So now I write a review, just for funsies.
Unusually in the world of games, The Cat Lady begins with a suicide attempt, and concludes with some general ponderings on the topic of depression. This indie adventure takes great pains to explore the psyche of those on the edge. But despite where its intentions may lie, it’s in between these psychological bookends that the game really shines.
You’re Susan Ashworth, perhaps the only videogame protagonist to have swallowed a fistful of sleeping tablets half an hour before the opening cutscene. Susan has depression, though we’re not really sure why at the start. By the end we have a much clearer picture, but it’s a muddled story, one that never quite seems to grasp the illness it’s discussing, despite an admirable effort. We’re taught, in essence, that there must be a tangible reason for a person being mentally ill, some sort of deep-seated trauma that’s been hidden away for years, and that grates a little bit. The uneven writing doesn’t help.
From Susan’s near-death dream-world, we’re flung back into the land of the living by a strange old woman in a hut, who insists that we kill a series of “parasites.” They aren’t really people, we’re told. They are monsters, who seek only to harm others, and it’s Susan’s job to rid the world of them. Only in death has her life found purpose.
There’s a really intriguing moral tug-of-war going on here, and a heavy implication that there’s more to things than meets the eye. Frequent, tastefully handled scenes of people’s final moments appear each time Susan blows out a candle, which is how she returns to the living world: a reminder, perhaps, of how intrinsically linked life and death truly are.
But back in that living world, the game’s strongest suit is its grizzly revenge story, rather than its musings on morality and mental health. The game’s nasty collage of desaturated images provides a perfectly suited art style, and while the surreal, glitchy character animations might be a result of the budget rather than a creative choice, they give The Cat Lady a persistently unsettling tone.
It’s an aggressive game, with plenty of nods to survival horror, even within its sort-of-point-and-click template. Susan must be the most unfortunate human being on the planet, murderers and rapists targeting her one after the other, and the gruesome methods by which she defends herself and others never stop shocking. The Cat Lady skillfully avoids feeling gratuitous by straying confidently into comicbook territory in its presentation of violence, but there’s always something unnervingly real about these situations, no matter how bizarre the context and how plentiful the blood.
Puzzles are handled with varying success, the early game’s strange, convoluted dreamworld-logic thankfully giving way to more sensible inventory tasks later on. Revelations about Susan’s past form the bulk of the game’s particularly talky middle section, but it’s also here that the real star of the show comes into her own. Susan’s new lodger, Mitzi, provides the real driving force for the story’s second half – and while The Cat Lady has a tendency to meander as the clock ticks on, you’ll keep playing for Mitzi’s rivetingly candid character development.
It’s through gritty atmosphere and unsettling imagery that The Cat Lady really shines, but the game’s climax – involving Mitzi’s own adversary – comes as a refreshing surprise. While I don’t think it handles depression particularly well, it’s still a game with something interesting to say about the assumptions we make of people, and the way our lives interlink. And although my fondest memories of The Cat Lady involve a gas mask and a shotgun, its quieter, more reflective moments left a mark in their own way.