People call her the cat lady. Haggard and grim, Susan Ashworth is a cipher in her own life. Everyone thinks they know what she’s all about, but how can that be possible when even she doesn’t know? In a story that packs one emotional punch after the other, Harvester Games’ The Cat Lady melds story, gameplay, and atmosphere into a mental wrecking ball that will destroy your preconceptions about this woman and about how adventure games can provide insight into the deepest of human feelings. Its high level of gore will place it in the do-not-play column for some, but for everyone else even a few rough edges can easily be overlooked in this great piece of interactive storytelling.
Let’s get the gore out of the way first. This is an unapologetically adult game that deals with mature themes; in fact, the game opens with a blood red warning about the horrific scenes, sexual content, and violence that await within. Torture, cannibalism, attempted rape, mutilation; they’re all here in abundance. But the violence is certainly not the point of the game. Yes, gallons of virtual blood, viscera, melted faces, and more are splashed across the screen. And there are genuine scares and tension served up throughout the game. But that is really only the vehicle for telling the story of a woman literally and metaphysically fighting for her life. The emotional trauma that she suffers, and whether she eventually overcomes this with the help of a woman named Mitzi, is the real heart of the story.
Susan lives alone in her apartment. She does not have cats, but when she plays her piano the local felines are drawn to the music. She lives her life to the beat of a clock, shaped like a cat, its tail rhythmically beating out the seconds of her life. Always a failure in life, tonight she has failed even at suicide. Instead of dying, she wakes up and finds herself in a strange, surreal world, walking alone through fields of swaying wheat set against a cornflower blue sky.
In this side-scrolling third-person adventure, the controls are unusual but simple, using the left and right arrow keys to guide Susan in either direction. As you move, hotspots highlight when you pass over them, at which point you’ll use the up arrow to interact with them and can then scroll through a variety of actions (use, take, and other object-specific tasks). Once objects are added to your inventory menu at the bottom of the screen, the down button accesses it. In fact, you can play through the entire game just using the enter and arrow buttons on your keyboard with one hand. It took me a short time to get used to the controls, but once I did, I was able to move through the game without even thinking about it.
Inventory, dialogue, and logic puzzles are all well integrated into the story. Upon Susan's return from the world between life and death, she’ll need to escape a variety of scenarios, from hospitals to make-shift prisons and torture chambers. She’ll also need to break into rooms to gather information. Indie developer Rem Michalski blurs the line between reality and fantasy as the set-up for several ingenious puzzles that will have you complete actions in one reality to affect another. Even straightforward tasks become more difficult when Susan encounters them in a dream world where you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Opening a series of doors, for example, is no simple matter of going down the line until you find the one you need; you’ll need to investigate the clues around you to determine in which order to enter them.
You will never carry too many items at any time, and for the most part the inventory puzzles all make logical sense, whether you’re trying to flee from a suicide watch ward or scare the wits out of a bully. You’ll eventually get to use Mitzi to help you pick locks (a welcome change from having to search high and low for all manner of keys). Briefly adding an interesting twist is a pair of mental gauges, one of which pushes Susan over the edge into a mental breakdown if you have her do too many distressing things. The other you must fill by completing a series of tasks that soothe Susan enough for her to sleep. You’ll also get to play as a cat at one point, figuring out how to navigate several rooms as a feline would. Other characters may ask you to recite facts to make sure you were listening. As in real life, you can’t get away with just nodding and zoning out. This isn’t a chore, however, because the story and dialogue are so interesting.
It will take a while to get to know who Susan is and how she ended up downing a bottle full of sleeping pills. Starting in a fever-dream resulting from the coma she has fallen into, Susan wanders through fields and woods littered with burned out cars, pigs’ heads, and a mysterious crow. Nothing made sense to me in the opening chapter, but when I stopped and listened to the sounds around me, I eventually discovered what to do. As the imagery increasingly descends into madness (the carcass of a dead deer swarming with flies is particularly nasty), something awful happens in a smear of blood and you smack into the game’s opening credits and The Cat Lady officially begins.
The rest of the seven chapters have you following Susan on a nightmarish journey of self-discovery. Clearly she is depressed, but you will have to play through the entire story before learning why. During this mental exploration, Susan will meet characters that seem both real and fantastical: An old woman in the woods is called the Queen of Maggots by some. Is she death? Evil? This woman starts Susan on a journey to defeat five people she refers to as parasites. Murderers and deviants, they want to hurt or destroy Susan, so she must eliminate them as she would – in the Queen's words – remove weeds from a garden. Is it purely a matter of survival? Do you kill them to protect yourself or even to save others from harm? These are questions the game will pose as you navigate through dark moral waters.
Along the way, Susan will meet with a variety of memorable people, including a deranged couple with unusual tastes; the young woman, Mitzi, who breaks into Susan’s apartment only to save her life; a murderous suitor; and a friendly-seeming night nurse. A creepy psychiatrist with a slow and measured voice views his patients’ minds as art canvasses upon which he can practice his therapeutic arts. Who is real, and who are only figments of Susan’s mind, was not clear to me the first time through and may still not be clear after subsequent replays.
Nor could I tell whether Susan was a reliable narrator. She’s on drugs some of the time, many of which have hallucinatory side effects. Rather than drawing straight lines through seemingly allegorical characters and settings to literal meanings, I chose to give myself up to the waves of unreality the game crashes over you, letting myself be dragged under. Despite the variety of characters and symbolism (crucifixes, reflections, eyes, blindness) throughout the game, there are two main stories that you’ll be following: You’re discovering what happens to Susan as she tries to find and fight the five parasites, and looking for a man who was indirectly responsible for Mitzi’s boyfriend’s death.
The backdrop to these journeys is a jagged-edged, multi-layered aesthetic that revels in the use of color to set the mood. The designer’s color palette is one of death, blood, and miasma. Like a maestro of hues, Michalski uses colors to increase tension and then release it. Early on, Susan moves out of the burnt autumn colors of sienna, wine, and harvest yellow and into a black and white underground garage dominated by a blood red car. Color is used so well to evoke horror that I swear I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a blue sky filled with white fluffy clouds.
Outside a few brief moments of respite, the game is stark and industrial with a film of surrealism clinging to everything, as if Trent Reznor fell asleep and dreamt of Dali. Everywhere you look, little details add another layer of interest and meaning. The old woman in the woods wears a black dress, but is it just how the light lays on the fabric, or does it conceal the outline of a skeleton? Elsewhere, lights – more of a glow really – slowly pulse in the background, echoing a heartbeat. Characters walk, lurch, or float through the air depending on their state of mind or madness. You will explore many diverse scenes, from woods haunted by evil to sterile hospitals to shipyards and apartment buildings.Continued on the next page...