These environments are stuffed full of horrific tableaus: An image of Susan crucified in a room with no back walls opening into a blue sky; a huge disembodied heart beating and spurting blood; a single gigantic eye jerking around; two huge bloody dolls with wedge-shaped white heads following your every move. There is also quite a bit of nudity in the game, which only further highlights the vulnerability of life’s victims. But it’s here that the developer tries a little too hard to horrify the player. One character’s madness is already well-established, and when you think you’ve moved on, an image of the man torturing a naked victim is an unnecessary punctuation point.
But amidst the horror, there is also great beauty, though not the traditional beauty of gorgeously rendered artwork. The design here is almost crude, with quivering line-drawings for much of the character models. This is the allure of a crumbling wooden house, sitting lonely on a windswept plain. A rushing river holds the promise of death, but it is also captivating, rushing darkly beneath a golden sunset. Scenes of wind whispering through a field of waving wheat and the serenity of an empty blue sky break through the morbidity like spears of sunlight through dark clouds; reminders of the beauty that can still be found in sadness.
The animations also convey quite a few scares. The sudden appearance of a menacing shadow; the moment when a woman facing away from you suddenly turns; a ceiling lamp swinging in a half-lit room that no one had been in before; these images made my heart jump into my throat. There are also some truly clever uses of animation. In one scene, Susan is discussing the previous night’s experience with her doctor. An image of the scene appears above both their heads. Push your movement arrow and the characters in the scene-within-the-scene begin to move – fantastic!
Even if you were to close your eyes, the script echoes the game’s dichotomous beauty and brutality. “You will become my hunter. A dark angel through a dark river of blood,” says the old woman. This is not a game that shies away from life’s unpleasantness. Like a David Mamet screenplay, characters unleash their rage, hopelessness, and madness (“your scream is like a poem without words”) in profanity-laden dialogue. But there is a point to this. These are characters fighting for their lives, both physically and mentally. Despite the surreal nature of the game, the realism of the dialogue is spot on. The developer absolutely nails emotional trauma, whether it’s a character discussing her partner’s reaction to a cancer diagnosis or the painful ways in which we dig at and hurt each other when we argue with the ones we love.
As you talk with others, there are many points where you can choose a certain line of action. Early choices don’t lead you down an entirely different track that I could see, but you are responsible for what the game reveals about Susan’s past, and this may influence other decisions you make as the game progresses. You can also choose whether to be helpful, apologetic, insulting, or sarcastic, which may determine how that character will treat you later. It isn’t always easy to determine the consequences of your choices, which is a point one of the characters makes (and not unlike the choices we make in real life). One annoyance with these conversations, however, comes after you’ve completed a dialogue tree. Many times the exhausted choices will disappear, but sometimes they don’t, suggesting you could gain more info by clicking them again. But no, you have to restart the same topic and sit through it all again. And while you can click through the dialogue, some of the exchanges can be quite long.
Sound is of the utmost importance in a horror game, and it doesn’t disappoint here. In one scene, an empty ambulance blocks Susan’s way. As you walk away, you hear a clanging sound. It can’t be coming from the ambulance, can it? As you move back toward it, the clanging gets louder, more insistent. My nerves were jangling by the time I attempted to open what I thought was an empty vehicle. One of the more effective uses of sound occurs in the dark. Once as I navigated Susan through near total darkness, I could hear a rhythmic squelching. My stomach turned in increasing horror that only increased when I finally viewed the huge slug-like thing bucking on a table that was making the noise. After a character jumps from a building, you hear a bone-shattering crash, the barking of a dog, and the wailing of a car alarm; a sad and lonely chorus for the end of a life. And I don’t know how many sounds there are of blood splattering, but I’m sure I heard every single variation in this game.
The soundtrack is moody and at times angry, with original songs written for the game. There are moments where the tension is ratcheted just a bit higher with musical distortion, drums, and bass. These are supremely effective in setting the scenes, with lines from songs echoing what is going on in the scene (“Don’t worry love, it’s only the end of the world”). However, there are times when silence would have served better than background music, particularly the quiet moments between characters where the dialogue should shine alone.
The voice acting is tremendous, which is crucial because there is so much of it during the game’s nearly nine-hour playing time. Susan was a bit off-putting to me at first; affectless and dry. But this only served as a baseline from which the actress managed to build in a subtle but ever-increasing sense of character development. The gravelly-voiced Mitzi presents a combination of world weariness and energy in the face of tragedy at the same time. A pesticide guy with a penchant for rape is beyond horrifying, his slow voice punctuated by heavy breathing.
After a heart-pounding beginning and gut-wrenching middle, the game becomes a whodunit and the action begins to slow down. But this isn’t a bad thing, as the baptism through blood and horror leaves Susan open to reaching out and connecting with her fellow human beings again. She finally begins to learn about the lives of her neighbors, those previously anonymous souls who only served to annoy or ignore her. When Susan and Mitzi finally come face to face with their nemesis, even that is presented with complexity and depth, challenging you to understand why this character would have done what s/he did. You’re given a choice at the end to determine this answer, and I don’t know if I made the right one or just the easy one; regardless, the ending meant something to both the characters and to me.
It wasn't the horrific scenes (say, of a bloody nurse hacking away at raw lumps of meat) that left their deepest impressions on me. It was the more subtle ones. A young woman, vibrant and full of life, is about to tell Susan why she can trust her. Before she can, a vision of a desiccated crone appears behind the young woman, bending forward to softly kiss her ear. And you know – as does Susan – that tragedy will ultimately befall this character. Don’t get me wrong; the gore serves its purpose. It wrecked me and left mre, made me raw and quivering just as Susan must have felt. It also heightens the sense of relief you feel when you get a short break from the insanity while Susan has a smoke and a cup of coffee listening to the rain pour outside her apartment, or when two characters play a game of guess-what-I’m-thinking. It feels good to do these normal things, to start to live your life again, however temporary you know they will be.
But despite all the trappings of death and madness, The Cat Lady (available from Screen7) is ultimately the story of one woman who wants to die but must go on living and another woman who wants to live even in the shadow of tragedy. Death in the midst of life, and life in the midst of death. There are so many more things I could write about what the game means, but the experience may touch you in a totally different way, and that is the beauty of it. At times it seems an embarrassment of riches, and a bit more focus, a bit less gore would have earned this game my highest possible praise. Given the game’s grisly subject matter and unflinching brutality, I can’t recommend it to everyone, but the emotional issues explored here are more raw and real than any I’ve ever encountered in a game. I defy you to play it and not be moved. But do play it. Delve into the darkness and see what it means for you.