The Cat Lady

Posted by Scott Bruner.
First posted on 01 March 2013. Last updated on 01 March 2013.
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The Cat Lady
The painting is oddly unusual.
The Cat Lady
Despite being a genre trope, exploration is a key activity in the game.
The Cat Lady
Frightening illusions symbolize the descent into personal horror.
The Cat Lady
Both color and reality are paints on the game's considerable palette.
The Cat Lady
The characters whom Susan meets have their own dark stories.

You really need to play Harvester Games' The Cat Lady right now! Unless you are seriously squeamish around gore and horror, The Cat Lady is absolutely the next adventure game that you must play. (Go ahead. I will wait.)

What indie developer Remigiusz Michalski has done with this 2D side-scrolling adventure is more compelling and riveting than any other contemporaries of the genre from recent years.

A proper description of The Cat Lady certainly goes well beyond what is said in its advertisement—that the game is an horror adventure. It is horror. It is a drama. It is a thriller. It is the story of a deeply depressed woman, whose only companions are neighborhood cats that occasionally gather at her apartment. It is the story of what happens to her after she commits suicide. It is the story told of a woman who has entirely given up on life and on whether it will ever be possible for her to find redemption, companionship, and hope. It is a heady subject matter for any game, adventure or otherwise, to tackle. Despite a few flaws, The Cat Lady is as impressive as it is enduring in its commitment to explore this most serious and darkest theme without blinking.

The titular character is Susan Ashworth, a recluse whose dark personal history is slowly revealed throughout the game. The game is played in a most unconventional manner. No mouse is needed. Rather, every command in the game is executed using only the arrow keys and the return key on the keyboard. The arrow keys move Susan right or left through the environments, whereas the return key allows Susan to access her limited inventory. This simple control scheme works brilliantly, deftly keeping the focus of the experience firmly on the game's drama instead of its mechanics.

The game is divided into 7 chapters, each with its own unique thematic elements and puzzle sequences. The game is mostly linear, though it offers a number of opportunities for you to tailor the story's direction based on how you choose to interpret Susan's motivations and values. Through an interesting game mechanic, the game's relationship with death is unusual (akin to Planescape: Torment)—in that death often opens up more possibilities beyond just an ending.

The puzzles in this game are exemplars of the absolute best in the genre. They integrate perfectly with the dark logic of the game. Still, hardcore adventure game veterans may not be pleased with the ease of some of these puzzles. However, the game's strongest commitment is to its story and not its puzzles. The game perfectly balances the need to create an enigma that is interesting to solve with the need to advance the narrative without making the plot too obscure, foolish, or difficult to understand.

It is likely that you have never met a main protagonist quite like Susan in an adventure game. This extends to the ensemble cast of secondary characters that include some of the most intriguing—and disturbing—villains in games. While the real life demon "parasites" provide the device to drive the game's main story, it is Susan's own growth as a character that provides the hook to keep you so invested emotionally in the story.

The Cat Lady begins with a bold disclaimer that the game features hardcore violence and strong sexual themes and is not intended for a younger audience. Indeed, there are plenty of gore, frightening moments, and disturbing experiences in the game. While the game has certainly pushed the genre into darkness farther than any other contemporaries, such meddling has long existed in films.

In fact, it is clear that cinema has been Michalski's strongest inspiration in The Cat Lady. He shamelessly borrows from the medium to present his tale—and the game is better for it. By using both traditional and innovative camera techniques from the sister medium, he is able to present his game visually with an unmatched cinematic flare. He uses fade outs, staccato images, close-ups, wipes, and even a constricted color palette (the game is mostly black and white), as well as flashbacks, flashforwards, sequences within a scene, speeding up or slowing down frame rates, in order to challenge your expectations of how a story can be told interactively.

It is fascinating to watch Michalski create a postmodern pastiche of horror story sensibilities. At times, Susan finds herself in a sequence reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In another sequence, she stares at a shaking demon akin to that from a Takashi Shimizu film. Often, she gets dropped into a mechanical monstrosity like those from the Saw series.

In addition, Michalski uses sounds with the same artistic flare. Sound effects and musical cues aptly augment every aspect of the game's actions, emotions, and climaxes. The fact that Michalski is able to leverage public domain sources to create these effects is astonishing. The game's music, composed by MICAMIC (Michal Michalski), provides both a haunting dreamscape and dramatic climaxes for the game's most intense sequences with equal proficiency. Augmenting these compositions is the use of actual rock and industrial songs to highlight several of the game's most powerful moments.

The voice acting is fantastic, led by the considerable talents of Lynsey Frost who plays Susan. Her portrayal of the angst, horror, disillusionment, anger, and even sympathy experienced by Susan is essential in making her character so believable.

The Cat Lady delivers a singularly riveting experience. As the game progresses, you will find yourself growing obsessed with seeing what will become of Susan. Will she find redemption? Will she spiral down again into darkness? Will she lose her soul in the horror that surrounds her? You may love her. You may hate her. You may pity her. You will, however, care for her.

The game is by no means perfect. Narratively and thematically, the game sometimes wanders. Some of the villains seem tacked on. More than a few of the game's surreal moments—and there are many—do not seem to drive the story. In fact, there seem to be many detours taken throughout the game which seem unnecessary and merely exist perhaps for show.

In many ways, The Cat Lady is the work of a game developer and storyteller vigorously exploring his own talents while at the same time also revealing how staid and conventional the adventure game genre has become. The mere fact that this game is entirely developed and published independently is simply astonishing. The Cat Lady is a game that transcends the genre, offering up an experience that invites you to explore the darker side of the human condition and come out changed for the journey.

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