Friday, June 3, 2016

Dave Critiques - The Cat Lady: Suicide can lead to a happy ending?


Hey hey everyone. Today I’m going to be critiquing The Cat Lady. It’s a horror-themed adventure game that I will be talking about in depth. As always, if you wish to avoid spoilers, stop the video now, and come back once you’ve played the game. For everyone else, let’s continue.

The Cat Lady is about depression. The game starts with protagonist Susan Ashworth committing suicide and finding herself in the land beyond. It seems that death was not the end of her suffering. After some unnerving encounters with her corpse, Susan comes across an old lady who refers to herself as the Queen of Maggots. She tasks Susan with going back to the real world to murder 5 parasites. To aid her quest, Susan is now immortal. These parasites are dangerous, but ultimately they will pose no threat to her.

The game doesn’t clarify the details of this task. We have no idea who exactly the woman is (and Susan’s guesses in conversation with the Queen of Maggots are deflected). She just grants you immortality and tells you to kill five people. Her justification is that they are awful people, murderers who have hurt others and will hurt more. Aside from the moral questions of whether it is right to kill anyone, even someone that reprehensible, why Susan is chosen and not allowed to die after her suicide is never made clear. Susan is not clear about it either so at least we are on the same page with the protagonist. Kind of. We only learn about the reasons for her depression much later on, but their reveal seems to come at the ‘right time’ like its reveal is a landmark moment for Susan admitting it to herself and continuing to get better.

Because while this game uses a lot of horrific situations, contains murderers, and has some particularly nasty moments, the recovery of Susan’s mental state is front and centre the entire time. Learning to cope with depression, making friends, and dealing with the parasites so that they never hurt another person again. Sure those of us with depression don’t necessarily go that far, but perhaps it can be interpreted as a metaphor for getting rid of the negative people in your life who drag you down and negatively affect any progress you are trying to make.

Speaking of friendship, the Queen of Maggots warns Susan that the parasites are liars, and will use any means necessary to get close to her. This puts the player on edge when people are nice to Susan. Two examples are the nurse Liz that Susan meets when she wakes up in the hospital from her suicide attempt and Mitzi. Mitzi is one of the main characters of the game. She wants to rent a room from Susan, and through their time together tries not only to get Susan to open up but help her find the man responsible for her boyfriend’s death. Remembering the words of the Queen of Maggots, the player can be quite weary of Mitzi, especially since the Queen herself appears near her shortly after Susan shows her the spare room.

But Mitzi can be trusted, to a point. One of the final scenes in the game has her admitting all the lies she told Susan to achieve her goal, but despite the deception, Susan and Mitzi do become friends. It’s almost as if the Queen of Maggots’ warning is just meant for initial caution in the player, especially after what happens to Liz. Through my first playthrough, I didn’t necessarily trust Mitzi until the very end, but I liked her and enjoyed watching Susan become friends with her.

But one of the most interesting aspects of the game is the agency of player choice. This is first introduced in the talks with the psychiatrist at the start of chapter two. When asked about her family and her work, you have the ability to answer in multiple ways. The game gives you an opportunity early on to frame Susan in the way that makes the most sense to you as a player. Did her childhood and what she thinks of her parents cause her suicide attempt, or is it completely unrelated?

Then the entire end sequence of the game gives you multiple options. A poison gas fills the room, and you have one gas mask. Will you give it to Mitzi or wear it yourself? Sure, it seems like an easy option as you are immortal, but then again, Mitzi has cancer, and not long to live. Perhaps you don’t entirely trust her at this point. Maybe you want to save her from confronting the Eye of Adan. If you do decide to sacrifice yourself, the Queen of Maggots appears and gives you a choice of the two candles that remain. The caveat is if you choose the wrong candle, your life will end. You can also decide to walk out of the room blowing out no candles. I’m listing out the options here so that when I explain my thought processes, it will make sense in context.

Then waking back up, you confront the Eye of Adam, who you may recall had a hand in her boyfriend’s suicide. Despite what she told Susan, she wants to kill him. Partially for her own vengeance, and also so he can never corrupt the mind of any other person. This is what the Eye of Adam wants. He’s released a significant amount of oxygen into the room so the firing of a pistol would blow everybody up. You now have more options. You can talk Mitzi out of killing altogether, you can leave and allow her to go through with her plan, or you can support her in this final act.

In the episode of Errant Signal about Life is Strange, Chris Franklin spends a lot of time talking about the final choice in that game. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it here. You can watch either his video or my own if you’re interested. The reason I bring it up is he talks about the choice that makes sense to him from a narrative perspective. One of the options will complete a narrative arc for not only the main character but her best friend as well. That reasoning is behind the choices I made in The Cat Lady.

Going back to the ending choices, giving Mitzi the gas mask was the way to go. Due to Susan’s power, no one had to die. Why needlessly sacrifice Mitzi’s life right before she receives closure? When you talk to the Queen of Maggots, it becomes apparent that while she is not the physical embodiment of depression itself, she at least feeds upon it. That is why she’s so interested in Susan. It’s why she sent you back to murder the parasites. Your continued suffering sustains her. Realising this, I decided that I no longer wanted to play her games no matter the cost, so I left.

Refusing to be used any longer, there was no reason to allow Mitzi to kill the Eye of Adam, especially when doing so would sacrifice herself in the process (and no matter how controlled an explosion, there’s a whole apartment building of people that could be hurt as well). As the Eye of Adam is paralysed and his father is now dead, there is little he can do if he is unhooked from his computers. The only thing to do is to stop Susan’s only friend from making a mistake she would regret, even if it didn’t result in her own death.

And with these choices made, Susan receives close to a happy ending. Yes, Mitzi dies eventually, but they had a few more months together as friends. Susan now runs a blog to help people suffering like she did. If you needed any more proof that the game is about depression, the final image of the game is a prompt that states “press any key to live”. The depression is not gone. Susan herself admits she still has bad days. As someone who suffers from depression myself, I admire the themes of hope and regaining control that are sometimes overt, but always there when you’re not dispatching killers and suffering terrifying hallucinations.

No comments:

Post a Comment