Monday, July 8, 2013

GAME REVIEW: THE CAT LADY (2012)

The Cat Lady

A Game by Harvester Games
Written and programmed by Remigiusz Michalski
Music composed by MICAMIC (Michal Michalski)
Additional music composed by Richard Henley and Pal Hjornevik
Interface programmed by James Spanos
Voice casting by Mark Lovegrove

Starring:
Lynsey Frost as Susan Ashworth
Brittany Williams as Mitzi
Margaret Cowen as the Queen of Maggots


Susan Ashworth lives in a grim apartment. She's all alone in this world. The apartment isn't huge, but it's more than enough for just one person.

 Except it wasn't meant to be a home for just one person. There was supposed to be a husband and a child there, too, but that's all gone now. It's just Susan and a bunch of cats. Her little feline army comes whenever she plays the piano. Susan loves these graceful beasts, but the neighbors hate them. The neighbors hate the cats, hate Susan, and hate her stupid, depressing noodling on the piano keys. Susan isn't too concerned about all that, though, because she's leaving the planet sooner rather than later.

 Susan wants to die. But she can't. She swallows a bunch of pills and ends up in an afterlife she never asked for. It's a bizarre otherworld filled with gruesome mutilated animal symbolism, beautiful fields of wheat blowing in the wind, and bombed out traffic tunnels filled with wrecked vehicles. This afterlife is ruled over by a sinister old woman known as the Queen of Maggots, who may be Death itself, some sort of dark god ruling over another dimension, or maybe the Queen is one of the fates of ancient mythology. Or she could  be God Herself in a classic mode of bloody, hell-fire and brimstone vengeance.

Susan wanders this afterlife with its nonsensical, ever-shifting geography until she encounters the Queen and is then charged with a mission: eliminate the Five Parasites. These Parasites are predatory human beings who the Queen predicts will soon be coming after Susan in mundane reality. Susan must fight them to the death if she is to survive. The Queen of Maggots also endows Susan with immortality. She can no longer die, so what's there to be afraid of? Of course, this "immortality" could just be Dumbo's magic feather.

How about that? A wanna-be suicide is told by some supernatural crone that now she has to fight to stay alive, but she's immortal, so no big deal.  And here she was all this time struggling to end it all. When it rains it pours.

And who is this Queen of the Maggots? Just another Grim Reaper? Is this a mission from God? From Satan? Or maybe this is just a hallucination. It feels real enough . . .

Susan awakes in a hospital bed. She failed to suicide properly, now she's been charged with a mission of murder. Ain't that some shit?

The Cat Lady is a dark tale of murder, rebirth, depression, and, possibly, hope that could have been made as a movie, written as a novel, or even composed in the form of a comic book, but its creators chose to realize it as a point-and-click adventure game. You know the drill. Move through various rooms. Click on items, furniture, the environment, and engage in conversations with the other people you encounter. Find the damn clues. Figure out how to get the story to advance. Wonder if you've made all the right choices. Maybe this is one of  those games with multiple endings where every choice is significant and results in a different ending sequence. What's the best ending? What's the worst? Which one do I really want to see? The point and click adventure game approach is used here primarily as a vehicle for the delivery of narrative. So if you're looking for a first person twitch shooter, a 100 hundred hour JRPG quest, or an open world sandbox style RPG this isn't the game you're looking for.

Visually, The Cat Lady offers some variation on its style of play. Most point and click adventure games have relatively small character sprites in larger environmental settings, but here we have a larger than usual view on the action. Many "shots," if you will, depict the characters in wide shots in context of the various locations, mostly indoors, that they inhabit. These wide shots are interspersed with occasional long shots, cuts to close-ups, and the whole frame is displaced at times by bizarre montages and collages of significant imagery. I got a strong sense of  the embodiment of the people in this game. They're rather tall for point and click characters, and more realistically proportioned than the sorts of people you expect to find in video games. Susan Ashworth is designed to look like a plausibly proportioned woman in her 40s, not a sexualized BDSM queen with an AK-47 in one hand and a katana in the other.

 No, I'm not saying this out of prudery. It's simply what this game is going for: plausible human characters presented in ways meant to evoke empathy and identification-rather than masturbatory fantasy-in the context of a story of supernatural intrigue. I stress the strength of these elements not out of some mindless puritanical morality or a fundamentalist disapproval of sex appeal in video games, but rather to point out the proper tone of seriousness-leavened with witty dialogue and pitch black humor-that the game creators have chosen to deploy in telling their tale. The effect is that one takes the story and the people in it quite seriously. Despite the limited interface I became engrossed in Susan Ashworth's journey. Her emotions, her struggles, her failings, and her strengths became my own as I played, much as I would enter into the heart and mind of the protagonist of an involving novel or movie, I was enraptured by this game.

And the interface is quite limited: arrow keys to move, click enter when you walk into hotspots, navigate options to manipulate objects, and choose dialogue paths. No asinine pixel-hunting, no added value arcade shooter sections, just you, the player, and Susan Ashworth navigating a compellingly gruesome narrative teetering between the worlds of the living and the dead. The Cat Lady is explicitly using a stripped down point-and-click adventure game interface to deliver narrative. It's a smart choice.

 A movie, with all the proper special effects and set design, would've been prohibitively expensive, even if the filmmakers cast cheap, but effective, unknowns in all the lead and supporting roles. The interactivity of a game like this brings the player a little bit closer to the action, and the very conventions of the point-and-click adventure game create a structure which encourages dramatic confrontations, inner monologues, self-doubt-it's not all that different from going to see theatre. Just think of your computer screen (or mobile device screen) as analogous to the proscenium arch which frames a live play.

You can also think of The Cat Lady as being in the genre of point-and-click video adventures that function very much like interactive graphic novels like Snatcher, Policenauts, and Rise of the Dragon. A comic book would probably be the only other economically viable form to do justice to The Cat Lady. It's much too provocative for horror cinema as it is currently practiced by Hollywood and other major film industries. What we are dealing with here is not a slasher story, a cheekily self-aware grindhouse parody, or Saw-style torture porn, but a series of confrontations where Susan must grapple with her own rage, anguish, and moral confusion.

Susan's main confrontations are with each of the Five Parasites. Each one is truly a sick fuck of one kind or another, all heartless predators who definitely deserve to die. But who is to do the killing? That's where moral conflict comes into play. Susan is no jaded executioner. She isn't a vicious psychopath.  Nor has she been conditioned by military training, political indoctrination, and/or religious brainwashing to mindlessly follow orders, dehumanize the enemy within her own mind, and practice increased aggression up to and including murder of her chosen target. Her only asset when confronting each of the Five Parasites is her immortality-which isn't quite what it seems to be . . . How does a depressed forty-something with no specialized training/indoctrination become a  killer?

Or maybe it's not as difficult as I make it out to be to go around the bend. Maybe we all have a murderer inside us. I have only to reflect on the anger I've felt anytime I've almost been run down in a walk lane by some mindless motherfucker violating my right-of-way while safely enclosed within an SUV, jacked-up pick-up truck, or a Prius to know something of Tetsuo levels of perfectly rational rage.

In any case, Susan's grotesque transformation into a dark avenger is fascinating and disturbing. Although the game doesn't come right out and say so, I think The Cat Lady is, to some degree, a bit of a riff on comic book vigilantes. The title itself, as well as Susan's bond with her army of cats, evokes Selina Kyle from DC Comics and specifically the version of Kyle depicted in the wonderfully demented 1992 movie Batman Returns. But Susan's supernatural qualities put her more in line with another DC Comics vigilante: The Spectre.

Remember the Spectre? He used to be Jim Corrigan, an iron-testacled Chicago cop brutally murdered by cowardly gangsters whose raw will to avenge himself brought him howling out of the grave. Look him up, he's an intriguing character.

The Cat Lady's Susan Ashworth is definitely more of a supernatural avenger like The Spectre, more so than the costumed martial arts masters like Catwoman, Batman, Rorschach, or The Question. Susan isn't a traumatized wealthy person obsessed with justice, like Bruce Wayne, and she isn't a psychopathic thief looking out for her own end, like Selina Kyle. Nor is she a philosophical striver like the Question, or a violent lunatic with a rigid view of the world like Watchmen's Rorschach. And unlike Jim Corrigan she doesn't have any godlike powers to warp the very fabric of reality.  Susan is basically a nobody, average in every way. Except that if you kill her she doesn't stay dead . . .

 Susan's average feelings and desires come to assume cosmic proportions as she re-examines her mundane past in light of her newly gained immortality. Her mind seems to expand into that other realm where she is given a chance to confront terrifying memories that have ballooned into macabre pocket dimensions reflecting the most traumatized aspects of her soul.  Unlike the DC Comics characters which she resembles somewhat her battles with the Parasites have a profound impact on her newly immortalized soul. She questions her motivations and the morality of killing. She also wants to figure out the true nature of the Queen of Maggots, and whether or not she's just the pawn of some dark god of death. Whenever she is killed, she seems to go back to that sinister, jumbled-up dimension of death. Susan's "real" world and the world of the dead begin to overlap in terrifying, brain-bursting fashion. What's real? What's a delusion? How is she to make sense of her existence as a human now that she has to straddle conflicting realities? And are there any other immortals like herself out there? If so, are they friend or foe?

Susan also has to confront the guilt of becoming a killer. She may be immortal, but what about her conscience? What's it like to live forever with death and vengeance on your mind? Hopefully, the cliche that time heals all wounds is true for immortals, also. Assuming it was ever true for mortal people, of course.

Actually, I think you would have to be immortal to have time heal your wounds. In real life, time wears us down to nothing. Time erodes our memories of pain and suffering. We don't heal so much as forget. We lose our capacity for memory. In severe cases, we become senile, and are afflicted with degenerative conditions that destroy our capacity to remember. At the end, we can barely understand our lives in the here and now, as the faces of people who've been with us over the years become strangers. But maybe a true immortal could heal with the passing of years. They would have to, since suicide would no longer be an option. I find it amusing to toy with the logic of immortality.

At the end of this game, I wondered what Susan Ashworth would do next. Game designer R. Michalski has crafted a deeply satisfying saga of supernatural trauma, vengeance, and moral doubt centered in an intriguing, formidable protagonist. I think it would be interesting to see The Cat Lady take up some new challenge with her powers. Perhaps to explore or create other realities. Of course, it's not for me to decide, but I cannot help but idly fantasize some new era in the immortal life of Susan Ashworth.


The Cat Lady trailer:





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