Dopefish Reviews The Cat Lady

I’ve recently (well, not really, this is one of my old blogs that I wrote five years ago. It might still be good though, so, you know. Give it a shot!) passed a milestone in gaming – a small and insignificant milestone that most of you have probably passed already. After playing games almost exclusively on consoles and handhelds, I’ve made the first and biggest step towards starting to play games on the laptop I’m using to write this blog. I finally downloaded ‘Steam’.

About 5 years ago I had a brief tangle with Steam when I found a copy of Half-Life 2 for 99p in a charity shop. I tried to install it. A Steam representative informed me that it had already been installed on someone else’s computer. I wasn’t familiar with the whole ‘Installed once – can never be installed again’ set-up that recent games have since I grew up playing Rollercoaster Tycoon and Caesar III and lending them to friends so that they could install them and play too. (Future Dopefish here again to say that both of these games are now on Steam. Whoaaaooooaaaoooah.)

The representative and I ended up in a stalemate when they asked me to email them a picture of myself holding the game to prove that I owned it. I didn’t have a camera so instead I asked why it wasn’t ‘proof’ that I had the CD in my computer at that very moment in time. The communication stopped and I uninstalled Steam out of petty vengeance. That’s pretty much how my relationship with them ended, until a week ago.

Older ScrewAttack g1s may remember the name ‘Serperoth’ – he was a really friendly guy from Greece who used to visit the site. One time I mentioned that I used to play an old PC RPG named ‘Castle of the Winds’, and he linked me to the developer’s website, where they were giving both the game and the sequel away for free. We chatted on Skype and spent a wild summer of romance on a canal-trip through Belgium, and naturally we still talk on Facebook.

Anyway, in another act of wonderful kindness befitting of the man, Serperoth told me that he had access codes for 2 free games on Steam – Duke Nukem 3D and McPixel. I didn’t have Steam. He told me I should get Steam. I couldn’t think of a single reason not to get Steam, so I got Steam. The end. Isn’t that an exciting story?

So my first action on Steam, aside from activating that code for McPixel, was to download some games. Firstly I got the personal favourites, like the complete Commander Keen collection and VVVVVV. Then I got what I would call ‘the essentials’, like Braid, Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Amnesia, The Binding of Isaac, and Papers Please, of which I have currently played… Limbo. Which was really good. (Future Dopefish has played all of them. Never finished Amnesia though. I forgot to. Zing!) But then I made the biggest gamble of my short-lived Steam purchasing spree by buying a game I could vaguely remember seeing mentioned in the related videos section on YouTube.

That game is ‘The Cat Lady’.

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Normally, if I’m trying to open a review of a game that I will end up trying to recommend to whoever reads it (spoiler alert: I absolutely will) then I try to make the game sound as appealing as possible. So without any hesitation, let’s talk about The Cat Lady, a game which tackles issues like intense self-loathing, isolation, paranoia, and the kind of crippling despair that inevitably leads to suicide ideation. That’s not even mentioning a few of the other topics that pop up later that I don’t want to mention for fear of spoiling anything.

So how on Earth could I possibly say that this game is fun? Well, it’s not really – but just because a game isn’t ‘fun’ to play doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. It’s honestly the most engaging game I’ve played all year, and it also boasts the most engrossing narrative I’ve experienced in a long, long time, and I feel that this is mainly due to the main character of the story, Susan Ashworth.

In order to explain exactly why I find Susan Ashworth so original, let me do a quick recap of what the main characters have been like in the last few games I’ve played. I’ve been playing ‘Assassin’s Creed’ lately, starring Altair, the titular assassin, whose acrobatics, athleticism, and brutal efficiency embody the character. I finished ‘Ratchet & Clank 2’ a few weeks ago, starring a dim-witted but brave talking Lombax with an impressive arsenal of weaponry and his smart-talking robot buddy. I also finished ‘Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law’ on my PSP, starring an overburdened superhero-turned-lawyer in a world where everyone is at least 4 different shades of insane.

In comparison, Susan Ashworth is a plain 40 year old woman, living in a dirty apartment in a small block on the outskirts of town, known by her uncaring neighbours as ‘The Cat Lady’ because the only friendships she has are with the local stray cats of the area. She opens the game by narrating her own suicide in an eerily calm, almost relieved, monotone. Her last words are ‘Thanks for nothing. Goodbye.’

Just having an average 40 year old woman as the protagonist of a video game in this day and age impresses me, and her personality, while not exactly pleasant, is far from both the brave and adventurous women like Lara Croft and Samus Aran, and the shy, vulnerable girls like pretty much any female lead in a horror game (Clock Tower series, Rule of Rose, Haunting Ground, etc…)

Also, here’s a quick disclaimer – anyone, and I mean ANYONE – a successful, happily-married businessman, or a celebrated Olympic athlete, or a homeless teenager, or the cashier at your local McDonalds, or a supermodel, or your least favourite college professor – anyone can be a victim of depression. The last thing I want to do is give off the implication that anyone’s depression is more or less serious than anyone else’s.

But with that being said, there are traits I would commonly associate with a 40 year old woman, like maturity, intelligence, level-headedness, and dignity. So to have a character like this open her narration by admitting ‘Earlier tonight, I swallowed a whole bunch of pills…’ it really grabs my attention. Not entirely in a positive way, but I kind of want to know what it was in this woman’s life that drove her to this, and if you’ve only been playing a game for half a minute and it’s already got you curious about the history of the characters, then that’s a pretty good plot.

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Words cannot express how much I loathe making this comparison, but it’s not entirely unlike God of War, in that it opens with a protagonist who kills themselves and the rest of the game explores why. The two things that justify this comparison are that firstly, the first God of War game doesn’t have the worst plot in the entire world – compared to God of War 2 and 3, it’s practically Shakespeare. Secondly, while you may find it hard to relate to Kratos, the criminally irresponsible psychopath’s wet dream of Greek Mythology, it’s somewhat easier to relate to a middle-aged woman, beaten down by her experiences to the point where she wants to take her own life. It doesn’t have to try too hard to be tragic, because it already is. (Future Dopefish here again, and wow, I really did just make that comparison. I stand corrected, this is garbage, you can leave now.)

But aside from Susan’s character, the most important question about the game, especially as it’s very heavy on the story, is whether or not the story is any good, and I’d like to explain why my answer is ‘yes’. Games that tend to get labeled more ‘artistic’ than others tend to take one of two approaches when it comes to storytelling – either go for the minimalist route and give the game almost no story at all (Braid, Limbo, Myst, Ico) or give the game so much story that it outweighs the gameplay by quite a large amount (Hotel Dusk, Phoenix Wright, Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain.) Both of these approaches have their strengths, but The Cat Lady definitely belongs in the latter group.

But it’s about time I explained how the story actually progresses and sets up the rest of the game, although I only feel comfortable talking about what happens in Chapter 1 of 7 because I really would want other people to experience the story firsthand for themselves. Anyway, following Susan’s suicide, she wakes up in a strange field, and wanders through the misty land, trying to find out where she is. After solving a few simple puzzles, she meets the only other inhabitant of the land – a creepy old woman with an accent that’s not quite French and not quite German who calls herself ‘The Queen of Maggots’. When asked to explain, all she’s willing to elaborate is that maggots feed on the dead.

The Queen of Maggots has a job for Susan, and until the job is finished, she has cursed Susan with the last thing a suicidal woman would want – immortality. The job is to kill 5 people in the world who she deems ‘parasites’, people who only feed off of the misery they cause others. She even warns Susan that if she doesn’t try to find these people, they will enter her life regardless with cruel and fatal intentions, and whether or not Susan accepts her request or tells her to get stuffed and let her die, the immortality begins to kick in and she awakens in a hospital bed.

There’s one last mystery that lingers on before Susan can start her quest to die in peace, and that’s how she ended up in the hospital to begin with. According to the nurses, a young woman claiming to be her daughter called the emergency services in time for her life to be saved (although she did temporarily die in the ambulance,) but Susan has no daughter, and certainly no friends or even acquaintances that could’ve dropped by. So who was it, and will Susan feel grateful to them for saving her life, or angry at them for ruining her death?

So begins Susan’s journey, not by setting off an a quest of rescue or vengeance, but by trying to steal a discharge letter so that she can escape the hospital and go home – possibly to try and finish what she failed last time. It is NOT a happy story, although with a strong supporting cast, (my favourite being one of the hospital nurses, Liz, who has a really lovely Welsh accent,) there are moments of more than just sadness in this interactive fiction. Later on in the game, there were even a few laughs.

The voice-acting is very impressive, considering none of it is done by the industry professionals you’d normally expect – although David Firth, known as the creator of the infamously creepy ‘Salad Fingers’, voices two of the five parasites – otherwise, the performances are from people there’s no way you’ve ever heard of. And they’re good! Susan’s voice is soft and manages to constantly convey the underlying sadness she feels, while the other characters manage to be chirpy, creepy, friendly, and angry throughout the game. Not one line of dialogue sounded cheesy to me – and it’s easy in games like this to sound over the top at times.

I guess that after rambling on about the story for a dozen paragraphs, I should probably mention the gameplay itself. Even though it takes a back seat to the story for most of the game, it’s definitely present in each and every chapter, and the puzzles are perfect; challenging enough that I didn’t solve them all straight away, and even spent about an hour overall wandering around locations, trying to figure out how to progress, but logical enough that I was able to eventually solve them all without having to resort to a walkthrough.

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The gameplay itself can best be described as a point’n’click adventure, but controlled using the keyboard. You may wonder how it can be a point’n’click game without pointing and clicking, but if you see an object in the game, just walk past it and if you can interact with it or pick it up, the name of the object will appear next to a small picture of the ‘up’ key. Pressing up brings a menu of options for manual actions like ‘Look, Take, Open, Press,’ and once an item is picked up, it goes to your inventory at the bottom of the screen.

To access your inventory, press down, then left or right to select the item you want. Then just press enter to use the item at the desired location. Also, this might sound limiting, but you can’t combine items in your inventory, which actually makes the game much less annoying than it could’ve been – I’ve played enough Touch Detective to know when a puzzle game expects too much of you, and The Cat Lady expects just the right amount of intuition and deduction from the player.

One thing I really like about the puzzles in the game is that a lot of them link together to form bigger puzzles with more satisfying conclusions. Given that the game certainly has enough puzzles, but not a giant amount of them, I don’t want to actually give away any genuine answers, but let’s think of a puzzle along the lines of the game.

Imagine I am late for work (a surprisingly believable scenario) and need to sneak into my office. However, I am 15 minutes late, my boss is getting impatient, and all I’ve found in my pockets is some loose change, some chewing gum, and my mobile phone. How do I solve this puzzle like I would in ‘The Cat Lady’?

Well, use the chewing gum to block up a tap in the bathroom, then while a janitor is fixing the problem, I’m able to steal the key to the store room from the cleaning trolley he was previously guarding. Use the loose change to buy a chocolate bar from a vending machine, then get into the store room using the key and find a toolbox with (no puzzle is EVER complete without one of these) a screwdriver! Next, use my mobile to call my boss, distracting her long enough for me to sneak into the room, use the chocolate bar as a bribe to get my colleague to lend me his chair, move the chair underneath the clock, climb up and use the screwdriver to get into the clock’s workings and set it back an hour before dashing back to my seat!

Also as a brief side-note, that doesn’t work in real life. Trust me.

Anyway, depending on whether or not you grew up playing point’n’click games, that either looks like a bizarre solution that you’d never guess, or the easiest thing in the world. If it does look hard to you, bear in mind that solving problems in The Cat Lady is a little easier thanks to everything you can possibly interact with literally jumping out at you by popping up every time you walk past it. Imagine the puzzle I just invented, but with every element you could interact with explained beforehand. Suddenly it doesn’t look so hard.

Even out of all of the puzzles that took me ages to figure out, only one ended with a solution that I thought was a bit weird – everything else just made me feel stupid for not realising it sooner. Having played a few King’s Quest and Gabriel Knight puzzles that really made me confused (I hung duct tape off a fence then sprayed a cat with water to make it run through the fence so I use the cat fur with maple syrup to make a false moustache to impersonate a man who didn’t even have a moustache – bloody hell, that game was odd,) then I have no complaints at all with the straightforward challenges provided for me by The Cat Lady.

All in all, the gameplay is thoroughly decent. If you still are a little afraid that you’ll get stuck on the puzzles, let me reiterate once more that if you can interact with anything, its name will pop up as you walk past. It’s almost impossible to miss anything. So if you ever feel stuck, just make a list of things you can interact with, and try to figure out how you can use the things you’ve collected to achieve your current goal. Long story short, if I can figure it out, I have the highest confidence that you can too.

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The soundtrack does a lot to help the quality of the game too, and there are a lot of composers to thank for that. A lot of the background music is composed by Michal Michalski, and given that the writer and programmer of the game is named Remigiusz Michalski, I would guess they’re related. But there are also a few songs, previously-unrelated to the game, that were part of the final product, and they’re all made great use of.

One artist in particular whose work has come to the attention of many following its use in the game is ‘Warmer’, a one-man project by composer Jesse Gunn whose website proclaims that he ‘strives to make music that is an emotional journey first and a pop song second,’ a statement that would sound kind of pretentious if he didn’t back it up by making music that is an emotional journey first and a pop song second.

While his contributions to the soundtrack aren’t plentiful, they are definitely memorable, accompanying two of the biggest moments in the game that, fortunately for me, take place in the opening chapters so I can at least say a few things about them without feeling like a horrible human being for spoiling things for any potential future-players. My joint-favourite tracks are ‘Inside’, and ‘Don’t You Worry Love’.

I should admit that I’m judging these songs not on their own merits, but on how well they accompany scenes from the game – and they do that well. ‘Inside’ is the first piece of music that plays that isn’t part of your typical horror game background ambience, which is present and effective in the game. It plays during the end of the first chapter when Susan… erm, begins to make her return from the land of the dead to the land of the living, which is not a journey without bumps. That’s all I’ll say about that.

‘Don’t You Worry Love’ is probably a weaker song by its own right, but it works slightly better with the game, and I prefer the mournful piano in this to the louder guitar riffs of ‘Inside’ so it ultimately balances out. Anyway, you may recall that I mention that there are five ‘Parasites’ in the game, people who will try to bring great misery to Susan, as if she didn’t already have enough. Well, Susan may be immortal, but that certainly doesn’t make her invincible, it just means that if she dies, she’ll wake up some time later where her corpse would be, cured of any fatal wounds.

So… given that these Parasites would quite like to cause her grievous bodily harm, it should come as no surprise that the way most of the Parasites are introduced is flat-out trying to murder her. ‘Don’t You Worry Love’, in particular plays while she’s stabbed to death while vulnerable, and the characters on screen turn into black outlines as the stabbing continues, and all you can hear in the background besides the sombre tune on the piano is ‘Don’t you worry, love. It’s just the end of the world.’

So the story is good, the gameplay is good, and the soundtrack is good. It feels very odd to be talking about the graphics of the game last of all considering that’s normally what I’d mention first in a video game review, but let’s talk about them anyway. They’re good.

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Most of the areas are portrayed in black and white, although given that you’re playing as Susan Ashworth, it would make sense for you to be seeing the world as a dreary, unhappy place. Colour isn’t entirely absent though, and the contrast between the colour and the monotonous grey of everything else just makes it stand out more. Blood is coloured, meaning sometimes you’ll end up in black, white and red areas that reminded me a little of MadWorld, although that’s where the artistic similarities end.

The animation is quite smooth. I was a little surprised to see that a YouTube video I watched of the game seemed to be running more smoothly on my computer than the game was, but for a game to be made in 2013 and not instantly crash on the laptop I’ve lovingly nicknamed ‘Craptop’ on a dozen occasions invalidates any complaints I would’ve had.

There is still one complaint – the game crashed a few times, although this was quickly remedied by going into Steam, then the Setup for The Cat Lady, looking at the advanced settings, and letting the game use the maximum amount of memory (100MB) for its sprite cache. It never crashed since.

Actually there is one other complaint which I should mention, even though I like the game enough that I don’t want to say anything negative about it, but I also like it enough that I think it should be judged alongside any other Steam release like Limbo or Braid. Anyway, I personally found some elements of the ending a bit underwhelming. It was good overall, but the final piece of story that’s resolved is a fairly minor story compared to other plotlines in the game. That is all.

So… that’s ‘The Cat Lady’! I got it on Steam for £6.29, it’s given me around 13 hours of entertainment, and I think it’s a really good game, definitely worth checking out! If you like games with strong narratives, or if you’re a fan of horror games that do more than throw jump-scares at you, I would definitely advise you to give it a shot. As tempted as I am to end this blog with ‘Thanks for nothing. Goodbye,’ I think I’ll stick with my usual…

Thanks for reading!

-The Dopefish

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