By Nick Dinicola
The Cat Lady was an excellent horror game that explored depression and suicide in a way that was nuanced, thoughtful, and scary. It used its supernatural violence to evoke suicidal thoughts in players (“It's no big deal if I'm just going to be resurrected anyways”) while at the same arguing against suicide as a means of coping or revenge. The climax had us playing as a woman who had already successfully killed herself, trying to talk a friend out of doing the same thing. The game argued for the importance of life, even as it wallowed in the darker sides of living, showing off a world full of pain, sadness, suffering, loss, grotesque people, and unexplainable violence. Life is full of evil, and we can't handle it by ourselves, but we can help each other through it.
I bring up the The Cat Lady for multiple reasons. For one, it's kind of a spinoff of Downfall. The latter game was the first one from developer Harvester Games, but the former was their first one on Steam. Downfall also stars Joe and Ivy Davis, who live in the same apartment complex as Susan Ashworth of The Cat Lady.
More importantly, however, is that Downfall and The Cat Lady feel very much like companion pieces. Both games explore the effects of depression, but from opposite points of view. The Cat Lady puts us into the shoes of a woman who is depressed, and helps us see the world from her eyes. Joe Davis, the protagonist of Downfall, is not depressed, but his wife is. Downfall explores the anger and frustration and horror of loving someone who has depression.
Ivy's depression, and resulting bulimia, have put a strain on their marriage, so the couple decide to visit a countryside hotel for a vacation. In the morning Ivy disappears, and Joe goes through a surreal and symbolic hell trying to save her. There's a lot going on in the game, but for now I'm going to focus on the symbolism of our main objective. Joe has to kill a girl named Sophie, or rather four different incarnations of a girl named Sophie. Killing these girls damages a supernatural mirror, and Joe suspects that Ivy is trapped on the other side of the mirror. So the Sophies must die.
Each Sophie represents some aspect of Ivy’s troubled mental state. One is depressed, curled up in a fetal position on a chair, begging Joe to kill her. One is bulimic, too self-conscious to confess her love to an asshole who calls her a fat cow. One represents how Ivy sees herself, overweight and leaning against the wall of a bathroom, surrounded by similarly overweight women who have all killed themselves. The final Sophie is a giant, hideous, blob of a woman, covered in large gashes; a combination of each previous incarnation pushed to their extremes.
The game is designed to ensure that we kill the girls in a particular order, which is important because we can track Joe’s character arc through his chosen method of murder. At first he kills with kindness, injecting the depressed Sophie with a poison that kills her…not painlessly, but at least quickly (her head explodes). Next, he kills the overweight Sophie by blowing her up off-screen; again, a quick death if not a painless one. Then things get gruesome. He gives the bulimic Sophie a smoothie made from a human head, causing her to vomit endlessly until she shrivels into a skeleton. Before the final Sophie, we get our hands on a chainsaw and Joe turns into Jack Nicholson from The Shining, stomping around the hotel shouting death threats, pissed off and ready for a slaughter.
The downfall of the title relates to Joe's mental state. He sees himself as the doting husband, always so supportive, so understanding, and so caring, but ultimately helpless. He loves Ivy and wants to help her, but he’s also irritated by her. Frustrated by her backsliding into bulimia, angered by her sad bouts of silence, and enraged by his inability to change her. For Joe, killing the Sophies means finally being able to beat Ivy’s demons. He’s finally able to express all his pent up emotions, and the results are violent.
Despite that violence, Downfall wants us to be sympathetic towards Joe. For so long Joe has been unable to help Ivy, and now he finally has the opportunity to get rid of her demons. Even if they don’t really go away in the end, at least he can pay them back for all the suffering they’ve caused him and Ivy. And hey, they’re probably not real anyways, so who cares about a little gore and ultraviolence tossed their way? Joe has our sympathy, so we excuse his violence.
However, that sympathy has its limits.
The Cat Lady wants us to understand the thought process behind suicide, though it argues for life. Downfall wants us to understand the anger of a husband who can’t stop his wife’s suicide, depression, or bulimia, though it also argues against making him the central focus of our attention. We can sympathize with his struggles, but he’s not the one that need the most help. This is where Joe goes wrong.
The final twist is that there is no hotel, and Ivy is already dead at the start of the game. Our journey through the hotel was just an elaborate fantasy that Joe concocted so that he could imagine himself actually saving his wife. It's kind of sweet actually, until you realize that Joe also killed his wife.
Not on purpose. Joe genuinely loves Ivy and desperately wants to help her. He may have good intentions, but his actual attempts to help are god awful. He would chain Ivy to a chair and force feed her, then deadlock the bathroom shut so she couldn’t purge into the toilet. This combative method obviously didn’t help her, and eventually she starved herself to death.
In Joe’s mind the illness won despite all his best efforts. He sees himself as just as much a victim as Ivy, a man who gave everything to help his wife and still failed. There's a lot to make Joe sympathetic, but game makes a strong point in denouncing him and his actions.
Another character linking Downfall to The Cat Lady is a demonic woman: The Queen of Maggots. In The Cat Lady she's the one that resurrects Susan and tasks her with killing five serial killers, or as they're called by the Queen, Parasites.
That word is important. In my post on The Cat Lady I wrote:
“When we hold others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves, our friendship becomes a symbiotic relationship in which we make each other stronger, even when we’re at our weakest…[The Parasites] hold themselves above others, seeing others as something disposable. Instead of supporting the world, they break it down, leech off of it. Those who don’t hold others to a higher standard, who don’t try to strengthen others, are literally parasites upon the world.”
Joe has good intentions, but his violence towards Ivy proves that he's not really interested in her well being. He does want to help her, but more for his peace of mind than her safety. Joe cares more about himself than Ivy, so when Ivy starts to hurt him, he helps her only inasmuch as it helps himself.
We should sympathize with Joe. We should understand his frustration with Ivy. We shouldn’t hate him for snapping at her or walking away in anger; these are understandable emotional reactions. However, we should hate him for his lack of empathy; his inability to understand what Ivy is going through. To him, depression and bulimia can be solved with a little tough love, and if that doesn’t work you just need tougher love, and if that doesn’t work you just need violent love. Joe plays the doting husband, but in reality he is anything but doting. His love for Ivy is psychopathic: She’s not an actual person, just a problem to be fixed. That kind of psychopathic selfishness only leads to downfall.
Downfall is available on Steam.