By Nick Dinicola
There's an episode of South Park in which one of the boys, Stan, starts an anti-bullying campaign. He needs a face for his commercial, so he starts to pressure another one of his friends to be in it. The joke is, of course, that he becomes a bully himself, highlighted by his appropriately inappropriate anti-bullying slogan: "Let's make bullying kill itself!"
I had that song stuck in my head (oh yea, it was a musical number) as I played through the first few chapters of The Cat Lady, a point-and-click horror game by Harvester Games. In it, a suicidal loner named Susan Ashworth is forced back to life by a supernatural being in order to bring righteous justice to five "parasites," i.e. serial killers. I knew nothing of the game going in, but I saw the entire arc of the game in those opening moments: Susan would see people die, kill others, and through her close encounters with death she would come to see the value of her own life. It's curing depression through violence, not unlike Stan’s approach to bullying.
Thankfully, the game doesn't stick to that simple script. It complicates things with a key supporting character, and a clever use of player choice. This is a game that begins with a straightforward “gritty twist on superheroes” plot that eventually reveals itself to be a moving meditation on suicide and depression.
First of all, Susan does not find salvation through violence. The Cat Lady does not actually subscribe to the “Let’s make depression kill itself” line of thought. Susan finds her salvation through friendship.
Soon after waking up with supernatural powers, we're introduced to Mitzi Hunt, a young woman desperate to rent the extra room in Susan's apartment. Mitzi has cancer, and with just six month to live she's decided to hunt down the man who convinced her boyfriend to kill himself. He’s only known by his online handle, The Eye of Adam, and she has tracked him to Susan’s building. She then asks for Susan's help in narrowing her search down to a single apartment.
Mitzi repeatedly assures us and Susan that she just wants to confront the man. She wants to know why he talks people into suicide. What does he gain from it? Her good nature and general optimism puts her at contrast with Susan for much of the game. Mitzi is normalcy, she is the ideal that others try to push Susan towards. After all, if Mitzi can remain upbeat in the face of her tragedy, than what excuse does Susan have for wallowing in her own?
From here the game alternates between Susan’s extreme vigilante killings and mundane conversations with Mitzi. From the conversations we learn about Susan’s depression, her abusive late husband, her unwanted suitor, and how a terrible coincidence resulted in her infant son suffocating to death in his crib just one room away from his fighting parents. From her vigilantism we see her anger and sadness directed at others rather than herself, and the results are always brutal.
The game builds to a series of branching choices that change the ending of the game, but for this post I’ll only go in-depth into one of the endings—the one I chose—which is, as far as I’m concerned, the only ending of the game.
The climactic confrontation with The Eye of Adam twists the formula of killer-confrontations that we've gotten accustomed to throughout the game. Our vigilantism usually begins with Susan dying, thus proving the killer’s guilt, then resurrecting, then killing the killer, directly or indirectly, as vengeance. Our encounter with Adam begins similarly as he floods a room with poison gas, but this time Mitzi is with us.
We’re then offered a choice: There's only one gas mask between Susan and Mitzi. Do we take the mask and let Mitzi die, leaving us to carry out her vengeance, or do we give her the mask, letting ourselves die knowing that we'll come back? The game allows us to continue or stop our cycle of dying, and in giving us a choice it forces us to consider why we should or shouldn’t live—what is our life worth?
The Cat Lady builds to this moment, training us to consider suicide as the most practical option. Susan is, after all, immortal. She has died and come back before, so why should we care if she dies here? Susan's death, our death, is no big deal. Her constant deaths throughout the game have desensitized us to this point where we’re no longer concerned for her safety. She—we—embrace our suicide, and give Mitzi the gas mask. The Cat Lady wants us to consider our own lives as something worth losing; it wants us to be accepting of and sympathetic towards the idea of suicide.
But then we see Mitzi in the room with Adam—revealed to be nothing more than an old paralyzed man sucking down oxygen from multiple canisters—and she reveals her desire to kill him. However, if she shoots him she’ll ignite the oxygen tanks and blow up the entire room.
Mitzi reveals that she is not above all the sadness of the world, she’s the same as Susan, driven by the same depression and disregard for her life. She’s just better at hiding it behind a smile. If The Cat Lady were a nihilistic game it might use this moment to argue that the tragedies of the world will always overwhelm the happy moments, that even the best of us, like Mitzi, can’t escape the power of depression, and that we all succumb to it eventually. But The Cat Lady, for all its violence and horrors, is not a nihilistic game. When we’re given the chance to talk Mitzi down from her vengeance, the game reveals its humanistic core.
We hold others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. I'll gladly throw Susan's life away killing killers, gladly drag her soul through hell and back, because I know she accepts that fate. Her vigilante violence doesn't cure her depression, her murders don't give her a new respect for life, if anything they just reinforce her original belief that the world is fucked and she's better off dead as soon as possible. But when Mitzi pulls the gun on Adam and threatens to do the exact same thing, I have to intervene.
The game pulls an interesting trick in its climax: It puts us into the shoes of a suicidal protagonist and then asks us to bless the suicide of a friend. Do we let her continue because we understand her pain, or do we stop her because we understand her pain?
I believe the game wants us to stop her because it’s spent the previous six chapters showing us how death solves none of the problems we thought it would. Killing the killers may feel good in the moment, it feels righteous, but doesn’t improve our life. Susan is still depressed and suicidal. She thought killing herself would bring relief, but it only forced her into a Faustian deal with a devil, it only brought her more intimate horrors. The only time Susan has ever had some semblance of happiness is when she’s focused on the relationships around her, with Mitzi or her cats.
Salvation isn’t found in death or violence, but friendship. When Mitzi puts the gun down she’s not choosing her life over Adam’s, but Susan’s life over Adam’s. When we hold others to a higher stands than we hold ourselves, our friendship becomes a symbiotic relationship in which we make each other stronger, even when we’re at our weakest.
In this way the game also highlights the parasitic nature of the killers. They don’t hold others above themselves, they 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.
Relationships can certainly bring more suffering, as evidenced by Susan’s past, The Cat Lady does not want us to forget this fact. It is, after all, a horror game, but it’s not about the horror of supernatural beings or serial killers or anything as flashy and shocking as that. It's about the horror of normal life. In The Cay Lady, life is inherently filled with horrible things, whether they be violent, supernatural, or mundane, but death offers no relief from any of them, and it removes the only possibility of finding something good. The Cat Lady is a game sympathetic towards suicide, but ultimately in disagreement with it.
The Cat Lady is available on Steam.