For a couple of days now, I have been thinking over The Cat Lady and the best way to approach its review. After completing it, reviewing notes taken during gameplay and thinking it over, I still can’t find a way to describe the hundreds of nuances, practically unique within the medium, that this work of Michalski has offered me. The explanation to why I’m not able to do it is as hard as simple: I lack the necessary talent to describe with words the disturbed trip that I’ve been put through by a title that has shaken me to the core. Clive Barker and David Lynch should be the ones talking about the infinite metaphors inside every frame of The Cat Lady; but unfortunately there’s only me here, so I’ll hope you can excuse me.
It only takes about 10 seconds for the game to lay its cards on the table; it’s the time between double-clicking the icon on your desktop and the warning sign that the content we are about to view includes extreme violence, sexual content, mutilations, cannibalism and all those other things for age above 18. It’s really not a warning, it doesn’t sound like “Hey, take your kid away from this product”. We all know your kid won’t ever be near this game, being its cover almost a nod to the adult user; a poisoned kiss to he that has seen it all, the happy user that sits before its PC asking to be frightened by a game yet once again. And still the blood, mutilations, cannibalism and everything else that should be keeping your nephew away from this product, all of those are merely a vehicle to tell the story of Susan Ashworth. Beware: there are frights, there’s a fucking constant bad feeling that would twist the mind of the best man, but still it’s not a horror game. It’s a game about the need for forgiveness, towards oneself as well as the rest; about hope, about the willing to live even though there’s no reason to it, about loss and about the friendship between two women.
Susan Ashworth is The Cat Lady. She lives alone in her apartment, but she has no cats despite her nickname. The only cats with which she is in contact are one cat-clock that waves its tail with each second and seems to be marking the rhythm of her days, and the cats that approach her home when she’s playing the piano. Her neighbours never talk to her, she has no friends, and nothing seems to come out well in her life; not even her suicide, which starts the game and instead of ending with her death will lead us to a strange dreamlike world, where we will meet a strange old lady that calls herself Queen of Maggot. She will be the one leading us to fulfil the mission of killing five people whom she refers as “Parasites” and who are meant to end with us, always according to the old lady’s words. Susan will reluctantly accept the “mission” assigned by the old lady; after that, we will be taken back to life in a hospital, where the cathartic travel of our main character will begin.
The control of our main character (and also other characters that we will occasionally control) is far from the canonical point&click, dispensing with the mouse entirely. All controls will be carried out via the arrow and enter keys; it feels a bit weird at the beginning, but after an adjustment period you will realise this is the most comfortable method according to how the adventure develops. Even more so if you’re playing on a laptop. Inventory is always visible on the bottom part of the screen and we usually don’t have to manage many objects, so its use doesn’t get annoying.
Both integration of puzzles with dialogues and adventure development are perfect examples of a well-done job. We will spend most of the plot helping Susan to escape different settings, which means that we may die at some point. This won’t be a big problem, as we will start back practically at the same point we were, but it does add certain pressure to solving riddles that aren’t especially difficult otherwise. In order to give it a little more thrill, sometimes we will have to solve the problem within a limited time, at the expense of watching Susan lose her mind if we fail. This exemplary interaction is even more commendable if we take into account that at many moments it isn’t clear whether what we’re seeing is real, an element which is of more importance whenever some character questions you about conversations or events that occurred during the game.
Judging The Cat Lady as a typical videogame would be completely absurd. It does have similar elements to videogames, but it’s all the time escaping their rules, even the ones for the genre it belongs to. We will build most of Susan’s character through our dialogue choices, which will of course have an effect on plot development and on the behaviour of some characters. From the very beginning we know that Susan is not happy, but we ignore the reasons that lead her to that state of mind. This will be a fixed fact no matter what we do, but part of its consequences may change according to our choices. The aim proposed to Susan by the old lady and the path she will go through to achieve it, they are the only way out of the hell which her existence has become; a way out that goes inevitably through Mitzi, the other main character in the title. I can’t talk much about Mitzi without making spoiling the plot, but I shamelessly dare to state that she is the best female partner ever created in the field. Both women will build a relationship that is far away from the usual Manichaeism of the sector, showing two women broken on the inside that join their forces nonetheless, pursuing different objectives that end up intertwined. In order to achieve it, Michalski takes all the time he deems necessary, restraining the initial urgency of both women to slow down the plot as many times as required and also to show exquisite portraits of intimacy. Watching Susan and Mitzi sharing a coffee on the balcony as the ever present rain darkens the scenery provides the break needed by the player among so much horror, at the same time making the relationship between the two women more solid.
I am not so knowledgeable in art as to explain the visual excess of The Cat Lady. At the beginning of this review, I was speaking about Clive Barker and David Lynch, but we could also throw Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder or Salvador Dali to the heap of influences used by Remigiusz Michalski to give shape to Susan’s trip. The use of vivid colours mixed with a sober black and white which the main character can never escape, both sharpen the feeling of unreality transmitted by the title. We have to add in a completely industrial style soundtrack, seasoned with specific compositions by several authors which emphasize different important events. The author is not afraid of mixing beautiful landscapes such as a bridge over a river at dawn or warm dusks over corn fields, with making us go into a horror circus that seems to never end. The impressive voice acting of both main characters deserves a remark of its own. Sound quality is not remotely professional, but still the interpretation by the voice actresses of Susan and Mitzi is a work full of nuances and sadness.
The Cat Lady is a unique game in most of its aspects. It’s outstanding in everything it’s meant to be, in some instances setting standards so high that few could dare to reach. The broken visual narrative develops in a natural way, without rants or cryptic messages, through characters that seem to feel comfortable within this nightmare thanks to their pain. Contrary to titles that plan horror from character puzzlement (I’m talking to you, Silent Hill) and still are not able to create ingame reasons to keep you playing, The Cat Lady chooses to take all the time necessary so that our main characters actions make sense within the story. The only moment when the title staggers is when it decides to think of what’s expected and rejoices in extreme gore scenes, which don’t bother me personally but can divert the course of the story to a place where it shouldn’t be. The Cat Lady is the best narrative experience I had in a year full of EXCELLENT narrative experiences. Indispensable.