Okay, apparently psychology and video games is my niche and I should just accept that.
If you ask most gamers for a game about depression they’d say Depression Quest*, partly because it has depression right in the name and possibly because one of the designers, Zoe Quinn, has been targeted for massive harassment. DQ is the world’s most morose choose your own adventure novel. The descriptions of depression and they choices it leaves you are very accurate, but I left the game thinking “Boy, I am good at fighting depression. Why don’t actual depressed people do as well as I did on this game?” Which is of course massively unfair, and I assume not what the developers were going for. I know other people who have liked it a lot, and it’s short and free, so certainly give it a go if you’re at all interested, but I don’t have much to say about it.
And then there is The Cat Lady.
The Cat Lady is a horror game. If you hate being scared, or don’t want to see violence, sexualized violence, and gore, you should not play it. I found it well done, artistically merited, and not exploitative, but it is pretty gruesome.
I like horror video games but no genre misses its mark more often. Many games are never scary. Of those that are, most rely purely on jump scares, which make me twitchy but not scared- the opposite of what I want.* The best part of being scared is when it is over. Of games that are successfully atmospherically scary at first, most are not by the end. You’re too used to the mechanics, you’ve acclimated to the monsters, your brain has noticed none of this is actually happening. This can ruin the experience.
BEGIN SPOILERS (not scary)
The tempo of The Cat Lady can roughly be described as spooky-creepy-CREEPY-creepy-TERRIFYING-weird-scary-spooky-….and then every scene is less creepy than the one before. You could call this a failing, in the pattern of many horror games before it. Or you could call it a brilliant use of the mechanics of a game to induce a particular psychological state in the user,** in this case with the goal of demonstrating the improvement in the main characters psychological state as the game goes on. The game starts with her suicide. It ends with her finding her voice, making a friend, and standing up for what she thinks is right. It felt very organic. The player is given a lot of choice in Susan’s dialogue. At the beginning I chose the most withdrawn and passive options, and at the end I chose the most active and courageous ones, because it felt like that’s what the character would do. The lessening of terror felt like Susan coming into her own.
The negatives are mostly mechanical- for an atmospheric narrative game, the lack of autosave is puzzling. The inability to manually save during dialogue, which can go 15 minutes at a stretch, is unacceptable. The lack of even quicksave, meaning I must hit three buttons and then type the name of a new save, and do it compulsively because you never know if I’m about to crash or hit another 15 minute unsavable section, would be unforgivable even if the game hadn’t crashed twice at the same spot.*** The game is very talky, and it’s paced badly. It was a very poor choice to block saves between chapters, and then start every chapter with a bunch of exposition, because it meant I was leaving the game in medeas res, rather than at natural down beats. The talky bits were sometimes very interesting but sometimes very painful to get through- a lot of plumbing through dialogue trees to get the option you already know you’re going to use.
Would I recommend this to a person who wanted to know what depression felt like? Only very a specific person. You’d have to be a horror fan or you’d never get past the second chapter. And if you don’t naturally get the genre I’m not sure it would have the same effect. Would I recommend it to a depressed person looking to see their experiences reflected in art? Same caveats, with possibly a wider net, since depressed people will more naturally get the depression in the beginning. The writer/designer apparently has personal experience with depression, and it shows. Would I recommend it to someone who likes horror games? Yes, definitely, without reservation. It is so good.
As a side note, I think is another piece of evidence for my evolving hypothesis about women and horror stories. I don’t what the statistical distribution is because I watch a very nonrandom subset, but in a world where most major movies don’t even pass the Bedschel test, horror films address a lot of “women’s issues”. Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body are about female competitiveness as they come into sexual power, Mama is about being raised by a mentally ill parent, and Drag Me To Hell is about an eating disorder. And now The Cat Lady is about depression, and the way depressed middle aged women are treated by society.
*There is a very slight chance they’d say Shadow of the Colossus, which is an excellent game, but any connection to depression is buried deep in metaphor.
*I discovered something interesting when I played Condemned. Originally the contrast on my TV was so bad I couldn’t see enemies (which, for maximum discomfort, are crazed homeless people) until they’d actually attacked me. This was startling, but not scary at all. I then upped the contrast so it was theoretically possible for me to see enemies ahead of time, although they were still mostly hidden. This was much scarier. It’s like I don’t feel fear unless something is preventable through my own actions. Ironically the fact that The Cat Lady is a puzzle game, and thus you are never on a clock and can only die when the story says you’re definitely going to die, makes it easier for me to be scared.
**Papers, Please is the only other game I think of that does this. It takes the mundanity of a lot of casual games and makes it a manifestation of working a soul crushing job. I was impressed with them too.
***Non-gamers: I know it sounds like I’m overreacting, but I’m not. Imagine if you had to walk to another room to save your place in a book on every page.