The Cat Lady: What A Game Can Teach Us About Hope and Depression

the cat lady

I know a few cat ladies but none of them are immortal super heroes like the one in The Cat Lady, a gory, psychological horror adventure game that attempts to take you on a roller coaster of emotion by emphasizing on story. The game is a fairly new release (2012 on Steam) it evokes adventure games of a bygone era, low resolution and all. The main  character, Susan, suffers from depression and has tried to take her own life. The narrative tells of her tale in overcoming her past demons and to finally be able to move on.

To do this, in a state between life and death, a character calling itself the Queen of Maggots gives her the task of eliminating five “parasites”, which we later discover are basically disturbed crazy people who like to murder innocents. Why the Queen of Maggots wants this, we never really find out. In addition, Susan is granted immortality, meaning that she will rise from the dead if killed, as the saying goes, a cat has nine lives.

In order to return to life, Susan needs to make two sacrifices, one of blood and one of a soul. We are never told whose souls she takes in order to return, and the sacrifices of blood are completed by Susan having to basically die in the spirit world. Over the course of the game, Susan will die at least a handful of times, meaning she repeatedly exchanges her soul for one of a stranger, and repeatedly dies by her own hand. As a character who took her own life at the very start of the game, she seems pretty steadfast and resolute in her decision to hold on to life.

 

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Later in the game when it is revealed that the Queen of Maggots is the manifestation of Susan’s depression, doubt, and distrust of people, Susan’s repeated self harm and mutilation in the spirit world and the taking of unknown souls comes off as a stubborn fight against the very things she has learned to live with but would rather not. The game tells the story of how Susan overcomes her depression and lonely state by picking herself up and carrying on no matter what.

We have all been there, some past event or trauma that has had a giant effect on us. For some, those events are huge, for others, they might look small to those on the outside. These are all experiences we would rather forget than to face. Forgetting these experiences and living with the pain by allowing it to shape who we are is the easier way for most. After time, you become numb, and then a shadow, barely recognizing the person you are, which what happened to Susan. We learn that Susan lost her family in a tragic manner but when given a second chance at life, she chooses to carry on, not even remembering why she wanted to kill herself in the first place. The Queen of Maggots tells her that if she refuses the offer and chooses to die instead, her suffering will never end. In other words, if she chooses to give up (death), she chooses not to have hope to change, and her life was one of complete sadness. Over the course of the game, she learns to overcome her sadness and top stop it from holding her back.

 

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In life, however, it is not as easy as, well, a game. We can’t manifest a supernatural creature to represent our innermost darkness and then be snarky to it. We aren’t usually sent on a mission to eliminate “parasites” and save lives and feel worthy in return. No. We go to work, try to sleep, and maybe get drunk.

People will tell you things like “It will get better”, but it won’t unless we personally take responsibility and enact change. People will tell you things like “time heals all wounds”, but time does not heal most wound, especially if we are ignoring our feelings about what happened. People will tell you things like “Just be yourself”, but that doesn’t work either, because we are being ourselves, and it sucks. Sometimes people are okay with ignoring the pain that hurts them the most, but this leads to triggering, when a person is faced or reminded of the event and it brings about a drastic emotional reaction, which sometimes can be violent.

The tasks in the game are metaphors, in a way, of someone taking responsibility to overcome their sadness and depression. Instead of trying to ignore, wallow, or run from her past life, Susan, step by step, starts standing up for herself to the parasites, to the neighbors, and eventually to the Queen of Maggots itself. In the epilogue of the game, Susan tells us that she has started making a few friends, started going out, started doing things, and even though she still has some bad days, she picks herself up and carries on regardless.

And this is what, to me, the game is trying to tell us. Susan starts doing things besides merely existing. She takes on the world with all of its crazy people and kills some psychos along the way. Even though the Queen of Maggots is creepy and most likely not a good person, it gives Susan a purpose, a reason to live. Finding a purpose, establishing a goal, is something which has helped me with my depression.

Eliminating parasites is one of two major things which helps Susan overcome her depression, the other being friendship.

Mitzi and Susan both have darkness in their past and both deal with it over the course of the game but in completely different ways. Mitzi is never really depicted as having depression in the game, but her behavior fits the people I personally know with depression more so than Susan’s. In the game, I see two different types of depressed people.

Mitzi has terminal cancer and does not expect to live long. She is on a journey of revenge for the death of her boyfriend, who took his own life after being brainwashed and convinced by the Eye of Adam, a user on an Internet suicide support forum. Whereas Susan finds purpose in her life to help improve herself, Mitzi is after revenge. Her personality is sarcastic but bubbly. She comes off as optimistic in contrast to Susan’s pessimism but it is just a ruse, unveiled in the final scene of the game. Whereas Susan hides her depression by choosing to avoid personal contact by secluding herself, Mitzi hides her depression by only letting people see what they want to see: an optimistic, happy person. The end result is the same, we have two people dealing with hurtful pasts that push people away, as evident of Mitzi having 250-ish Facebook friends but still turning to a stranger for help.

The way Mitzi deals with her problems is to seek revenge. After all, she has nothing to lose (no one close, terminally ill) and in the final scene she completely disregards her own life just to be able to take Eye of Adam’s. Both Susan and Mitzi have been wronged by people, one turning inward and reclusive, never to trust another person again, and the other filling themselves with rage to get her own back.¬† Both of these ways are not healthy when dealing with emotional pain. Enacting revenge often results in a lot of effort without any return. Many people seem to think that sticking up for yourself is to do harm to those who do harm to you, when it is really about not letting others to do harm in the first place. Both Susan and Mitzi are not honoring themselves as people, as seen when Mitzi does not care about giving her own life as long as she can take another. This act reduces her perception of her own self-worth to be equal to the one she despises the most, as pointed out by Susan. Returning hurt with hurt creates a cycle which leaves both involved destroyed, and the best endings involve Susan convincing Mitzi not to take Eye of Adam’s life, and thus sparing her own. In my life, every time I felt I needed revenge, or even carried out some form of it, I never felt fulfilled, my pain never resolved itself. It was still there, because doing something bad to someone else does not erase what they did to you.

While The Cat Lady focuses on characters which deal with depression and who are both survivors of traumatic events, the lessons and story here are applicable to people who have gone through break-ups, suddenly finished friendships, family disagreements, or any other drama that can result in hurt. So basically everyone. The Cat Lady is a game that shows us what happens when we don’t face reality, and shows us how we can, by picking ourselves up every morning, trying our best to become the people we want, and, the most important, having hope that things can change as long as we try to change them.

 

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Comments

  1. You make some nice points about depression in the real world, and I definitely don’t want to negate them. And it’s great that you were able to take a positive message from The Cat Lady. However, I had a completely different experience playing this game. The controls are terrible, the dialogues are looooong and boring, the gameplay is tedious, and most importantly, in a game where the lead roles are women, the entire dev team was male, and it shows. It is interesting to me that in my experience, men tend to think the game is deep and meaningful, while women who play the game often react like me: this is misogynistic, disgusting, and there is nothing positive to be found here. I feel like playing this game for its stance on depression is like watching Saw for its character development: there might be something there, but you still have to wade through a mountain of pointless gut-wrenching gore in order to find it. A game can deal with mature topics like depression and suicide without being horrific gore-fests full of gratuitous images of women being brutally dismembered. Whatever positive or useful message might have been found in this game was, for me, hidden under layer after layer of juvenile attempts at “maturity”, needless disgusting violence, poorly-written characters and dialogues, and just plain bad game design.

    • The controls are terrible for sure and got a lot of time to get used to, but even then it was hard.
      As for misogyny, I feel 50/50. The tone of the game is “scary” “schocking” and “mature” in the way that it is supposed to unsettle you, but I feel the lack of any meaningful ties to Susan’s inner demons removes any deeper impact the parasites could have had. The misogyny aspect here could have been a way for that metaphor, ie. Susan feels the way she does because of a string of terribly misogynistic past experiences or something. The fact that most of the parasites seem to target women exclusively becomes shallow when there is no deeper meaning, context, or connection there.

      Instead we are left with Susan and Mitzi dealing rather nonchalantly with monsters who hate women.

      I found the writing itself to be very good in some parts, and downright cringe-y in others.

      I supposed the backbone of the story could have been much better, and I saw the potential, but despite feeling the same as you (that is, the whole attempt is rather juvenile), I still wanted to play it to the end.

      I did enjoy it for the most part, but I am also not sure I would recommend it unless the gory and sadistic tone (as found in a lot of horror films) is something they are specifically looking for.

  2. I found this game difficult to get through, but not because of controls or puzzles. Emotionally this game hits the nail on the head of what depression is like, and for that I think I can get used to the clunkier moments.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

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