In an hour one can kill hundreds in a Call of Duty game, Assassin’s Creed, or Grand Theft Auto. Life isn’t merely cheap in this game, the act of killing is easy, the push of a few buttons in rapid succession.
In so many games, killing is one of the dominant activities (if not the dominant activity of play), and the rapidity of execution becomes expedient to driving the action forward, which is why, perhaps, a game like The Cat Lady feels oddly revelatory.
Admittedly, very simply what differentiates The Cat Lady from the aforementioned games is the difference in genre that exists between them. The Cat Lady is not a shooter, not an open world action game in which you collect ammo, dive under cover, and return fire against a throng of foes. The adventure game is not a genre known for either action or for that matter for killing, as the foundation of the adventure game is in solving puzzle that advance a larger narrative.
Adventure games aren’t well suited to rapid actions and activities, and as a result, are one of the game genres that have frequently been more often associated with long form storytelling and deliberate plotting that often has nothing to do with constantly encountering violent sitatuations.
The Cat Lady is a game about a depressed, suicidal, and lonely woman who has given up on living. The first act that she takes in the game is to kill herself. When she returns from the dead (for reasons that I will get into in a moment), much of the remainder of the game has to do with grappling with her inner demons and finding herself befriending a younger woman, whose own personal and tragic circumstances are easily as complicated as Susan’s own. The relationship that emerges between them becomes a means of Susan reconnecting to a world that she has rejected and that she feels has rejected her.
None of which on the face of it would seem to have much to do with violence, though much of which does concern meditating on death, as Susan is a failed suicide of sorts, and Mitzi, her new found friend, is dying of cancer. However, unlike most of the adventure games that I normally think of when I think of my past experiences with the genre (games like The Dig, Full Throttle, and The Longest Journey, none of which are particularly violent games), The Cat Lady is a game that is at times brutally violent, as the dominant thrust of its major plotline concerns tasking Susan with an objective that is far more brutish than merely meditating on death.
After Susan commits suicide, she meets a woman named the Queen of Maggots in a surreal dreamscape that seems to exist between life and death, is made immortal, and is told to return to the world to hunt and kill its “parasites,” essentially serial killers.
While some parts (if not most parts) of The Cat Lady are frequently mundane (adventure style puzzles might concern getting Susan calmed down after returning from suicide watch in the psych ward by simply getting her lights turned on in her apartment, getting her a shower, and then some hot food, coffee, and a cigarette on the balcony), the mundane moments of returning her life to normal after what everyone else thinks was simply a near death experience and getting to know her new lodger, the aforementioned Mitzi, are punctuated by encounters with men (and one woman) that are decidedly less mundane examples of humanity. The parasites are twisted people committed to torture and death. The way that they need to be dealt with is often equally twisted, as Susan, who besides her inability to die is otherwise a normal woman, must improvise ways of eradicating these threats.
In Call of Duty, it takes under 30 seconds to kill five people. Killing five people in The Cat Lady takes eight hours, the full eight hours of the game. In that sense the game is strangely reminiscent to me of the most famous (and probably only really good) scene from one of Alfred Hitchcock’s less admired films, Torn Curtain.
The scene that I am thinking of begins at 1:25 in the above video and runs until about the 3:50 mark and concerns the killing of a man named Gromek. What is notable about the scene, whose two and a half minute running time is deceptive, is its agonizing length. Killing a man, the scene suggests, is not a simple or unemotional event. It is a terrible and horrific process.
This is actually the power of framing the act of killing in what has otherwise often been a fairly bloodless genre in video games. By expressing Susan’s hunting of the parasites through the puzzle mechanics of the adventure genre, the game turns these acts of violence into meditations not on the ease and competence of the player in the act of killing, but on the horrific process of the act of killing. Susan has to gather parts and assemble a weapon in time to save a victim from Dr. X. She has to remember the ingredients of a poison gas, then gather those ingredients (and a gasmask to protect herself), before dispatching two cannibals who want to eat both she and her beloved cats. All of these things require time, some thought, some planning, and then gritting one’s teeth to execute that planning. The act of killing in the game is never pretty, and it’s never brief.
The Cat Lady doesn’t avoid violence as other games in the adventure genre do, instead it uses the genre to shine a different light on violence and consider it as something less than cheap and less than easy to commit one’s self, too. As I said, in large part The Cat Lady is a meditation on how to deal with and confront death, the other part of the game, then, is a meditation on how to deal with and confront violence, a meditation not often accompanying most other violent video games.