Depression seems to be a common theme in indie games. From more overt depictions in Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight to the more opaque in games like Anodyne, it’s a subject many indie titles want to tackle.
Maybe the potentially solitary nature of gaming as a hobby has something to do with it; maybe the escapism promised by the medium attracts those already suffering from depression. Perhaps the instant-gratification feedback universes games are built on sometimes reinforce depression. It’s possible none of the above apply, that depression is just one more subject to be encompassed as the medium naturally diversifies.
These are interesting avenues of thought to follow, and as a longtime-depressed person-with-an-interest-in-games, I’m always eager to check out the latest indie game that tackles depression (or any other serious subject matter). Yet, as much as I appreciate and respect these games, something always leaves me cold. Don’t get me wrong: these are valuable entries in the medium that are expanding what games can be. Even if they fall a bit short here and there, aiming for stories and experiences exploring ultimately “unfun” subjects is a great and much needed thing. But that’s sort of it: of these games, only the most opaque have really resonated with me. Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest feel like records of someone else’s depression, and while that’s fascinating to experience, it doesn’t quite have an emotional effect on me. On the other hand, Anodyne and Yume Nikki, by providing such soothingly bleak atmospheres to mope around in, end up facilitating my depression without necessarily providing comment on depression generally.
I like games to be “about” things. This doesn’t happen often. We probably hit peak “aboutness” in the late 90s and early 2000s, when many developers were drunk enough on the expanding potential of technology to want to expand that expansion to the very definition of what games could be. The maturation of technology in that period coincided with narrative maturation in the kinds of stories and experiences developers wanted to express and explore. Osamu Sato’s LSD is the kind of game that could only exist in its state of polished weirdness in that particular historical sweet spot. Likewise Kenji Eno’s entire career. Since 2007 or so, increased production costs and hyperfocused marketing have made it difficult to make games that are “about” anything with any kind of budget. The advent of crowdfunding and the overall finding-of-legs in indie games (not to mention growth of a critical culture that embraces diversity) have done much to reverse this, and the future is looking up again, but for a generation there it felt like games that tried to be about anything more than the most obvious surface elements were doomed to the ultra-niche.
Remigiusz Michalski’s The Cat Lady is “about” something—multiple somethings—to a degree that’s a little rare even among indie games. As a game about depression, it’s uniquely effective by providing a complex protagonist who suffers from depression—so there’s that “other people’s depression” boundary line, and yet there’s not because the invested player cares about (and may relate to) Susan. There are frequent reminders that Susan is not a player avatar, but the specificity and idiosyncrasy of her experiences actually work to make them more relatable.
Here’s what it’s about, then: A woman committing suicide is saved by a housebreaker who witnesses the attempt, the two of them then awkwardly and gradually forming a relationship they both openly need. There are other plot threads, and it’d be a mistake to discount them entirely, but the friendship of these two women is the real and compelling center of the game. As premises go, this is absolute gold and levels beyond what most games have to offer. If the experience is uneven, the ambition and soul put into it make that easy to shrug off. A good premise helps smooth over a lot of blemishes; and this is an outstanding one.
The overall shape of the plot is something like a wallpaper of Jacob’s Ladder plastered over Dream With the Fishes, Finn Taylor’s 1997 directorial debut in which a suicidal widow played by David Arquette becomes close to a terminally ill addict (Brad Hunt). Protagonist Susan Ashworth occasionally enters Hellish nightmare fugue states in which she becomes entangled with the vaguely menacing, subtly maternal Queen of Maggots and a rotating cast of serial killers and other human monsters. Exactly in what ways these sequences are “real” is ambiguous. Though they overlap and interact with the mundane world, they’re treated as simply not as important. Wallpaper, aesthetics, light symbols more than the story’s driving force. In between these interludes into the fantastic, Susan shares her life with housebreaker-cum-roommate Mitzi Hunt, a young woman diagnosed with a glioblastoma. With the short time left to her, Mitzi is searching for the man her partner spoke about ending his life with online, before committing suicide. Mitzi is resigned to death, but wants to live. Susan wants to die, but is resigned to life.
There’s a gentle ambivalence in the way the game handles depression and suicidal ideation. Susan has plenty of reasons to feel depressed, but they aren’t treated as the cause of her depression. We see the pain of loss loved ones experience after a suicide in Mitzi, but the tone is never morally superior or judgmental. Suicide happens—it is caused by, it causes, pain—but it is not “bad.” It is not weak or cowardly or any of the other typical value judgments stapled onto the subject. It may be preventable; it may not. It is not “weird;” those experiencing ideation are not as isolated as we are normally reassured.
Likewise, depression is not treated as a truly “solvable” thing. The fullest ending leaves Susan somewhat better, crawling out of the hole her life fell in, but still struggling with her own shadow. Medication isn’t discussed; support groups are, briefly. There is a much greater degree of self awareness that the ways in which people deal with depression and suicidal ideation are myriad and idiosyncratic; too often authors present what has worked for them as viable treatments for anyone. Too often audiences demand it. Living with depression is a continual effort in management and a neverending work in progress. There is no “cure.” There is no morning where Susan—or anyone—wakes up with all their sadnesses and hurts and slowly dwindling energy resolved and vanished. That doesn’t happen in life; and it’s admirable that it doesn’t happen here.
As with Silent Hill 2, the hope expressed in the game’s final words shocked me with their tenderness. There is a conclusion, and a logically-followed one, even if in life we get no endings, happy or otherwise. There is a sense of loss in Susan’s having gotten so close to someone dying; of never being able to rediscover that kind of needed connection. Yet there is tired optimism in choosing to reengage with and continue life. Things may not get “better,” as such; but there will be flowers blooming on sunny Spring days. In time they may turn.
A special note on the aesthetic, sound and music:
The look of the game is extraordinarily unique, using traditional art and excellent utilization of color and lighting. Occasionally something looks a bit rough, but that usually contributes to the sense that the game was crafted with actual, tangible, physical materials; that Susan and Mitzi are paper dolls inhabiting a literal diorama.
Aurally, the game fares similarly. Voice acting is above par with some hiccups that make the game feel like it hails from the late 90s era it somewhat evokes. Some of this appears to be due to confusing blips and blops in the script. Lynsey Frost’s rendition of Susan Ashworth is especially perfect: Frost manages to make even moments in which Susan is trying to be positive sound habitually dour, and for days everything I read was in Susan’s voice. The original score by Michal Michalski is appropriately melancholy and atmospheric, with punctuated moments of quiet hope or growing dread. Also featured are vocal tracks by various artists. Some of these feel slightly at odds with the scene they appear in, but most are excellent, perfectly fitting and lend the game a bit more of an “independent film” vibe that works very much in its favor.
It’s rare for a videogame to show me anything of meaningful, lasting resonance outside the scope of games, but The Cat Lady was my introduction to the hauntingly beautiful Jeff Buckley/Elizabeth Fraser collaboration the title of this piece has been lifted from. While I think I agree with the game that the title is a lie, it may just be a lie beautiful enough to be worth living for. And what else can we hope to have? All connections are temporary; all things transient. We take and cherish our unlikely treasures as we find them, while we and they last. The Cat Lady is such a treasure for the medium; and for anyone who believes games can be about something real. However impermanent or intangible the things that truly matter are.
Erika B. has written 2 FGEC articles.
Sometimes I have thoughts about videogames. Sometimes they end up here. Don't blame me; I don't know how they get out.