*PLEASE NOTE: This article contains subject matter such as suicide and depression that may be triggering. If you are suffering, please seek help from a professional.*
*This article also contains spoilers for the entire game*
Dealing with mental health.
Helping friends with mental health.
The term ‘mental health’ gets thrown around quite a bit these days. Online, on the news, on television – it seems anyone who is anyone is preaching the importance of looking after your mental health and, for the most part, that’s great. The more awareness there is, the more people can learn that they shouldn’t be ashamed of their afflictions and that help is available, no matter what. But, at the same time, we have almost become oversaturated with it.
You can’t log on to Facebook, or Twitter, or anywhere without seeing one of two things: someone talking about the importance of self-care or someone making a joke out of their depression or anxiety, followed by a bunch of comments reading ‘same.’
Whether we want to admit it or not, it would seem that our attempts to de-stigmatise mental health have led to us normalising it. It has become one of those things people talk and joke about just because everyone seems to be suffering with it. That’s not the case, of course, but online spaces certainly give that impression.
While it is good that we’re talking and seeing that mental health conditions aren’t some deplorable curse, it does appear that there’s a lack of severity in our speech, a lack of meaning and understanding.
This is what makes The Cat Lady (2012) a fantastic game.
Video games – like any other creative media – have never strayed away from sensitive subject matter and over the last decade, games about mental health have experienced a rise in popularity. From the domestic horror of Night in the Woods (2017) to the introspective Beginner’s Guide (2015), there’s plenty of varied titles to choose from.
The Cat Lady, however, is unlike any of these and instead, is one of the most visceral depictions of mental health you’ll ever experience in video game form.
But first, what’s the story?
Released in 2012 by indie developers Harvester Games, The Cat Lady is a point-and-click style psychological horror title exclusive to the PC. It follows the unfortunate tale of 40-year-old Susan Ashworth, a lonely woman with an affinity for cats, trying to claw herself out of the darkest depths of her depression after the death of her daughter and broken marriage. When we first meet her, it appears she’s stopped trying. The game opens shortly after Susan attempts suicide via overdose, alongside her eerie narration of how and why she did it.
When she wakes up, she finds herself on a strangely serene plain of existence, which she assumes to be some kind of afterlife. There, she meets a mysterious old woman who, after some convincing, gives Susan the opportunity to go back to her life and right some of her wrongs.
However, as this is a horror game at heart, it isn’t that simple. In return for getting her life back, Susan is tasked with destroying the ‘Parasites’ – five terrible people who do a plethora of terrible things. After reluctantly agreeing to do so, Susan wakes up and finds herself in a hospital and the real meat of the game begins.
From here, Susan is forced to fight off her demons – both physical and psychological – as she navigates through the miserable, monochromatic world of a rundown British city, all to get her life back to some form of normalcy.
So, what makes it different?
Games about mental health tend to fall into two distinct categories: melodramatic and sugar-coated or horrific and gruesome. While some of these do manage to get their points across, such as the shocking game The Static Speaks My Name (2015), they tend to be a little ham-fisted with their delivery. If the story is too gruesome, it reinforces the idea that those suffering with mental health problems are deranged and dangerous. Alternatively if it’s too sugar-coated it tends to severely underplay what it’s like to experience such issues.
This is why The Cat Lady stands out.
Despite its surreal opening, the game is rooted in a strong sense of reality. Susan and the people she interacts with aren’t remarkable, the locations and items aren’t whimsical, and the overall tone of the game is relatively mundane. But it isn’t supposed to be fantastical. It’s detached, harsh, and nearly Lovecraftian in its distorted presentation, but it doesn’t paint any of it as some kind of soul-searching quest.
It’s a story about a woman’s fight with depression and the way it’s approached is much truer to life.
Take Mitzi for instance. Upon returning home from the hospital, trying to get back into her evening routine of summoning cats, Susan encounters Mitzi – the young woman responsible for getting her to the hospital after her overdose. Following a forgotten roommate ad that Susan had put in the paper, the two quickly become friends and learn about each other’s unpleasant pasts – including the fact that Mitzi has terminal cancer.
Now, in most mental health-based video games, this would be a significant turning point. Susan would see the value of this friendship and grow stronger with a supportive friend by her side.
But that’s not what happens.
Susan values Mitzi, there’s no denying that, but Mitzi does not cure her. The two talk and talk throughout the game and while it does bring Susan fleeting moments of happiness, she’s still depressed. Even in the good endings of the game, Susan is still depressed, she’s just not suicidal.
Depression cannot be cuddled away. While this probably sounds obvious, a lot of baseline advice given around supporting those with mental health issues could imply as much. “Check up on your friends” is a good sentiment, but realistically, it doesn’t replace the key principles of getting better: closure and therapy – two things The Cat Lady acknowledges throughout.
What about the Parasites then?
A name like the Parasites is about as typical horror as you can get. The very word is associated with insidious, unrelenting creatures that feast away at the living and, in a way, that’s not too far detached from The Cat Lady’s equivalent. However, instead of being some putrid, mutilated monster, these Parasites are human. Scarily human. Regular people who all do horrible things that Susan – and likely many players – know too well.
Each Parasite represents an aspect of Susan’s life that lead her to where she is now. From the neglectful psychiatry and abuse of Doctor X, to the disgusting marital disaster that is the Pest Controller and his wife, each Parasite is a sobering reminder of the obstacles life can throw. But the most notable is the final Parasite: Adam.
Towards the end of the game, Susan and Mitzi have to seek out the leader of an online suicide cult known as The Eye of Adam, a group that convinced Mitzi’s boyfriend to take his own life. After getting past Adam’s father, the pair find him, but he’s not what they expect. What they discover is a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound man who is only capable of moving his eyes – hence the name of the cult. The two find that Adam’s condition has made him spiteful, coercing him to believe that everyone deserves to suffer just as he does, trapped within his own body.
Though their conditions are completely different, this paints a grim picture of what could’ve happened to Susan. A miserable, isolated life spitting hatred towards others because of what her depression has done to her. At the start of the game, this looked like the path she was headed down; being jaded and cruel to everyone around her, as well as having no real concern for herself or her state of living.
Just like the rest of the Parasites, Adam is a harrowing reflection of both Susan and many real people’s experiences. It’s easy for people to blame behaviours on their conditions and while this is a valid explanation, it is never an excuse – especially when those behaviours are malicious. The Cat Lady brings attention to this by displaying that even though people have may have a condition, they are not defined by it and they have the power to overcome it without just ignoring it.
How does it do this? Well…
Let’s wrap it up.
The Cat Lady is an unapologetically bleak game. Despite its psychological horror aspects and occasionally nightmarish visuals, the story it tells is a very real one. It understands the burdens and roots of mental health conditions like depression, but does not exploit them. The game paints these conditions as gruelling, yes, but never impossible to overcome with the right approach.
The player can make many decisions throughout the game, but no matter what, the ending is always the same. After Mitzi passes away, Susan finally begins seeking further help and opening up, even starting her own blog to aid other people with similar issues. But even then, this is shown to be a gradual process. She doesn’t suddenly get cured or wake up every morning with a smile, she works towards her recovery – good days and bad days in tow.
With everything that’s been going on over the last six months, it’s no wonder people’s mental health has gotten worse. However, even though we’re aware of this, it still seems that many of us are falling into the age-old trap of ‘positivity equals cure.’ Obviously, positivity is a good thing and we all deserve to be happy, but it doesn’t fix everything.
People with mental health conditions need support along their road to recovery and The Cat Lady reinforces this idea. There is no quick fix for these things, but we all need to keep on going if we’re going to get better – just like Susan.
Mental health conditions aren’t pretty, but they aren’t hopeless either.
Words by Ly Stewart
If you’re suffering with depression or suicidal thoughts, there are several hotlines you can talk to:
Everyone- Samaritans: 116 123
Under 35’s- Papyrus: 0800 064 4141
Men- Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM): 0800 58 58 58
Under 19’s- Childline: 0800 1111
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