Warning: This post discusses themes of depression and suicide.
So, here’s a thing about video games: Typically, they suck at mental illness. Nine times out of ten you pick up a game that has mental illness in it and the involvement boils down to, “Crazy people with knives try to knife you, isn’t that scary???”
Frankly? No. It isn’t scary. What is scary is not being able to talk to others about my depression because they think I just need to be more positive. What is scary is people with schizophrenia being treated like criminals because most people have absolutely no idea what schizophrenia actually is. What is really, truly horrifying is the fact that lazy game writers adore tropey depictions of mental illness because it lets them write “psychological horror” without knowing anything about the disorders they’re attempting to portray and not caring about the real life actual harm they’re doing to people who have them. Others have written on the harms of this phenomena but, frankly, I don’t have the emotional capacity to do the same right now. So instead, I’d like to discuss a game that actually got something right for a change.
Released in 2012, The Cat Lady is a game that actually knows what depression is like. The protagonist, Susan Ashworth, is a 40 year old woman living with severe depression. At least, she’s sort of living with it. The beginning of the game shows her attempting suicide and waking in a surreal and gory landscape wherein she is granted immortality by the mysterious Queen of Maggots. With her newfound death-defying ability, Susan finds herself swept up in the world of serial killers and is tasked with taking out the most horrible of them. But the best part about this game?
That’s not really the story.
I mean, it is in a lot of ways. Susan beating up people who are trying to kill her is a major part of the game but it’s not all there is. It’s more of the story of a woman who brings herself back from the brink of death by learning to live with her mental illness. This game is dark and depressing and painfully positive in the very best way.
See, when you’ve got depression there’s always this overarching sense of “It’s not that bad!” that looms over you. The Cat Lady doesn’t do that. Every time something upsets Susan it’s framed in a way that validates her. For example, shortly after Susan’s first encounter with an enemy, she returns home and has to perform various tasks without having a breakdown. As the player, it’s your job to help her do that. You have her take a shower, eat a burger, grab a cigarette, all while avoiding anything that could stress her out. At times, this section is frustrating as the order of operations is so specific. One task is making her some coffee but in order to do that you have to first find the mug on her balcony. Then you have to fill a kettle with water. Then you have to boil the water. Then you make the coffee. Then you put in creamer. Then you go to enjoy the coffee only to find that she also wants a cigarette so you have to get that too. It’s monotonous and frustrating and so realistic. I can’t tell you how many times my depression has clouded my head to the point where I’ve had to wash my hands three times because I’d turn on the water, rinse my hands, and then leave the sink because I forgot the soap part. And the shutting off the water part.
Furthermore, Susan’s interactions with other people are superb in how they display her depression. When the character Mitzi is first introduced, she’s trying to rent a room from Susan. Throughout the conversation, Susan makes it very clear that she’s a boring old lady that Mitzi won’t want to ever be around. People with depression are constantly convinced no one likes them and that no one will ever like them and Susan actively portrays that sentiment in a way that reaffirms the struggles of this disorder. At the same time though, by this point in the game the player has seen Susan take down a serial killer, sneak her way out of the psych ward, AND go through gross wonderland all while being incredibly smart, cool, and snarky. Thus, this game validates the feeling of being boring and awful while showing the player that it isn’t really an accurate way to think. It reminds us that there’s a skew in perception.
This skew in perception is likely my favorite part of the game. The Cat Lady shows us Susan having this skew and portrays it as a part of her illness, not as a personal failing. Susan Ashworth isn’t mopey, she doesn’t have the weepies or feeling blue, she’s depressed and that affects her in a serious way. But, and this is a crucial but, that doesn’t mean she can’t get better. That’s the real story in this game. No spoilers, but every part of the narrative sets Susan up to learn to stand on her own legs again, to learn how meaningful she can be and to begin to heal despite all the messed up stuff she goes through. Plus, all this is done without romanticizing or glorifying her depression. She’s not “profoundly” depressed or an “inspiration,” she’s a woman with a brain that doesn’t quite do happiness like it’s supposed to and also she takes out murderers. And that is where the true value of this game lies. It’s not just spooky-scary, it’s healing and meaningful and real when most games would rather just stay sad.
Honestly, I could go on for hours about this game. The melancholy narrative pairs excellently with the fairly monochromatic visuals all while giving a more realistic depiction of depression than I’ve ever seen in any other game. While it isn’t a perfect game (Susan tends to call her enemies crazy, so is she just good crazy? Because that’s not a thing, mental illnesses don’t come in Lawful Evil or Chaotic Neutral) it is certainly an excellent depiction of depression specifically. Here’s hoping the rest of the video game industry can learn something from this game and figure out how to portray people with mental illness in a way that’s realistic, fair, and not actually the worst.
If you are interested in finding more information about this game, head over here to see the game’s website.