Friday, November 29, 2013

Game Translation: The Cat Lady

The Cat Lady is a point-and-click adventure game where about Susan Ashworth, the local Cat Lady, who is suicidally depressed and gains what little joy she has from the neighborhood cats whom she calls to her apartment through piano music.

This is a profoundly emotional game which begins with Susan's suicide. She finds herself in a disturbing Afterworld where a strange old woman called the Queen of Maggots offers immortality in exchange for the murder of five psychopathic "Parasites" who will try to hurt Susan. Over the course of the game, not only does Susan need to deal with these Parasites but she also needs to confront herself and a terrible moment from her past.

Any Game Master trying to ape this style of game would do well to read the last few Friday articles I wrote to do with the necessity of emotional distance in roleplaying games (Disgust, Sadness, Happiness, Hate, and Anger). This isn't to say that you can't do an emotional game only that it is something which shouldn't be done lightly. While people might emphathise with a character on a television screen, experiencing it first-hand through a roleplayed encounter when you have immersed yourself in the character's perspective is another thing entirely. When a person is looking at you and talking to you, it's difficult to divorce yourself from what they're saying without divorcing yourself from the entire game experience as well.

For similar reasons, while I adore the videogame I wouldn't recommend it to everyone due to its themes. Nasty things happen in this game. Not only the shocking cruelties performed by the "Parasites" (human serial killers, generally) but also the very realistic cruelties which a normal life can throw at you. This game deals with situations involving suicide, depression, anxiety and causes of such mental health issues which can be deeply upsetting to play even in a videogame.

So let's assume that despite all that you want to run a game in this mould and your players are happy to tap into the sort of anguish which marks the day-to-day life of such a character. Firstly take each player aside and talk to them about their characters. Spend at least an hour discussing their character's history, needs, loves and hates. You need to get a very good idea of what these characters are like and what they're about. Remind them that anything they bring up now is usable in the game and that they should either prepare themselves for that ... or remove it.

A character who has suffered a miscarriage in their past, after all, can't hope to get through this sort of game without references to miscarriages, happy (or unhappy) families and little children coming up over the course of the game. If they're not comfortable with that, they should really remove that element of the game and introduce a new one.
Sometimes this game becomes a little surreal...
There also needs to be a debrief after each session. Don't simply send them home right after. You should discuss the game for a bit together (yes, this involves talking about those dreaded feelings) and then ideally curl up on the couch together, eat chocolate-dipped strawberries and watch an upbeat movie or something. Shake off the bad feelings with a chat that acknowledges them and then let that negativity seep away. If you send people home right away, you risk them dwelling over something that you might not have even realised would strike a nerve. The last thing you want to do is inspire a night alone crying or a weekend feeling despondent. Hopefully this won't happen. By scheduling in that extra time after a session you increase the chances that it won't happen ... or that it'll at least happen in a way that leaves the player feeling supported.

Remember also that this type of game is about cartharsis. It's about experiencing something dreadful with the chance of coming out on top. While the world of The Cat Lady is pretty bleak with overworked support staff too indifferent to care, police officers who just don't believe you, and a general sense of grime and disillusionment, there is still the possibility of a decent ending. There's even a good ending, though it's harder to get.

Figure out those endings. At the very least, the characters should achieve some sort of closure before the story ends. To get the players invested in this sort of game and then leave the character without closure risks leaving the player without closure as well. A lack of closure leads to dwelling and no cartharsis. Avoid that.

Okay, so what if you just want to play a darker semi-mundane world involving tricky actions to take out the "Parasites" rather than focusing on evoking anguish in your players to help them (and perhaps yourself) achieve the sort of cartharsis people seek in tragedy?

Most of the advice you can get from any good old point-and-click adventure game can come into it here. Rather than successful skill rolls, think of it in terms of decision points. Should someone really have to roll to jump a fence? No. The question isn't "Can they....?" but "Do they....?" In this kind of game where failure (in the form of death) isn't the end you can certainly pre-plan decision points where failing to pay attention to environmental cues and doing something silly like slamming open the door to attack the knife-wielding psychopath automatically ends in failure.

Taking the dice out of it also throws the emphasis so squarely on decision making that players who are liable to throw themselves at things when they get frustrated will instead have to sit up and start paying attention.

Anyway, a campaign based around The Cat Lady or including elements of it, should appeal to Communicators the most.

Tacticians generally like to think their way through problematic situations so they can have a lot of fun trying to figure out what to do to get past their current "Parasite".  Unfortunately some of them have problems with perfectionism and the fact that in a game like the Cat Lady you're bound to occasionally get it wrong before getting it right might not sit well with them.

Action Heroes might enjoy it for a short change of pace if they're into horror games but they will otherwise find it very frustrating to have to play an essentially vulnerable and largely noncombative character.  Even if their character gets a gun they really shouldn't start to rely on it.

Explorers may enjoy the rather gritty and disturbing version of our reality, especially the unusual situation in the Death World.

Investigators will have their work cut out for them discovering the identity of the "Parasite", their modus operandi and the best way to survive their current predicament and take down the "Parasite".  Unlike the Tactician whose focus is on success, an investigator's focus is on discovery so they're a bit less likely to get frustrated.

Communicators tend to come in one of two flavors - the political types who love to play their own little version of Game of Thrones (who won't love this game so much) and the psychological types who just want to crawl down the rabbit hole of their own character's and their other NPC's minds (who will absolutely love and adore this style of game).

If you want to check out the trailer, you can find it here. If you want to read up on the TV Tropes you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Blood Dragon, Gears of War, Dracula: Origins, Realms of the Haunting, Outlast or Dishonoured. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be either Realms of the Haunting or Dishonoured.

If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

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