Make Games Scare Again: in the end, it’s the end

You only say “it’s really about the journey” when the destination is a disappointment. That’s what people tell themselves when they climb a mountain, only to discover the view obscured by fog. Or when the end of a game sucks.

After the jump, sometimes it’s about the destination

Chris Hornbostel: The Cat Lady
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We meet Susan Ashworth on a bad day. Her favorite cat, Teacup, sits quietly and watches her with calm amber eyes. The room begins to flicker and fade because Susan’s just taken a bottle of pills. It is a measure of the sad oppressiveness of the first hour of The Cat Lady that this is probably not even her worst day.

An hour into my first playthrough of The Cat Lady, I really wondered if I’d have the stamina to finish it. That opening sequence is dark, but the game gets even gloomier. When we meet Susan again trapped in a sort of haunted limbo land, the bleakness of the game felt like a weight. Happily the intriguing if elliptic story the game wants to tell drew me in despite that darkness. Susan is forced to accept a bargain she doesn’t want: a new chance at life if she fulfills some horrifying tasks. She’s reluctant. Can’t she just be dead?

Over the course of the rest of the game, the real horrors kick in. Susan will see terrible things done to others. She’ll have awful things done to her. Perhaps most unsettling, you’ll eventually commit your own unspeakable acts, with the game skillfully manipulating your emotions to the point that you’re okay with her wanting to do those awful things.

The Cat Lady is some piece of work. The art ranges from feeling a bit amateurish to incredibly stylish and beautifully atmospheric. The arrows-only keyboard controls feel stiff at first, but become second nature fast enough. My favorite thing about this game is that a fairly linear narrative begins to have divergent tails. Decisions and actions matter and there are multiple endings to be found. That this is largely the work of a one man studio using consumer hobbyist software tools is somewhat remarkable. What really seals the deal here is the outstanding voice performance by Lynsey Frost in the lead role. She hits just the right understated performance to keep things on the rails even when it threatens to veer off wildly.

While its tempting to mention that The Cat Lady’s multiple layers include some interesting views of mental illness and depression, make no mistake: this is a horror game at its very core. It is an unsettling and disturbing but worthwhile game that is likely to stick with you long after you finish.

The Cat Lady is available on Steam here.

Tom Chick: Fran Bow
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One of the easiest things in the world is proposing a mystery. Any two-bit wanna-be raconteur can set up a situation in which, say, some people crashland on a tropical island where they discover strange numbers, a mysterious bunker, a rampaging polar bear, and interminable flashbacks. But it’s not so easy resolving all those things. It’s not so easy answering a succession of “And then what happeneds?” all the way to a conclusion. A good story is like a riddle, because you have to write a riddle backwards. Riddlewrights don’t just think up some nonsense question without anticipating that it requires a satisfying answer. I mean, sheesh, even I can do that. “What’s the difference between an orange truck and the number 17?” There. I just qualified as a writer for a certain TV show that I’ve been mad at for more than five years.

A story’s end is its legacy. It’s how it will be remembered. This is especially a problem with horror movies. It’s the easiest thing in the world to suggest something scary. It’s not so easy resolving it. It’s not so easy showing the monster, and then deciding whether to explain it. It’s not so easy culling something meaningful from something as primal as fear.

Which is one of the reasons you should play Fran Bow. It’s an adventure game that introduces you to a little girl locked up in an asylum and homesick for her black cat. She’s a sort of Coraline gone mad. From this grimly auspicious beginning, you’re liable to grind against an obscure puzzle sooner or later. At the very least you’re going to have endure a long stretch that feels like it slipped out of another game and fell into Fran Bow. But sometimes you have to eat your veggies to truly appreciate your dessert. Fran Bow knows where it’s going and pretty much everything it does is in service of getting there.

You can read my review here. It’s available on Steam here.

Tomorrow: doing it wrong
What’s the deal with these recommendations?

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