This was small analysis I did on how the element of character is crucial to what constitutes a good story; the example I give is the computer game, “The Cat Lady”, developed by Harvester Games. It was one of the darkest and most somber experiences I’ve ever had regarding a piece of media, but also one of the most introspection-propelling stories I’ve had the pleasure to encounter.
A sequence of actions, a sympathetic character, a complication, and a resolution.
These, according to Jack Hart in his book, Storycraft, are the four crucial components in a story. While all of these play a paramount role in fleshing out the ideas in each respective writer’s head, the most important aspect of storytelling for one to develop is the element of character. From classic novels to the latest videogames, the element of character is what makes or breaks a story, and determines how effective that particular story is and how well it resonates with the audience. One video game, “The Cat Lady,” is a prime example of how the development of character in a story can present to the player/viewer a lasting, meaningful impression that is not soon forgotten.
The characters and their desires are where stories begin. As Hart claims, “Human needs and wants, he [Lajos Egri] said, set stories in motion and determine all that follows” (9). The building block of achievement: a person has a goal, and is driven to attain it. Besides having to have an objective, the character also needs to be afflicted with some sort of relatable conflict. Hart further asks, “Why pay attention to somebody who’s content, who has no reason to act, no challenge to meet, and nothing to teach us about coping with the world?” (13). Something to overcome is what everyone faces in their day-to-day lives, whether it be traffic or a death in the family, and that is what makes a sympathetic (and hindered) character critical to an interesting story. “The Cat Lady” is one such example that holds this type of character at its center, a character who not only needs to fight to live, but who also needs to find the will to live.
The game ironically begins with the protagonist, Susan Ashworth, committing suicide. It is not explained exactly how Susan has reached this state, only that she has been deeply troubled, and for a long time. Right from the introduction, players know that this is not your average video game. While it does have some sensational cut scenes and over-the-top villains, the main area of conflict resides not in defeating the various foes, but in the personal shadows and demons that Susan has to confront, deal with, and overcome. As Janet Burroway is quoted in Storycraft, “ ‘The profoundest impediments to our desire most often lie close to home, in our own bodies, personalities, friends, lovers, and family’ ” (13). More often than not, the most terrifying things in life are locked inside, not out, and this game sheds the proverbial light on that fact.
Through supernatural/metaphysical intervention, she remains in a type of purgatory, one where she is immortal, and is forced to carry out certain tasks. From this point on, players can choose specific things to do, and things to say. For example, in one scene, Susan is speaking with a psychiatrist who is inquiring about her childhood. It is left up to the player to select whether Mom was around, if Dad was attentive, or whether Susan had a good childhood or a less-than-ideal one. The player cannot help but feel like they themselves are in the therapy session, being asked these same questions concerning their own childhood. Rose comments on the immersion that games like these aim for: “Like games, stories are rehearsals for life. We create a world in microcosm, an alternate reality, a world we wish were true or fear could become so. And then we immerse ourselves in it” (7). Stories are indeed rehearsals for life. After each session of playing the game, I heavily reflected on what Susan had just experienced, and by extension, what I myself had experienced; Susan’s affliction and struggles became my own. Anyone who has felt what depression feels like, or anyone who has felt loneliness, will be able to relate to Susan on some level. This relatability and capacity for sympathy is critical for player engagement: we want Susan to persevere and survive, as in a way, we have taken over the character’s life and treat it like our own. In effect, we equate the character’s triumph with our own triumph.
In conclusion, games and stories such as “The Cat Lady” serve as a demonstration of the power that character and its subsequent growth can inhibit. It is an extremely moving game, due in large portion to the character of Susan, and the complications that have arisen in her heart and mind and how she reacts to them. Even years after playing, I am still affected by the game and what it offered me: the chance to reflect on life’s most heavy-hitting topics, topics that regrettably are not readily talked about, and further investigate what they mean to the world, and to me. By engaging and immersing ourselves in games and stories such as these, we can benefit greatly, and, in the end, hopefully become more competent, compassionate, and emotionally intelligent humans.