Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Cats See Ghosts Sometimes

As I said in yesterday's post, the Steam Next Fest demo I was most eager to play, from the half-dozen I downloaded, was the somewhat oddly-named Cats and the Other Lives. That meant I was either going to indulge myself and play it right away or save it as a treat for the end. 

I indulged myself. This evening I played through the whole thing in one sitting. I didn't have much choice. As the demo warns you right at the start, there's no Save option. 

Oh, alright, I'm lying. Not about there being no Save option. That part's true. I didn't really play through the whole thing in one go. I wanted to but it's a lot longer than I was expecting. I'd been playing for about an hour when the time came to take the puppy out for her evening walk and it didn't seem like the demo was anywhere close to a conclusion.

Luckily, as with almost every single-player game ever made, opening the Options window acts as a Pause button, so I did that, took the dog out, came back, had a coffee and carried on from where I left off. As a result, Steam thinks it took me 2.7 hours to finish. In fact it was about eighty minutes. 

That's still a very hefty length for a demo. I've played whole games that were faster to finish than that. All of it was active gameplay, too. It's a tight, focused experience, with very little room for any of the usual backtracking, wandering about aimlessly, getting lost, puzzling over puzzles and general dicking about that usually pads out the run-time of any game, when I play.

I should qualify what I mean by "active gameplay". The somewhat fanciful description from the game's Steam Store page turns out to be surprisingly accurate. "Part interactive fiction, part Felis domesticus adventure" just about sums up this demo.

I spent most of the hour and twenty minutes listening to people having conversations. With each other, not with me. I was playing a cat. People don't have conversations with cats, not in this game. It's the diametric opposite of anthropomorphism. Also, by "listening", I mean "reading". There's no voice acting as such, just some muffled background mumbling from which an audible word very occasionally surfaces.

Aspen, the feline protagonist, acts very much as a cat would, assuming you believe cats can see ghosts, something many cat-owners certainly do. He's also either more lucid, more rational or perhaps just more serendipitous than the average housecat.  

A great number of the levers that move the plot forward rely on Aspen knocking over, breaking, jumping on or climbing up something. He pulls gratings off walls so he can go through ventilation shafts, goes out of one window and back through another to get to rooms he otherwise couldn't reach and generally manages to get himself everwhere anyone is talking about anything the player needs to know.

For the most part it all feels convincingly natural. Cats can wander around between peoples' legs without being noticed, even at a wake. No-one ever guards their speech because a cat might overhear. In a surprising number of ways, having a non-speaking, apparently non-thinking cat as a main character makes it easier, not more difficult to reveal the inner workings of a mystery.

Given the nature of some of what gets revealed, I strongly suspect that Aspen won't remain wholly, authentically animalistic for the duration of the full game. There looks to be magic afoot. The appearance of a statue of Bast on one of the mantelpieces is surely more than coincidence. For the demo, though, he's just a cat, pure and simple.

Although Aspen's actions facilitate the plot, there's very little for the player to do other than move from room to room. There aren't any real puzzles in the traditional sense of combining and using objects, solving riddles or opening combination locks. How could there be? Aspen's a cat. He doesn't have the capacity for abstract reasoning. He doesn't even have opposable thumbs.

He does, however, have a few abilities a human character wouldn't have. Aspen can sense if something's happening in another room. He can track people by scent if he can sniff something they've handled. He can see ghosts, yes, but if he wants to go outside or into a closed room, he still has to wait for a human to open a window or go through the door first.

There are a few action sequences. At one point you have creep up behind a lawyer as he's sitting on a toilet with his pants around his ankles, then jump on him so he gets up and throws you out of the bathroom. Right at the end of the demo you have to leap around some stuffed animal heads, trying to catch a cockroach. That one's on a timer and it took me about ten tries. 

I wasn't entirely convinced either of those added much to the narrative. It felt more like the developers thought they had to put something in to justify calling it a "game". On the other hand, I didn't think the action sequences took much away, either. They were kind of fun and not too hard and I guess there does need to be something to make players feel they're needed.

The true appeal of Cats and the Other Lives doesn't lie in the gameplay, anyway. It lies in the excellent dialog, the delightful graphics, the intriguing plot and the sheer pleasure of being a cat, doing cat stuff, like an actual cat. 

I won't waste time describing or praising the graphics. You can see for yourself. The screenshots give an excellent impression of the appeal. The animation and effects are equally satisfying. It's a joy to watch.

The plot, at least as much of it as you get to see in the demo, feels like something you'd expect from a fairly typical adventure/mystery indie game. There's a house that's a bit like somewhere the Addams Family might live and a family that wouldn't be out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. 

A patriarch has just died, the extended family is there for the wake and the reading of the will. There's a large cast of characters ranging from odious to adorable including a quirky aunt (You know she's quirky - she wears a checked flannel shirt to a funeral.), a sarcastic teenager, a cheating father, an elderly professor, a long-suffering Hispanic maid... and somewhere behind it all lurks the smell of ancient magick. Doesn't it always?

It reminded me a lot of Knives Out. That's not something I thought I'd ever find myself saying about a video game, least of all one where you play a cat. If that's high praise, I think it's well deserved. I thought this was an excellent demo. Let's hope it presagse an excellent game.

I've wishlisted it, naturally. It's scheduled to release out later this year, so I guess we'll know for sure soon enough just how well the game stacks up to the demo.


  1. Heh...when I read your list of characters I immediately thought "Sounds like Knives Out" too.
    Maybe the cat is playing the part of the elderly woman who never speaks and doesn't seem to register anything until the very end.

    1. It was weird. I was playing and I kept getting this eerie feeling of deja vu. Obviously, loads of games use a ton of the same ideas and imagery but this seemed like something both more specific and more unusual than that. And then it came to me!

      If indeed the creators did draw inspiration from the movie, it makes a nice change from pulling everything from the same tired fantasy sources.


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