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A surprisingly thoughtful piece., August 6, 2009
One of the most interesting things about playing text games, in my view, is the way in which problems that are relatively small or unimportant in the grand scheme of things become far more significant when *you* are the one faced with them. Often, a problem that, were it to feature in a conventional story, might not interest us, can become all-consuming in a text game, where if the writing is strong enough and the puzzle well-paced enough, we can feel something of the protagonist's fear or frustration.
Oddly, I found this more true in this game than in any other I've yet played. The game falls into three main sections. The first is a time-based challenge: you must get fed before you collapse from hunger. The second is less constrained, and allows you to roam about in search of more satisfying food. And the third is another time-based challenge, this one more serious than the first.
The game gets progressively harder as it goes on, and it starts off pretty hard. As other reviewers have commented, some of the puzzles are not fiendish so much as virtually unguessable (although I was pleased to figure out by myself what was, in retrospect, probably the most outlandish of them - (Spoiler - click to show)tying the cat food tin to the balloon, taking it onto the roof, and dropping it in the direction of the boy). This can be especially frustrating in the second part of the game, where you must solve a variety of puzzles in order to get to the coveted soft food, but it is not always clear what your goal in each puzzle is, or why solving it matters, or indeed what's going on at all.
There is also an uneasy tension between your limitations and goals as a cat and the uncatlike intelligence you must show in overcoming the limitations and attaining the goals. The game itself shows awareness of this; show an object to the Provider, and he looks puzzled at the fact you're carrying it around, as well he should if you're just an ordinary cat. This comes to the fore in the final part of the game, where you must do things that clearly no cat would ever do, and rely upon knowledge that not only would no cat know, but this cat apparently doesn't know either ((Spoiler - click to show)the cat does not know that the liquid dripping from the car is petrol - it doesn't even know that it's a car - but you must still soak the shirt in it in order to make a fire). But even in the same sequence, the cat is sometimes characterised as a typically amoral, food-obsessed feline ((Spoiler - click to show)in one grim possible ending, you simply eat your stricken Provider, the game commenting dryly that he remained a Provider right to the end).
It must be said that the game also suffers from a fair few technical problems and unrecognised words. Trying to fill a container at the stream, for example, is greeted with the response that there is no water here. At one point I attempted to do something with my claws, to be told that I needed to be holding them first. It is also odd that a game with an unusual protagonist doesn't allow you to examine yourself, although some self-description is included in the inventory. It doesn't seem to recognise "it". Finally, there are one or two spelling mistakes (including one in a location description, which is annoying).
So why four stars, given these flaws? It's partly because of how well written the game is. There is understated humour in the descriptions and narrative, which presents everything precisely as a cat *would* think of it. The kitchen is simply the "food room", where the only object of any interest is the cat's bowl. A chair becomes a "lumpy mountain", the main interesting feature being its impressive collection of scratch marks. Cars are shiny beasts and cat food tins are eggs. But the game doesn't go overboard with this; the balloon, for example, is described as simply that. Moreover, the prose is admirably restrained, and despite the humour, never comes across as overtly funny. There is a starkness and seriousness to the game which matches the feline protagonist perfectly, and which is reflected in the snowy landscape surrounding the house, which is largely hostile to the cat. The only character who seems happy, the boy behind the fence, remains largely unseen. The cat begins the game starving, there is a brutal Rival roaming about, and the Provider is not well at all.
That leads into the other reason for a high score. The end game is, in some respects, annoying and frustrating. As I have commented, it forces the player to behave in distinctly uncatlike ways, and the difficulty of the puzzles does not let up. But it captures the attention like nothing else I have played. The time constraint now seems far more serious than that used in the first part of the game, with failure a much scarier prospect. There are various ways to fail the end game, all rather grim and depressing, despite the relative lack of care that the cat displays in them (which, as previously mentioned, clashes somewhat with the attitude that the cat must display when under the player's control). Finally, even the victory text is understated, rather sad, and poignant, despite the upbeat end. Despite the thinness of the characterisation of the Provider (as is only right, given that the cat cares only that he provides), I cared very much about what happened to him and the cat. That is why, for me at least, this is not just a strangely powerful and memorable game, but also a successful piece of interactive fiction. It demonstrates the power of the genre to make us care about situations and characters by making us part of them, in a way that could never work in any other genre.