Recently I decided to get a hold of the DLC pack Minerva’s Den for Bioshock 2, after hearing such good things about it and being in a Bioshock sort of mentality after finishing the latest game in the series. It really is a great piece of work and a good example of how to do downloadable content packs right. If you have Bioshock 2, I’d heartily recommend it. There is however a tremendously disturbing part to it. Whilst exploring the darker spaces of the Central Processing section of under-water art-deco inspired city, Rapture, I came across a dead cat. In fact I’ve come across three of them. They aren’t just throwaway models that a level designer chucked in to fill space; these are named cats (named after computing and mathematics pioneers Babbage, Lovelace and Turing; in line with the game’s thinking machine theme). They were given a specific name and then deliberately portioned out over the game’s three levels as little Easter eggs for the player to find. These cats had been given a distinct identity in the world and placed in an apparently suitable environment for them; then mercilessly killed before the player even enters Minerva’s Den. This was pre-planned cat-sadism and, unfortunately, it is just another example of catism in an industry that has a clear anti-cat agenda.
Perhaps the most shockingly casual instance of cat-sadism that I have come across in my years playing computer games came in the form of an off-hand joke towards the start of Valve’s first person shooter game Half-Life 2. The player, Gordon Freeman, is about to be transported away from danger by friendly (if bumbling) scientist Dr Kleiner and his experimental teleporter. Another character, Barney, expresses his concern about the reliability of the teleporter and says he still has nightmares about “that cat”. This is treated simply as a little joke about Dr Kleiner’s machine and foreshadows the inevitable problem the device encounters when Freeman tries to go through. The fate of the cat is never explained but it is obvious from the lack of any feline entity in the world that the cat probably wishes it hadn’t been used as a test subject in a dangerous quantum entanglement contraption. Indeed, the joke is brought up again later in the game when Barney mentions the cat again. No sympathy is offered towards the cat; instead it is simply a bit of comic relief in an otherwise very dark game. The cat incident in Half-Life 2 is hardly the only example of cat-sadism in games; from the cat silencer in the horrible game Postal 2 to the upcoming cat eugenics game, Mew-Genics, the industry is full of violence and abuse towards cats.
Half-Life 2's Barney and Alyx discuss use of animals in experiments.
Game developers seem to continue to go out of their way to put in-game cats in peril or compromising situations. One cat that is consistently punished in games (and in the cartoon spin-off) is Meowth, from ultra-cultural-phenomenon, Pokémon. Not a true cat admittedly, but obviously a cat-inspired cat-like creature that gets a lot of abuse from both its owners and the player/cartoon protagonists. It is unrelentingly catist in nature. So too is the portrayal of cats in classic PC game, Deus Ex. In one section of the game your character, JC Denton, finds himself on a rundown rooftop in Paris. Travel down a few levels in the building and you come across a squatter lady who has a whole herd of cats. She babbles about how one has gone missing and fears the Greasels (green feathered transgenic mutants that got released into the world) got it. The cat is indeed to be found dead later, but the purpose of the missing cat is purely a cheap indicator that danger is nearby and a warning to the player using a game resource that is considered expendable. In a game full of possibilities for emergent gameplay, it’s surprising that no way to help the cat in distress was included. The only way to actually interact with Deus Ex’s cats is to kill them. The squatter lady is portrayed as a rambling mad old woman who lets the cats run rampant in the otherwise abandoned building. The image of the mad old cat lady isn’t a creation of the games industry, certainly, but it does provide developers another weapon in their campaign of anti-cat sentiments. The insinuation is clear; you’d have to be mad to want to have cats in your life.
Sometimes cruelty to cats is even used as a method for forwarding the game’s plot. In the point and click adventure Sam & Max Hit the Road by Lucasarts, the freelance police duo are given their mission for the game by a confused looking cat on the streets outside their office. Unfortunately, the cat swallowed their orders to keep them safe, so the only course of action for stoic blue suited dog, Sam, is to use “hyperkinetic rabbity thing” Max on the cat. Max proceeds to pick up the cat and reach down its throat to pull out the papers with their orders on; literally throwing the cat away afterwards. There is no further mention of the discarded cat or remorse inferred by its unfair treatment. The cat was simply singled out by the game’s writers for cruel and unusual punishment for its pragmatic approach to guarding official police messages. This callous attitude towards cats in games is a symptom of games developers’ fundamental mistrust of felines.
Sam and Max demonstrate cat interrogation techniques that are less than ideal.
Whereas dogs are considered man’s best friend; a trusted and loyal ally against all odds; cats are viewed as aloof and solitary characters that cannot be trusted to hang around when the going gets tough. An example of this uncertainty about the allegiance of cats is well shown in the Hordes of the Underdark expansion pack to Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights role playing game. In one section, you come across a group of people seemingly in need of help. It turns out to be a trap and these people are in fact Rakshasa. These cat-like creatures are deceitful evil beings out to trick the unwary traveller. Alas, this is not the only time that Bioware have cast aspersions on the trustworthiness of cats. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, your character has to go toe to toe with the dark side of The Force as part of their Jedi training. How do you go about this? By facing a fallen Jedi who has betrayed and killed their master and turned to the dark side. This character you must face is a Cathar, a feline bipedal alien with a suspiciously Eastern European accent. The mistrust that Bioware treat this character with is very reminiscent of the mistrust of the USSR during the Cold War. Could it be that the residual mistrust that has gone unfocused since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has been transferred onto cats, as we struggle to make sense of an increasingly confusing world by projecting past insecurities onto creatures traditionally viewed as somehow shifty?
Bioware continued their own personal anti-cat agenda in their grand role playing fantasy series, Dragon Age. In the expansion pack, Awakenings, we meet Anders. Anders is a cheeky chappy who happens to love cats; which is lovely. During the course of the game, your character can even find a cat to give as a present for Anders. He names this cat Ser Pounce-a-lot; the cat can sit in his inventory and even has its own icon. Anders happens to be a mage though; a user of magic. In the Dragon Age world, magic is not trusted in the slightest and its users are even kept under lock and key their entire lives to protect the outside world from them. Mages are susceptible to being possessed by demons and wrecking havoc. We can only infer that the suggestion is that only a nasty horrible mage, who wouldn’t hesitate to sell their soul to a demon for a bit of extra power, could love a cat. Such is the distain that Bioware seem to treat cats with, they don’t even bother to give Ser pounce-a-lot proper closure to his story; he is simply done away with off-screen between Awakenings and Dragon Age II. In the sequel, we learn that Anders was forced to give up his pet because it made him too soft.
Gratuitous use of cat corpses in Deus Ex.
It’s no coincidence that Ser Pounce-a-lot’s fate comes down to cats being seen as a creature for “soft” people. Cats are often considered a pet for women and that any man that keeps cats is somehow emasculated. Just look at the “mad old cat lady” stereotype. Is there a male equivalent? The mad old dog man perhaps? Keeping packs of dogs is more often than not considered a very masculine thing. How often do cat food adverts feature male cat owners? Not often, it is almost always a female owner that the cat slinks up to manipulate into giving them food. The games industry is still seen as a very male dominated industry, no matter how outdated a view that is. With dogs being seen as more masculine in an industry that so often panders to masculine stereotypes, dogs get a free pass and are presented in a much more favourable light. It’s not hard to find games in which dogs star, are heroic figures or trusted friends. The recently unveiled Call of Duty: Ghosts, for example, is making a big deal about the importance of military dogs in the game. Where are the games in which characters get a highly trained special ops cat as a companion? They are rare. Frankly, dogs get a lot more respect in games. Whenever dogs are portrayed in a negative light (such as a guard dog, or a zombie dog for example), they are shown to be a real danger to be treated with caution and handled with care. Dragon Age gave you a dog companion, but lampooned and belittled cats. It seems like a big inequality in dog-cat representation.
There is a culture of giving cats a rough deal in computer games. Disgraceful rat led cat killing puzzle game Bad Rats: The Rats’ Revenge centred a whole game on cat-sadism. The Cheshire Cat in American McGee’s Alice was portrayed as an untrustworthy guide to Alice’s return to Wonderland, who talked in riddles and tormented her with platitudes and half truths. He went on to meet a grisly end towards the end of game when he was brutally killed moments after finally being open and not obscuring the truth. Even games that try to let you have a cat friend seem to fall to the same old anti-cat tropes. Lionheart’s god-sim game Black & White had the player take on the role of a god that has a giant animal avatar to help (or smite, depending on the players own penchant for sadism) the people who worship you. You can choose to have a giant tiger as you avatar, but you’ll be lumbered with a dull witted creature that makes learning even the most basic spells a punishing chore.
The Cheshire Cat as portrayed in American McGee's Alice.
It’s not all bad for the feline characters in video games however. Some progressive cat-friendly games do exist that give cats the respect they deserve and don’t resort to tired catism and cat-sadism. A game can be said to be cat-friendly if it has two or more living cats in the game that interact with each other without interference or any other influencing by the player’s character or supporting computer characters. Emergent gameplay may sometimes result in the player’s actions harming the cat if they so choose, but if the cat is only there (or referenced) for the designers to implicitly engage in cat-sadism, then the game cannot be said to be cat- friendly. A good example of a progressive cat-friendly game comes in the form of Obsidian Entertainment’s Neverwinter Nights 2; which makes up for the mistakes of its predecessor admirably. In chapter two of the game, your character is granted a fiefdom as reward for your actions in aiding the city of Neverwinter. Crossroads Keep is at first a run down and neglected fortress, but as the game progresses you can upgrade it and make repairs. One sign of how well you are doing in looking after the keep is how many cats appear in the fields outside the keep’s outer walls. The cats do nothing but play around in the fields, they are even named cats. There are also playful cats to be found in the Port Llast town in the game. These cats exist purely for the point of existing and brightening up the game. They get on with their highly important kittening around and the game is richer and more alive feeling because of it. Some classes of player character can also choose to have an animal familiar to aid them in the game’s quests, cats included. This is an example of cat-enrichment game ecology that should be championed more vocally by games developers.
Hopefully one day the anti-cat agenda seen in games can be done away with, the suspicion levelled at them lifted and feline characters be given a more equal footing to dogs. The institutional cat hatred must end if the industry is to have any standing in wider popular culture. Cats deserve better from the games industry; it is my sincere hope that one day they can be allowed to rise above the abuse and stereotyping that sadly follows them in the medium.