Agency and Animals in The Cat and the Coup

on Tuesday, April 17, 2012
I'm quite enamored of the free game, The Cat and the Coup. It's a sort of docu-game about Mosaddegh and the Iranian coup, cast as a physics puzzler against a disjointed collage art space. The player controls Mosaddegh's cat, who nudges Mosaddegh to action, as events are told in reverse-chronological order, until the timeline reverses to chronological when the gameplay portion ends. The player is, in a sense, looking back in time only to realize that these things are still progressing forward. But here I just want to talk about one device used in the game. Among many other things, I found the choice of the cat as the player's avatar, as well as other uses of animals in the art design, quite interesting.

One of the main historical points the game tries to convey is the role of Western powers in orchestrating all of these events. As the little black cat, the player compels Mosaddegh from event to event in his life, by doing things that seem quite inconvenient to Mosaddegh, like knocking him over or spilling ink on him. Interestingly, the leaders of the Western powers are depicted in the collage art as having the heads of animals, such as pigs or lizards, while common people are represented by clippings of real people from historical art sources.

First of all, this sets up a deliberate dichotomy between the two groups. It places Mosaddegh clearly with the people, and the cat clearly with the Western leaders, and, by extension, the player, too. To some extent, then, the game is an accusation, a statement that we, the game players, are responsible through our apathy for events of this sort that transpire. This is quite different than most games, which typically cater to appeasing the player entirely.

The use of animals in the Western leaders' character design also functions as a device to dehumanize them. They represent the authoritarian structures in place in our society that are carried out by these people rather than the people themselves on a personal level. The game makes no judgement of these leaders as individuals; they are taken in by the system and converted to these tools. They're a cautionary tale about what anyone could become, and, indeed, the player has become one.

But why a cat for the player? The cat conjures images of household intimacy. It is inherently nonthreatening and comforting, sleeping lazily on the mantle or on an owner's lap. It seems to suggest the level of reach of these structures. On a plot level, it may even symbolize some sort of operative working close to Mosaddegh. More generally, though, it is the ability of authoritarian structures to touch every aspect of our lives, even in the most intimate and private spheres. What could be more private than words spoken in the presence of only a household pet? By making the cat the prime agent of all that takes place in the game, even that trust is subverted. Since individuals seem to have so little control of their destiny in the political sphere represented in the game, we might even wonder if this extends generally, if we have any control at all.

This all combines to contribute to a wonderful directionless and melancholy feel to the game. The path events will take feels so set and hopeless to the player with all of these structures in place, whether the player consciously notices them or not. The soundtrack heightens this feeling, with Erik Satie's slow, aimless piano melodies creating atmosphere. Finally, the events become truly hopeless when we begin to go back to the beginning chronologically. Notably, when the actions are no longer interactive, we see real photos of the Western leader with no animalization, and they are just people like us. This ending packs an emotional punch, and much of it was set up by the use of animals to comment on the level of agency exercised by individuals.

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