IFDB page: Cattus Atrox
Final placement: 20th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition
Cattus Atrox begins with a warning. The warning says this: “This work of IF contains strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions. It is not intended for children or anyone with a distaste for such things.” In my opinion, this warning does not tell the whole truth. I’d like to replace it with this warning: “This work of IF contains strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions. It also contains no plot, no characterization, and no puzzles to speak of. It consists of horrifying situations with no apparent logic behind them, graphic descriptions of gratuitous violence, and incident after incident that is unsolvable without prior knowledge (i.e. save-and-restore “puzzles”.) Its world is only fully implemented enough to serve these goals. In a winning session, you will beat an animal to death, watch 3 people be literally torn apart, and strangle a friendly housecat. If you like slasher movies, this is the IF game for you. It is not intended for children or anyone with a distaste for such things.” See, here’s the thing: I really don’t mind strong language, violence, or sexual descriptions when they’re in the service of a story that makes sense. The “strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions” tag could be equally attached to Bride of Chucky and The Color Purple. As you might have guessed from what I’ve written so far, this game is on the Chucky end of that continuum.
Now, it may well be that there are people with a taste for such things. I don’t really know who these people are, but I’ve been on the Internet long enough to know that it’s a big, wide, crazy world out there. But I’m not one of those people. I really hated the experience of playing Cattus Atrox, which, by the way, is another game whose title makes no sense even after you’ve completed a winning session. I’m not saying that means it shouldn’t have been written, but I am saying that when I rate a game on how much I enjoyed playing it, this game will not score highly. Here’s the situation: you play a regular person who, for no apparent reason, is suddenly pursued by a psycho. Then you find out your friends are all in league with the psycho, and also want to kill you. If this feels like a spoiler, don’t worry — you won’t solve the game without knowing this fact in advance. Now, this is a scary situation, right? One of the game’s goals had to be to create a feeling of suspense, dread, and horror, and it succeeds on all counts. While being chased by the psycho, I felt suspense. While running around a maze (yes, maze) of fog-shrouded streets, never knowing when the psycho would loom from the mists, I felt dread. When I was injured by the psycho, I felt horror. All this lasted for about 15 minutes. Then I began to feel annoyance. The questions in my mind were: “What is the point of all this?” and “Is this all happening for no reason?” The answers are: I don’t think there is one, and yes. That’s all the story there is to the game. It’s like one of those nightmares where everyone is out to get you and your actions don’t make much difference. If you’ve had a nightmare like this, you know how this feels. Maybe it’s a feeling you’d like to have while you’re awake as well. Not me.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It is possible to win the game, though not without doing and experiencing some really awful things, including one that is a part of the winning message. I don’t know how this game could be won on the first time through, since several situations require knowledge you can only get after you’ve lost, but it can be won. It is also, as far as I could determine, fairly free of writing and coding errors. But there are a number of problems with the game that don’t have anything to do with mechanics, or with violence, sex, and cursing. I think I’ve already mentioned that the plot doesn’t make much sense. Also, there’s this: lots of things aren’t implemented, simply because there is only ever one solution available to any given problem. The street is covered with cars, but you can’t set off any alarms on them because the game doesn’t recognize the word “car”. The streets are full of houses, but you can’t go into any of them, because the game tells you that you can’t see any such thing. There’s one particular location in which you need to examine the street, but in all the other locations the street is “not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.” The story is so bare that the player character doesn’t know basic things, like where his house is or how to find a store, police station, or any sort of help. The PC has no other friends to call for help besides the psychos. There is no explanation as to who the PC’s psycho friends are, why he trusted them, or why he’s in the situation in the first place. There is no explanation as to why the psychos choose the PC to kill. The game is good at one thing, and that is producing fear and disgust. Unfortunately, unrelieved fear and disgust, without any reason behind them, aren’t my idea of fun.
[Postscript from 2020: This game spawned a lasting IF community in-joke, based on the fact that at some point a character runs up to you and screams “LIONS!” Outside the game, this became a favorite non sequitur. Try it, it’s fun. “LIONS!”]