Kathy Rain: A Detective is Born (Clifftop Games, 2016) is a point-and-click adventure story set in the mid-1990s, about a college student and aspiring journalist who returns to her hometown to figure out exactly how her grandfather died. It is also the story of Kathy: of her sardonic attitude, of her relationships with friends and family, of her sense of herself.
With few options for players to iterate on Kathy’s approach to crime-solving, Kathy Rain is a restricted gameplay experience; while we can choose which places to visit, which questions to ask, and sometimes which answers to give, we can’t change the outcome nor the steps we have to take to get there. Kathy Rain would seem to truncate what games studies scholars call the “possibility space” – what a game makes possible, and impossible, through its design.
For instance, throughout the game Kathy is confronted by the past. She – we – have flashbacks to an abortion, which finally resolve into a nightmare scenario in which an imagined child demands to know if Kathy regrets her decision. The player can choose from five answers, none of them “right” or “wrong.” No matter what the player determines Kathy feels, the game’s design tells us that such reflexivity is itself a powerful action; without it, we can’t move forward.
In another part of the story, Kathy stops by the local biker bar, where one of the patrons would rather hit on her than answer her questions. After being called things like “sweetbutt” and “slut,” the player is presented with three dialogue choices for dealing with this creep, and none of them are friendly. We can’t sidestep this part of the game: we can’t leave the biker bar, and we can’t say something conciliatory in response.It seems like less is possible.
The only remaining option, the sole possibility in this space, is to resist. The game’s design ensures that we reject our character being demeaned based on her sex; the game’s design makes it impossible to accept such treatment. As Kathy, we have to declare “I’m nobody’s property.” Our limited choices encourage us to look more closely at the options that are available. In these ways, Kathy Rain’s closed dialogue and action options can open up a space of feminist possibility by using reflection and resistance as narrative momentum.