The cat follows the coup

The history of education in games is conflicted. It’s hard enough to convince gamers intent on murder or tending farms that an educational game isn’t woefully beneath them. Even if you’re convinced to play them, the games are rarely good at what they do. Being compelling undermines education, and being educational damns you to the bargain rack.

With The Cat and the Coup, Peter Brinson (of Meanwhile and Waco Resurrection fame) and Kurosh ValaNejad bridge the gap between information and meaty gameplay. The Cat hooks you by offering you the chance to play as, well, a cat, and then makes you the very specific cat of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

Go give it a play yourself on Steam. For free, too! They’re friendly folk.

The Cat is a clever bird, not to mix my animals. Its politics are not front and center despite its subject matter, and it’s perilously easy to just talk about how luscious the Persian styled artwork is, how much atmosphere the soundtrack creates, and how you play as a cat. It’s charming.

To dwell on its charm would miss the prime achievement, though. Unlike other docugames like SPENT, which makes its message painfully clear, The Cat trusts its audience to have the brains to figure out what it means and to make their own connections. The game doesn’t want to teach you about a time period, Iran in the early 1950’s, that has been swept under the rug but would prefer to pique your interest, to make you inform yourself. Mossadegh was a villain to us and on-again, off-again hero to his people: a big bad who nationalized oil at the height of the Cold War, a democratically elected man overthrown by the United States’ CIA.

By planting the viewpoint in the hands of his uninvolved cat and by beginning at the end of Mossadegh’s life, The Cat casts him as a misunderstood hero. You are the trickster spirit that compels a doddering old man to revisit his past when he was a larger than life political icon.

You’re kind of an asshole, too. You encourage rioters outside of his house. You spill oil on him. You jump at him from chandeliers, causing him to hit the ground hard enough to break through a stone floor. So there’s that, too.

That’s what The Cat is. It’s putting the player into a role where they can do what they want (who doesn’t want to wake up and then torment an old man?) and then gives them a historical context for their dickery. It’s teaching through osmosis. It builds you up by dropping you through a complex, colorful world and right when you’ve had enough of terrorizing this old man you learn what your terrorism was proxy for: a coup d’etat orchestrated by outside parties.

The Cat illustrates a path for future docugames: clarity and depth of conscience without sacrificing playability and player interest. It won some notoriety as an IGF nominee for its nebulous Nuovo award, and it should provide a blueprint for future titles in the genre to follow.