I’ve been playing a fair bit of Stray, the new cat simulator from relatively the new developer BlueTwelve Studio, since it came out a couple of weeks ago. While it’s completely enchanted me (as well as many, many others) , I find that I sometimes struggle to explain exactly why. Sure, much has been written about Stray’s dedicated ‘meow’ button, and the inherent cuteness that comes with slinking around the Dead City, but there’s something even more esoteric between the lines here. It’s an unquantifiable feeling of cat-ness that brings unexpected joy.
Stray drops you into an exquisitely-detailed cyberpunk rendition of Hong Kong, now known as the Dead City. It’s a world where humans have gone extinct and the burned-out city is inhabited by various robots as well as feline gangs. It’s not a complicated game and most of the challenge, such as it is, is finding the next spot to jump to or how to solve pretty basic puzzles to continue. Elden Ring this ain’t, and as someone who has neither the time or patience for the punishing difficulty of the critically-acclaimed Dark Souls games, Bloodborne, or Elden Ring itself, that’s refreshing. Even as Stray’s conclusion approaches it still feels fairly laid-back, and what could be more feline than that?
Stray opens on you and your kitty clan as you overlook the Dead City before going out on a little jaunt that ends with a terrible mishap. This section is a bit of a tutorial and allows you to play a bit with the controls while allowing you to cuddle and play fight a bit with your mates. Our protagonist, Steve* quickly becomes separated from his buds and the next few hours of the game is about getting back to them. Along the way, Steve meets the robot denizens of Dead City, and unlike with many humans, these mechanical citizens show their emotions literally on their face, in the form of screens that show hearts if they like you, or flash red with rage if you annoy them with your incessant mewling (seriously, just try to stop slamming that meow button). Even with emotions that are as subtle as a claw to the cheek, the robot characters are remarkably expressive, and generate empathy very easily as they tell their often-tragic stories. There’s something about a robot hunched over in meditation that makes me imagine a world completely removed from ours, like in Kim Jee-woon’s segment “The Heavenly Creature” in the anthology film Doomsday Book (2012), that’s about a robot that’s embraced Buddhism.
The way Stray‘s story unfolds, even without the benefit of any substantial vocalization** from our main character, is impressive. I like that Steve isn’t really special in any material way. He’s just a normal cat with the skills, wants, and needs that any cat would have. Stray has a way of stopping dead to remind you of your cat-ness and encourage you to do cat things, like scratching at an expensive-looking rug, knocking some cups off a desk, or getting into a box. There’s not always storyline reasons for these cat moments – there usually isn’t, in fact – and they generally don’t help advance your goals, but they’re gentle and playful reminders of your feline form. If you leave your controller idle for a moment, Steve will curl up and take a nap, just like your own cat might when they’ve had an exhausting day of ruining your apartment. Don’t bother with a paws*** button and just relax.
Let’s be real. Cats really only have three ways of interacting with the world; meowing, jumping on stuff, and knocking things over, and those are the main mechanics afforded to you in Stray. There are a fair number of times when a puzzle will seem disarmingly simple, like having to type a code into a computer, until you realize that you’re a cat. You’re not typing anything in–the best you can do is scramble across the keyboard and type gibberish. Fortunately, you’re introduced to a very helpful companion early on named B-12. B-12 is a floating manifestation of all the game mechanics you’d normally have in an adventure title, but lack because, and I can’t stress this enough, you’re a cat. B-12 lives in a wee backpack (“designed for quadrupeds”) and pops out when you need to read something or interact with buttons or robots. This is, of course, the least realistic part of the game because I have tried to put backpacks and outfits on real cats and have many scars to show for it. Regardless, you can also use B-12 to access your inventory, which B-12 can dissolve and re-create so that several large objects can credibly fit in your backpack. If you think the latter is ridiculous, then explain to me how Kratos, Lara Croft, or Goro Majima can carry all their stuff while being half-dressed most of the time? Yeah, I thought so.
There’s no doubt that Stray has captured the imaginations of gamers since its release only a couple of weeks ago. It’s clawed it’s way up the sales charts on Steam and has earned rave reviews all over the video game community. There’s already a robust modding community around the game’s PC release, allowing you to play as your own cat, to play with a second player in split-screen, and, naturally, to play as lasagna-loving Garfield. For games, a fanbase’s desire to put their own stamp on a title is the surest sign of true love.
There might be a cat analogy in the way that Stray doesn’t feel as open as, say, Red Dead Redemption 2, a game that feels so intuitive and free that you can often craft scenarios and the world itself into things even the developers might not have imagined. Like a cat, Stray is somewhat more limiting, and very much wants things it’s own way. You don’t do a ton of exploring and are shunted pretty hard onto a predetermined path and really doesn’t open itself up as much as you might like, especially if you’re inclined to, ahem, stray. It’s a fairly short, counterintuitively linear experience that rests it’s furry haunches on it’s core mechanics, charming presentation, and a subtly beautiful story. And it’s a story that really isn’t even your own–it’s that of the robot inhabitants of Dead City whose narrative is revealed in the periphery of Steve’s experience. Above all, though, Stray does accomplish what my favourite games like Red Dead and Yakuza do even within it’s constraints, and that’s to stay out of it’s own way and get to what’s important and fun and joyful about the experience, and that’s the cat-ness of it all. I suppose it’s not that hard to drill down to Stray‘s appeal after all.
* There’s no indication that your cat avatar in Stray is named Steve or is even male-identifying, but that’s how I thought of him while playing and so it shall remain.
** Besides ‘mew’ and ‘rowr’
*** I’m sorry.
Stray is available on PC (Steam), PS4, and PS5 from BlueTwelve Studio and Annapurna Interactive. I played the PS4 version.
Sachin Hingoo never, ever misses the litter box.