Who among us has never wished they were a cat? This new game offers exactly that – and much more.
Leap seemingly impossible distances, scratch at the floor for no reason other than your own satisfaction, meow for somehow even less reason. If you want an authentic experience of being a cat, no game delivers that better than Stray.
But it’s once the novelty of playing as a cat wears off that the game really comes into its own. The real success of Stray isn’t just in the way it lets players embody a cat, but in the world that the developers, newcomers BlueTwelve Studio, have built for that cat to inhabit. This is no barebones indie game – it’s a fully realised experience with the sheen and gloss that gamers have come to expect from Annapurna Interactive, who also published Kentucky Route Zero, Outer Wilds and Sayonara Wild Hearts.
The game is largely set in a city occupied by benign robots, many years after a plague has wiped out humanity (relatable!). After misjudging one particular jump, the titular stray has found itself in this city and has to find its way back to its family by solving puzzles and evading flesh-eating bugs and security drones.
Where a lot of indie games derive their charm from being refreshingly lo-fi or from working within the limitations of both scope and budget, Stray feels like the triple-A version of an indie game. While still relatively small – you can beat it in about eight hours – the way it looks, plays and sounds is up there with any current generation game.
Not only is the cat gorgeously animated, it moves through the world exactly as smoothly as you would hope. The feeling of slinking around with feline grace is remarkably satisfying, almost as satisfying as scratching a door to be let in (thanks, Playstation 5 haptic triggers!), or knocking things off a table just because. I’ve often questioned why cats can be such dicks in real life, and after playing Stray, I figure the answer is probably just because it feels good.
The city, loosely inspired by Kowloon Walled City, is richly detailed and full of nooks and crannies to poke around in and explore. Though the humans who built them have long gone, the robots have maintained some semblance of society, and the ones the player assists through the games have a surprising amount of character despite being limited to emoji expressions. I kept coming back to a poncho-wearing robot who sits to the side of a street, strumming a guitar – you find sheet music throughout the game, and hand it to him. He plays the songs, delighted, but otherwise serves no narrative purpose.
Bittersweet is a rare note for a game to aim for, and it’s even rarer for a game to actually hit that note and maintain it without being cloying. The game’s wry sense of humour helps here. It never takes itself seriously, and is more than willing to crack a joke – usually a visual one revolving around the gangly, awkward humanoid robots – to keep it from being too bogged down.
The complete extinction of humanity is treated with more or less a shrug, with the robots being generally incurious as to the fate of their creators, melancholically living in their little makeshift society through the constant darkness of their walled city. Although the cat’s quest intertwines with making these robots’ lives a little bit better – by letting some sunshine into the city – it’s quite clear that society as we know it is long gone. It’s just robots with anxiety now.
You can pick up Stray for the obvious thing it’s selling you – fun cat gameplay – and have a great time. It is terrifically pleasing to do all the chaotic things a cat can do, whether it’s darting around underfoot to trip (robot) people up or running across a piano. But weirdly even more rewarding is seeing the world the developers have built through the eyes of that cat – a bit derelict, a bit sad, but also kind of beautiful. Of course, the cat doesn’t care about any of that. It just wants to jump, to run, and to make a nuisance of itself.
Stray is available now on Playstation 4, Playstation 5 and Microsoft Windows.