Stray
Annapurna Interactive | BlueTwelve

Everyone Loves ‘Stray,’ the New Cyberpunk Cat Game

Why does everyone love 'Stray'? Well, for one thing, you get to play as a cat. For another... uh, look, you get to play as a cat, okay?
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Stray, the first game from French developer BlueTwelve, was released for the PlayStation 4 and PC on July 19 to rave reviews. It lets you play as a cat! A cute little ginger cat who explores a cyberpunk city and gets into all kinds of trouble! Reviews have praised the game’s detailed locations, the adorable protagonist (purrtagonist?), and thoughtful world-building. Twitter accounts dedicated to cats watching people play the game have cropped up, and it’s become a viral hit on social media.

This is probably what publisher Annapurna (Annapurrna?) Interactive wanted when they greenlit the title. One of the fundamental rules of the internet is that it loves cats, so it’s no surprise that a third-person (third-purrson? Okay, I’ll stop) adventure game starring a cute kitty could capture the attention of the public. What’s more, the game has gone beyond the audience of hardcore gamers and appealed to cat lovers in general, even those who might not be the most avid gamers.

One question remains, though: Is the game fun? Plenty of games have been marketed on the novelty of letting players control a wacky animal, like the anarchic Goat Simulator or the cruelly playful Untitled Goose Game. But is Stray more than just “Cute Cat Simulator: The Video Game”? In a word, yes. It’s a blast, and it’s got more heart than you might expect.

The Adorable Premise

https://twitter.com/MadPoet78/status/1549822459993501696

Stray opens with a now-familiar overhead shot, the kind you’d expect to see in a prestige-style game like God of War or Spider-Man. Audiences quickly meet a small group of kittens, one of whom the camera lingers on until players realize they’re controlling the red-furred member of the group. The player can then interact with each of the kitten’s siblings, forming an immediate emotional bond with these precious little balls of fur.

Of course, this being an action game, a conflict has to be around the corner. The unnamed protagonist slips and gets separated from his siblings, falling into an underground area. The player quickly gathers that this is a futuristic world in which humans are long gone. The cramped underground area that players explore in Stray is populated only by robots called Companions, but they’re not exactly happy to be living in the dark.

One-eyed aliens stalk the underground regions the Companions call home. As a cat, the player has little in the way of weapons to fight these monsters, so all interactions with them swiftly become platforming challenges. Your only chance to progress is to escape these nightmarish creatures before they can catch up to you. Cat lovers, be warned: failure in these sections does see your cuddly avatar fall on-screen. It’s not particularly violent, but the implication is distressing enough that it could make some more sensitive cat fanatics feel upset.

Well-Realized Cat

The challenges are relatively easy, so most players will never see the “game over” screen. What’s more, Stray does an incredible job making your furry player character feel like a real-world cat. He’s not cartoonish, and he doesn’t talk. He’s just a normal red tabby, albeit one who lives in a futuristic world. While you eventually get a high-tech vest that allows you to understand spoken language, it’s a one-way street. You won’t catch your feline avatar cracking-wise or asking for catnip.

Some of the best parts of Stray are the little moments that remind the player that they’re controlling a cat. There’s a dedicated “meow” button, which, delightfully, you can press at any time to elicit a precious vocalization from the protagonist. When you find an ideal spot for a nap, the game prompts you to curl up and catch up on some sleep. This doesn’t refill any meters or offer you any gameplay advantages. It just reminds you that you’re a cat, and cats like to nap in comfortable spots. 

Most of these little flourishes are just there to help you really feel like a cat. You can claw at furniture that you’re supposed to leave alone, climb to inaccessible locations that the locals wish you’d stay away from, or knock cups and plates off of high counters. You know, cat stuff. But some of these cat-isms actually help you solve puzzles and progress through the surprisingly-touching story. 

Puzzle-Solving Kitty

Some reviewers have remarked that the game shares more features in common with classic point-and-click adventures like Myst than with sci-fi action games like Cyberpunk 2077. Your furry player character is extremely good at getting into things and can help the Companions with various tasks they’re ill-equipped to handle. Your ability to slip into tight spaces, reach high vantage points, and slip past the one-eyed alien monsters all make you an unlikely hero to the once-dejected Companions.

None of the puzzles are head-scratchingly hard, thankfully. This is a game that knows it might reach a wider audience than “hardcore” gamers, so it’s wise to strike a balance between engaging gameplay and accessibility. If you get hopelessly stuck, just listening to some Companions’ banter is usually enough to clue you in on what you should do to progress. There’s nothing quite as puzzling as Portal or Half-Life, though the game did stump me a few times while I was still getting a hang of the possibilities afforded to a feline protagonist. 

There is also a small amount of combat in the game. Eventually, your robotic companion, B12 (a cute nod to the developer’s name), gets a UV-based weapon that can destroy the aliens who inhabit the underground area. You can signal for B12 to fire the light-ray when it’s off cooldown, obliterating the monsters who would dare attack a cute little kitty. This gameplay element is highly satisfying, and it’s not overused, which makes it a fun change of pace from the core exploration-based gameplay.

Humanity Without Humans

Many reviewers have commented on Stray’s overarching message of finding humanity in the absence of recognizable humans. What makes something “human,” anyway, the game asks. While your protagonist never says a word, he clearly has goals and motivations that would be right at home in any human’s worldview. The Companions are made from circuits and metal, and they’re still capable of love, longing, and a desire to protect their home.

Some of the game’s best moments come when you quietly nap in a Companions lap just to enjoy each other’s company. You can learn a lot about each Companion from little things in their environment–the way they decorate their rooms and the clothes they wear. While you’re not able to talk to them, you can understand them (eventually), so you’re able to see a clearer picture of each Companion’s personality as you explore the game world. 

Speaking of environments, BlueTwelve deserves special praise for the stunning density of Stray’s playable spaces. While the open-ish areas aren’t the largest you’ve ever seen in an adventure game, they’re so densely packed that you’ll find tons of interesting details every time you head back through an area. There’s so much environmental storytelling in place that the game merits multiple playthroughs just to take it all in!

Everyone Loves It

The game surprised fans and critics alike on launch due to its surprisingly deep emotional storytelling, detailed animation, and incredible music. It’s often rewarding to just stop and take a nap somewhere to listen to the game’s stellar soundtrack and soak in every aspect of its lovingly-crafted world. This is the kind of game that asks you to play it with both eyes up–it’s not a collect-a-thon or frenetic action game. It’s something slower and more meditative.

Delightfully enough, cats also love the game. There’s a whole Twitter account dedicated to collecting pictures and videos of real cats watching their humans play the adorable sci-fi game. Apparently, BlueTwelve did such a great job creating the protagonist that even real-world kitties are fascinated by the digital facsimile. Videos abound of house cats becoming mystified by the “meow button,” looking for the source of the surprisingly-realistic meow-on-cue. 

It’s a bit too early yet to say whether the game has succeeded as a crossover hit for a mainstream audience. However, judging by the early response on social media, it’s clear that Stray has pushed all the right buttons to become an enduringly popular game. Many fans are now hoping that the developers can return to this hauntingly beautiful world with later DLC expansions or even a full-blown sequel.

PlayStation Plus

One of the more interesting wrinkles in Stray’s rollout is that it’s the first new game to launch on PlayStation Plus on the same day as its release. Some reviews have noted that this should help the game reach an even wider audience than previously expected. If the game performs well enough for Anapurna to take notice, they might greenlight a sequel and give fans even more adorable cat-themed content.

If you’re interested in playing through a heartfelt and touching game as an adorable cat, you can pick up Stray for the PC or PlayStation 4 today for just $40, or included with your PlayStation Plus Extra subscription.