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Stray

Made by: BlueTwelve Studio

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Platforms: PS4, PS5, PC

Release date: 2022

Review date:

Emoji summary: 🐈👔❓

Review by: GDLP

Every day, my cat is insane. She wakes me up in the morning checking my body for signs of consciousness. I am always alive. I roll over, roll downstairs, and I feed us both breakfast. She takes precisely one bite of hers before proceeding to Tokyo-drift around the entire house. Maybe there’s something in her food, I don’t know. Maybe it’s cocaine. While I’m still wondering what day it is, she’s off. Fur on end, big eyes. She runs at full speed and manages to do that full-speed-running with her body completely sideways; I have a mad black crab. She has the silhouette of a cool halloween pet but she sounds like a toddler when she bolts up and down the stairs for fun.

The day starts with these games. She skids into the room I’m in and looks shocked that I’m not running with her. She is so tense that when I throw my hands up to give her a fright, she jumps a foot in the air like she’s in a cartoon. She legs it, she returns. She asks me to give her another fright. She loves our morning routine. Eventually, she Tokyo-drifts away from me, pretending she is being chased, running from nobody and loving the pace of her own imagination. I finish the cereal I’ve been ignoring to play with her and I listen to the toddler-cat who is poltergeisting my house in broad daylight.

When my boyfriend wakes up, the noise stops. She politely sits on his lap for the rest of the morning pretending she isn’t possessed. She looks at me like she doesn’t want me to give the game away — she’s a changed animal. But I know who she is. Because we got her when I was housebound, spending most days sick in bed and unable to reach toys easily, I entertained this new hyper kitten with my hands. This was a mistake. Now, when we have visitors, she tries to eat their hands. When I sit at my desk to write, she tries to eat mine as well. She only stops when the midday sun knocks her out. She disappears into a nest of clothes underneath the bed and we don’t see her until dinner. But that gives me time to prepare.

I line up the paper balls. I untangle the ribbons. I make sure the laser pointer is charged. I double check her food for illegal stimulants. She wakes up excited to fight me and this time, I chase her for real. I give her more frights because apparently that is all she wants from life. When my boyfriend picks her up, she becomes a floppy toy; when I so much as approach her with picking-up arms, she hears the gun and the race begins again. I think we are too close. I think she thinks I’m a cat. I brush her with my own hairbrush. I clean the sleep from her eyes. I take videos every time she picks up one the paper balls in her mouth and runs away to stash it; she looks like a cat on a mission, and it is cute because it is pointless. Her life is aimless, her days are jobless. Every day, my cat is insane but she also isn’t, she’s just being a cat.

Recently, the video game Stray was released. Finally. I had been counting down the days because, unusually, you get to play as a cat in a hyperreal 3D action adventure. A small orange stray cat. I thought, that will be novel. That will be fun and sweet. I’ve grown up with cats and I like being around them. They are agile weirdos. So out of step with the human world of responsibilities, they are a relief to spend time with. To be honest, I don’t think I registered any information about the game from its trailers over the years beyond the fact that the player character was a cat. I ran away with my own hopes that because Stray was going to be a shiny, new, PS5-level advanced game, it would deliver me the perfect cat simulator.

I think that a lot of people had these expectations. The dominant reaction I have seen from friends and family and strangers after playing Stray is that it’s simply not cat-like enough. I get it. The game begins with a group of cats idling around a mossy shelter. The moon is big, there’s a storm. We can press buttons to paw at another cat’s tail, play fight and rub heads together before all sleeping on the planes of a flattened cardboard box. The following sequence brings us into the daytime where we run and jump along rusted pipes with the rest of our cat pack. The landscape is metallic and abandoned, overgrown. Copying the other cats, we learn that we can press alternate buttons to claw at a tree with our left and right triggers. We can stop at a puddle to drink. We can even press a button to meow. We’re low on the ground, and jumping up and down platforms is seamless.

When one of the pipes we jump onto isn’t steady enough, we fall down from a great height into dirty shadows. We are left limping and alone. We can hear the echoing cries of the other cats far above us, and for a moment I felt genuinely sad because my video game pet had been hurt. We find ourselves at the very bottom of a dystopian walled city where some depressed robots live. Now, we must climb out of it. Up to the top, out the roof, and back into the world outside of this fog. There are plenty of fences, air conditioners and scaffolding to climb; there are iron girders to see-saw through the air, and conveniently placed buckets to fly down. There are baddies, of course, in the form of some strange bacteria that chase the cat around. And there are robots with information for us but, of course, they want things in return. We complete a series of fetch quests and environmental puzzles so that we can make our way upwards, up and up, until we reach the end of the game. And that’s that. It’s not a cat simulator, it’s just a normal game with a cat slotted into it.

All the sweet cat behaviours we were shown at the beginning of the game can be disregarded, especially anything to do with other cats. We are on our own now, and all we need to know is ‘jump.’ It’s Uncharted all over again. I didn’t care about it at all. I started playing and it took me about a week to remember that I’d even started it. I went back to finish the game — it’s only short, around 3 or 4 hours — but I don’t know if I would have bothered if I didn’t have a review to write. I could give or take the whole thing. I was disappointed that I couldn’t just be a cat, that instead I had to be a Player who had Objectives — people to find, items to locate, baddies to escape, codes to crack. Uncharted. Cats can’t do those things. Cat’s shouldn’t do those things. Cats shouldn’t have jobs. I felt like a sleepy teenager being woken up for school; I felt like a cat in the car on the way to the vets. Why are the robots talking to me? I shouldn’t even be able to understand what they are saying.

I am being facetious. Sort of. I don’t mean to criticise the game as being unrealistic. Who cares, it’s fiction. I mean that it doesn’t hold up for me in terms of its aesthetic and its overall conceit. Because I would have preferred a different approach, the whole thing unravelled from there. Stray leads with this immersive cat opening that seems to promise a game in which you are going to experience a roving cat life, but then the game design kicked in; and now the alarm’s going off, and the pet carrier is coming out to trap me, make me do things. It was great when I was just a cat hanging out with my cat pals, nowhere to go and nothing to do. It was great when it was just about its own ontology; it was completely typical when it told me I had to do capitalism. It is so ironic that this problem is wrapped around a game that features the laziest animal in the world. It should have been a stray dog instead.

Yeah. I wish that the game design had been more expansive, more exploratory. I wish it had dropped me in those digital sewers and left me alone. I wish there hadn’t been one single route through the story. I wish that climbing to the very top of the walled city and escaping into the outside world had been a choice I didn’t know I could make. I wish that the game design had hidden itself so well that when things did happen, they felt like a surprise just for me. I wish the robots hadn’t spoken directly to me; I wish they had spoken to each other or to themselves in a language I couldn’t understand, and that I had intuited my way around using their tone, their body language, and the environment — if I even wanted to. I wish that the cat in Stray could have really been a stray cat: a free entity, not an animal who got tasked with finding a blanket because a robot was cold and he wouldn’t fix my walkie-talkie until he got warm again. I don’t think cats should do that and I also don’t think robots should ‘get cold.’ I wish that my cat had eaten and played and had uncontrollable moments of Tokyo-drifting. I wish an entire chapter of this game hadn’t been set in a prison, bad vibes. I wish I could have been reunited with the cats from the beginning of the game but I never saw them again, even after I made my escape. That felt rude and hopeless.

Stray isn’t a cat-like game but I don’t know if I can blame it for not meeting up with our collective expectations when maybe it was only trying to make a normal game, and it’s achieved that, at least. I was unfairly banking on the new console generation heralding a revival of Nintendogs-era joy. It was just too sane. These animals rest so much that they have to burn through their pent-up energy: in my house, we call those outbursts mad half hours. Imagine playing a game with a cat lead and calmly exploring the place only for the cat to go berserk with no warning. Imagine playing a game with a cat lead and getting fixated on a bug you’ve just seen in your periphery, not being able to do anything else until the bug’s been got. I spent the introduction to this review describing a day in my own cat’s life because she has so much fun, more than I was having when I played the human game Stray. I wonder how many more dystopian games we need in a world that is falling apart. At first, it was comfortable to lean into the horrible texture of life in these settings. Now, I just wish we could play around pointlessly and with purity inside utopian games that give us no objectives to complete, no bills to pay for, nothing to lose. I would like the opportunity to become my cat just once because she is allowed to lose her mind, and we’re not. That is the kind of game I would have enjoyed right now, and even though it might not be fair to say, Stray didn’t come close to that at all.

the cat looks at a colourful keyboard

the cat sits on a ledge in a building full of flats on different levels, there's a wire fence, an indoor tree, and cabels

a robot with a neon blue dragon mask looks at the cat and asks 'you like my mask? I made it myself'

my own cat, Coco, black and fluffy and hair standing on end while she sideways-jumps todays my in the hallway'