The have walked around decaying cyberpunk cities such as these many times before, with their omnipresent neon signage and filthy streets, their grimy verticality. Usually I am expected to shoot someone. But this time, I’m slinking around the fluorescent-lit slums of the future as a skinny wee ginger cat, scaling rusty pipes, squeezing through barely-open windows and pattering across corrugated-iron roofs. The robots who have lived here on their own for untold decades have never seen anything like me before, but still, they feel compelled to pet me when I rub up against their spindly metal legs. I am a wild, mysterious, perfect thing in a broken world.
Stray is an excellent example of how a change of perspective can enliven a fictional setting to which we’ve become accustomed. Post-apocalyptic narratives have been done to death lately, but this one feels interesting because we experience it from such an unusual point of view. Accompanied by a drone, which acts as a translator between the robots, the cat and the player, we make our way through a city sealed off from the world, trying to make it to the outside, where we belong. Stray sounds like a shallow meme – it’s the cyberpunk cat game! – but the setting and the story have substance, and at the end I honestly found it quite moving. Perhaps the least credible aspect of the whole setup is that a cat would actually be so helpful.
I had little trouble with any of Stray’s puzzles or challenges, but that might be because I grew up on a combination of 3D platformers and point-and-click adventures in the 1990s, and Stray is a blend of those two genres. You find routes up buildings, leap across gaps and sneak carefully past danger, and you also fetch keys, chat (through the drone) to robots and figure out uses for trinkets you come across. You can linger and take time to explore, and I wish I’d done more of that – there aren’t too many secret things to find in each area, but what’s there is worthwhile, unlocking intriguing information about what happened in this long- abandoned place.
Stray has obviously been made by cat people. Of course it happens. The cat is brilliantly realistic, with her little twitchy ears, her meows and purrs (which vibrate charmingly through the controller), the way she goes from soft stalk to casual cow to trotting run. Near the start of the game she dons a harness and spends the first few minutes flopping around in a state of indignant confusion that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever ill-advisedly tried to put a kitty in a Halloween costume. My eternal subquest while playing Stray was finding cozy little places to curl up for a snooze; such spots are present everywhere, on cushions, in nooks, in bookshelves, on the belly of a prone robot. There’s no point to this, in that the game doesn’t specifically reward you for it. It doesn’t reward you for digging your claws into every tempting piece of fabric you see, either, or for deliberately batting things off shelves with a little probing paw, but I did that, too. I was just enjoying being a cat.
The robots are unexpectedly characterful, too, with their emoji-screen faces and impressive animation. This is a stunning-looking game, whether witnessed from the ground or the rooftops – I won’t spoil the cat’s journey, but the developer wrings copious novelty and some impressively creepy moments from this shut-off city in the seven-ish hours it takes to play through. It’s certainly far from twee, with the possible exception of the bucket-lifts that you can ride down from rooftops, paws and ears all poking out over the top – and those are so cute that they’re instantly forgivable.
We might literally control the cat in Stray, but figuratively, there’s always a little distance between us and the creature. As players we’re eagerly hoovering up information from the non-people we meet and the places we go, trying to figure out what to do next – but the cat is just doing its thing, being curious, trying to survive. By placing this magnetic yet unknowable creature of nature into a tightly controlled, man-made science-fiction dystopia, Stray highlights something that any cat person already knows: you can never really tame a cat. There’s always something a little wild about them, and they bring that wildness wherever they go.