Stray’s Secret Sauce Is in Just How Seriously It Takes Itself

Stray’s Secret Sauce Is in Just How Seriously It Takes Itself
Screenshot: Annapurna

“csyu?zqdsctotpapltkk”

“kk.erjlmmmmmmmmmmm”

Those are some lines of dialogue from the purrtagonist (sorry) in Stray, a puzzle-platformer you may have colloquially referred to these past few years as The Cat Game. See, Stray isn’t just a game about a cat. It’s a game that casts you as a cat — and, as such, very convincingly replicates feline behaviour.

Case in point: You, as the cat, can haphazardly waltz across a computer keyboard found in one of the game’s early chapters. The computer’s monitor will populate with an erratic string of letters, numbers, and symbols. It is, to you or me, incoherent, though I’m sure the cat is very proud of his work. Good job, bud.

That’s just one instance of finger-wagging behaviour that’ll be immediately recognisable to anyone who’s owned a cat. You can push a beer bottle off a counter or topple a pile of meticulously stacked books. You can shred couches and carpets and closed doors with your claws. In one genuinely hilarious gag, you can get your head stuck in a paper bag. Tilt the thumbstick as you normally would to move, and you’ll instead head in a random direction. Mind, these aren’t just sight gags; they’re legitimate tools for making your way through Stray.

Stray, published by Annapurna Interactive and out now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC, is the debut game from French development studio BlueTwelve. First announced during the 2020 PS5 reveal event, Stray immediately went viral due to its core gimmick: y’know, that whole “you play as a cat” thing. I can’t deny getting swept away by the trailer, nor can I deny feeling some level of apprehension. Would the joke translate from the marketing to the real thing? Could Stray sustain it for the span of an entire game?

I had very little reason to worry. Turns out, Stray’s secret sauce is in just how seriously it takes itself.

Screenshot: Annapurna / Kotaku

The game opens with the type of cinematic slow pan you see in prestigious games from top-flight studios like Naughty Dog — except, instead of people, it focuses on a group of wild house cats. You can immediately tell these cats are all best friends, spending their days gallivanting around derelict concrete structures, evidently free from human masters who didn’t give them nearly enough canned tuna, probably, the jerks. It’s not long, though, until the cat you control is separated from the pack. It is a heartbreaking moment, seeing this small creature — who does not have a name but is modelled after one of the studio head’s own pets — convey a look of despondent shock upon realising he’s about to lose his pack. The thrust of the game then becomes bracingly clear: You will do everything in your power to see him reunited with his friends.

In Stray’s case, “everything in your power” more or less means “getting lost in a sumptuously rendered city” and “solving rudimentary environmental puzzles.”

After the intro, you wake up in the doldrums of a cyberpunk city. There are no humans anywhere. Instead, the city is populated by robots called Companions, who live in sequestered areas to hide away from a roving scourge of cyclops-eyed rodents who can, and will, consume any sentient life on sight. There are moments of Stray that involve escaping this threat. In some cases, that means galloping your way down an abandoned tunnel to safety. But sometimes it means thinking cleverly, like an actual cat. You can, for instance, meow on command. Doing so will summon the scourge toward you, and if you do it while standing on a ledge (the rodents can’t jump that high), you’ll have a chance to give them the runaround.

Screenshot: Annapurna

For most of Stray, you’re accompanied by B12, a sentient drone. B12 can perform many helpful actions the cat cannot — like opening and closing electronic gates, which you can use to trap rodents, allowing you to pass. (Later on, B12 gets a headlight that can incinerate any rodents who walk into its violet glow, though it’s tied to a cooldown.) This contrasting set of talents forms an inextricable bond between B12 and the cat. What starts as a partnership of convenience quickly becomes a true friendship. They need each other.

B12’s most invaluable skill is something the cat clearly has no grasp of: language. The linear levels, the stages where you’re running for your life from flesh-eating one-eyed rodents, punctuate stress-free segments where you can explore a neighbourhood of the city. B12 can talk to Companions; conversations fill in the blanks of Stray’s sci-fi canon, but also masquerade as instruction.

For instance, in one of the game’s (many) bars, I found a sleeping Companion. I knew I needed this robot to wake up. I didn’t know how to make it happen. Later on, while tackling a totally unrelated task, a different Companion mentioned something offhand about how their sleeping friend would only wake up from a big blow to the head. Putting my Clever Cat Powers into overdrive, I went back to the bar, climbed into its rafters, and pushed a crate of bottles onto the sleeping Companion’s head. Voila! Awake.

The smartest puzzle games have you banging your head against a desk until, eventually, you crack the solution and feel like a genius. Stray never made me feel like a genius. It also never made me bang my head against a desk.

That Stray isn’t exactly full of stumpers didn’t bother me, though, as the game really hits its stride during the exploratory segments. These areas aren’t huge but, man, they are dense. Anyone who’s lived with a cat can attest to their penchant for getting into high places, despite being scolded multiple times in response to such behaviour. Stray’s open-ish areas reflect this impulse. Every building is replete with pipes, ledges, fire escapes, jutting A/C units, and other geometry that allows you to scale all the way to the rooftops, giving a true sense of verticality.

But it’s not just that. So often, hub areas in games feel like empty pit stops, set dressing for the ultimate — but ultimately banal — goal of increasing your attack stat by 0.05% or whatever. You could reduce them to a series of menus and not lose much.

You could not do this to Stray, not without nixing what makes the game so special. Despite not featuring a single human, Stray’s city is one of the most human spaces I’ve ever traversed in a video game.

Screenshot: Annapurna / Kotaku

This is almost entirely due to the Companions. Despite very obviously not being human, they act a lot like you and me and everyone we know. They play pool in neon-lit bars and tease each other’s fashion sense. They love music. (Stray’s score, composed by Yann van der Cruyssen, is deliciously jazzy.) I met one who wanted to become a great guitarist but didn’t have the sheet music to do so. I could’ve gone ahead on the main story, but I decided to search around for some sheet music. Every time I found one, the Companion would play me a song. I didn’t get anything from this quest; I don’t even think it increased my “percentage complete” stat in the game’s progress tracker. It was just…a lovely thing I did for someone else, for someone who sure seemed to act like a human to me.

I went into Stray expecting a platformer about a cat. I did not expect a deeply profound meditation on what it means to be alive. Stray adroitly points out how blurry the line is between artificial and natural intelligence, and then runs with that thought experiment all the way to the horizon. Are humans defined by flesh and bones? Thoughts and feelings? The ability to use thumbs and solve problems? It’s gotta be love, right? Can a computer feel love? But wait, what is the human brain if not a series of electronic signals and computations firing away at all times?

Unlike its big-budget peers, Stray doesn’t deign to answer these questions, at least not explicitly. But I like to think Stray’s main character actually keyed me into some insight hours earlier, in an early level with a computer and a keyboard: “setwjhdoixdiwvo%pydjgt.”

Oh, wait, nope. Not that one.

Here we go, this one: “twvdflllllllllllllllllllll.”