Stray shows games shouldn’t be so combat-obsessed
Stray is amazing. I’m only about an hour into BlueTwelve’s feline adventure, and I’m already engrossed in its rich dystopian world, inventive mechanics, and the most accurate depiction of a cat ever seen in video games. This cat cat like no cat has ever chatted in the medium before. He’s a good little dude eager to scrape the rugs and take naps wherever they please.
This game has captured the imagination of so many across the internet, combining a love for furry friends with an experience that doesn’t put violence first. Let’s be honest, most modern blockbusters involve murder and destruction, with narratives driven by bloodthirsty quests for revenge or gameplay that sees us traversing open worlds battling anyone who crosses our path. It’s par for the course, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the way games and other media address violence, it sure does get boring.
Stray is one of the greatest games in recent memory to combat that expectation. You are a cat, and not a cat capable of defending itself against the obstacles on which it stumbles. Often your only recourse is to run away, climb obstacles, or press a button to ward off alien creatures and oppressive searchlights. He has no sword or gun, only his cute little paws that can carry him anywhere the world requires. It’s so refreshing, and it’s easy to see why a community has grown around Stray because of how it fundamentally subverts what we expect from the medium. We need more games like this too.
It doesn’t stray (wahey) away from the threat of violence though, with this post-apocalyptic landscape clearly hiding several sinister secrets, with specific moments happy to put our pawtagonist (double wahey) in danger to conjure up dramatic stakes. But we are never the ones who inflict harm, and we are not even capable of such things. The player is made to fear every time a foreign body falls on our character, doing everything he can to flee in search of shelter, so the possibility of dying never crosses our minds. It’s wonderful to show how games don’t need to make us destroy the places we reside.
Stray is a game fueled by curiosity, a natural trait of cats that it leans into almost constantly. From the opening chapter, we are asked to play with our feline companions. We lick them clean and have playful leftovers, all before falling asleep before our journey begins. Just like in real life, we see them stick together until fate tears them apart, with our cat falling into the underground city below and nearly dying on impact.
He is recovering and we are encouraged to keep moving forward. Although the game is largely linear and the majority of the platforms and puzzles can only be completed in a very specific way, you are still allowed to jump over precarious roofs and thin fences that lead nowhere. That’s exactly what a cat would do, exploring its surroundings and making sure the places it explores are not only safe, but hiding no secrets it can keep to itself. I did it so much, hoping to stumble upon something special, but I almost felt happier that I didn’t. BlueTwelve has taken the time to make every facet of its world a natural playground for the player, allowing them to scrape carpets and climb onto rooftops for a nap whenever the situation calls for it. I even put him to sleep while I cleaned up and browsed my phone a bit, earning a hidden trophy for my troubles. Now I think like a cat.
The way everyone in Stray responds to you is also rather magical and reinforces the passivity that cats naturally exude. The robotic humanoids initially flee in fear, but when it’s clear you’re not there to eat them alive, they relax and fall in love with the adorable kitty cat. You can rub against their shins as hearts flutter on their monitor screens, or take impromptu naps on their chest and watch them as they’re too anxious to move for fear of waking you up. Even walking past random characters, they react whether or not you strike up a conversation, their eyes drawn to a majestic creature making this land its own by its sheer existence.
Exploring a world without expecting it to be destroyed is something few games choose to embrace. Many wish we indulged in violence or some other activity for fear that we would get bored, with a lack of dramatic urgency meaning we will move on. Stray lets us simmer in the mundane, knock over cans of paint in the dead of night, or fly through uncrowded bars as we crawl over unsuspecting customers before sneaking into the neon-drenched apartments above. Memories and conversations become our sole focus as the game never pushes us forward at anything other than at our own pace. Few games stray from glorified violence, but even fewer take our time.
Combat becomes an afterthought, and something this game doesn’t need to exist or stand out from its contemporaries. I think that’s a big reason for his popularity and the way he brings such a universally beloved creature to life in a way that games have never really addressed before. At least not in a way that gives us such unparalleled control. We know how cats behave and how they can be absolute assholes fully aware of their own behavior. Stray never shy away from leaning into this perception and she shines accordingly, showing that even in fictional settings where humanity has long been forgotten, our love for animals remains a universal constant that will never wane.
I play games less these days, but still remain invested in the medium as a reviewer exploring all sorts of popular cultures, and Stray stands out as one of the most distinct games in a very long time. Indie titles have long explored how dramatic storytelling and imaginative world-building can exist without the lingering presence of violence, but this experiment is one that brings it to the mainstream and shows that games are capable of so much more. . That, or we all really, really, really love this cat. It’s probably both.
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