Video Games

Stray is the work of sly cat people, and it’s a triumph

My first death in Stray was a swift, sharp punch to the gut. My soft, limp body was overwhelmed by a swarm of vicious creatures that scurry around in herds. The screen flashed red and encouraged me to “retry,” but the message was clear: You Died. The first time this happened, I clung to the belief that my tiny kitty protagonist was just unconscious. Surely, I thought, this adorable game wouldn’t actually let me die. Eventually, my delusion was shattered: I learned that these creatures, Zurks, evolved from experimental bacteria and eat anything and everything, including metal. I glanced at my real-life orange boy, Oni, who’d been yelling at me through this whole sequence of events, drawn to the sound effects and frenzied Zurks. Welcome to “playing Stray with a cat.”

Stray isn’t just an adventure RPG — it’s a psy-op made for people who love cats, especially if you grew up watching Homeward Bound. It’s not quite the same premise, but the same strain of emotional anguish watching sweet animals brave treacherous circumstances. (Thank you for your service as Sassy, Sally Field.) I’m reluctantly conscious of the fact that the constant presence of Oni, a tender little coward who wouldn’t last five minutes outside, informs my perception of Stray’s protagonist; I suspect that many cat owners — bless toxoplasmosis — will form a similar connection. Most people don’t like to see animals get hurt, so there’s an instant sense of emotional and psychological investment, compounded by a default instinct to protect the baby.

The game opens with a family of cats living in lush, green, sunlit ruins. I’m just a tiny orange guy, and life is good — full of playing, sleeping, and exploring. It’s a short tutorial area where I play around with the cats’ lifelike movements and vocalizations. Stray is mostly a straightforward platforming game with some puzzles sprinkled in; in lieu of combat, there’s a focus on the catlike ability to sneak, evade, and escape. My peaceful existence shatters when I miss a routine jump off a pipe and find myself plummeting to my doom. My loved ones watch helplessly as I vanish into darkness. I land in a heap, crumpled but unbroken, in the garbage-strewn bowels of a forgotten city. There is no grass, and there is no light. I’m alone, and it’s devastating.

Image: BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive via Polygon

Stray’s premise is simple: Get home or die trying. (Sometimes literally; at other times, I get tased.) In the Dead City, I befriend a flying drone called B12, who gives me a cat-sized backpack to help recharge its battery and store key items (thanks to unspecified technology, B12 can dematerialize objects like bottles and notes and remake them on demand). It can also help me hack into simple door panels and communicate with others. We meet a community of robots — “Companions” who once served now-extinct humans and continue to go through the motions of humanlike life. Among them are Outsiders, a small minority that believes in the myth of a blue sky. Soon, my small personal goal to escape folds into a bigger narrative about survival in a police state, under a conspiratorial veil about whether “Outside” even exists. Besides the Zurks, there are cops, perilous sections of cat parkour, ominous organic growths all over the city, and a strange new horror in the sewers.

Movement is pretty familiar if you’ve ever watched a cat: acrobatic leaps from perch to perch, the butt-waggling low crawl, and a couple of occasions for a back-arching yowl and hiss. There are a few cozy spots to sleep, including a nice warm robot belly, and I deeply enjoy rubbing up against strangers’ legs and watching their little face-screens blip out a heart in response. I can push objects off of shelves, scratch on doors to be let in, carry items in my mouth, and trip over unsuspecting robots. The inherent catness of my behavior is a constant delight, and feeds back into my unwavering devotion to my little guy’s safety, like an unmoored eye of Sauron watching for danger around every corner.

There are several running gauntlets where I have to flee waves of Zurks, which is upsetting for me as a human, but prime movie time for Oni, who is unrepentantly vocal about his small pixelated doppelganger and the chittering creatures surrounding it. I’m playing on PC with a Nintendo Switch Pro controller, which robs me of the PlayStation rumble function for purrs and meows, but on the other hand, probably saves me from having to constantly dislodge Oni from my hands.

In Stray, much like real cat thinking, there’s nowhere to go but up. The city is structured as a vertical dystopia — a widespread sci-fi concept in pop culture from J.G. Ballard to Gurren Lagann. The lowest tiers are poor and disenfranchised, while those living higher up exist in a bougie haze of consumerism. Whoever’s in control lives at the top. Later, I find a Metro map that delineates the Lower Town, Upper Town (“Midtown”), and the uppermost Exit. The cyberpunk influences are obvious, with neon signs, narrow alleys, and incredibly dense, haphazard architecture à la the Kowloon Walled City. From the tong lau-style tenements to the ubiquitous flyposting with local eight-digit phone numbers, there’s an undeniable sense of Hong Kongness here, which isn’t surprising, given that Stray’s working title was “HK project.” (BlueTwelve’s website still uses the domain hk-devblog.com).

the protagonist cat of Stray inspects a robot crawling toward the cat in an alley

Image: BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive

I coast through Stray believing in both this Hong Kong identity and authorship, reading into every bit of flavor text about small, everyday forms of resistance against state oppression, and the importance of art in “desperate situations.” These aren’t unique to Hong Kong — resistance art in particular has been a core part of political expression for centuries. The city’s struggle to maintain autonomy within the limits of its special administrative region status under the Chinese government has inspired people all over the world with its “be water” protest tactics to repel police tear gas and move as one. For several years, Hong Kong police brutality was a common motif in international news, until finally, student protesters and resistance figureheads were publicly persecuted, vilified, and imprisoned. Upon reaching Midtown in Stray, all of these threads come together when I see civilian robots being hassled by “peacekeeper” cops. My knee-jerk expectation is some kind of dramatic showdown with the pigs, but Stray isn’t that sort of game — it’s about staying small, unseen, and alive.

Until the credits rolled, I assumed Stray was made by a Hong Kong developer. (I prefer to know as little as possible about a game before I play it.) So I was surprised to learn that BlueTwelve Studio is French, run by an enigmatic duo from Montpellier. Apparently, this early Hong Kong-centric branding created a common enough misconception that the studio made an FAQ-style post to explain its origins and inspiration.

The developers said that they wanted their own unique flavor of dystopia, but that’s hard to fully do when Western cyberpunk relies on such a fixed set of uniquely East Asian visuals. This isn’t to say that Stray fails at creating an evocative, familiar world — BlueTwelve’s tribute to Hong Kong is well executed and full of detail. But it does make me wonder when the games industry will bestow the same kind of Annapurna-level attention on projects made by actual Hongkongers that invoke the Hong Kong identity in deeper, more personal ways (like the currently-in-development Name of the Will).

the protagonist cat of Stray standing in a shadowy alley looking at a wall with a neon sign on it

Image: BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive via Polygon

Thankfully, Stray’s uniqueness doesn’t hinge on its cyberpunk setting. I’ve written at length about this before, but cyberpunk has largely been exhausted as a vehicle for critique, and in many cases, it’s used mostly to convey an instantly recognizable idea of modern dystopia. Frankly, BlueTwelve could have set this in a Victorian steampunk slum and it still would’ve had the same effect: constant care and concern for our little orange friend. The game’s most expressive settings are hidden behind the city’s drab gray walls — charming, rundown residential interiors with CRT monitors, portable radios, and shades of 1970s oranges and greens. This lends a much-needed sense of temporal depth to the game’s unspecified future setting. My favorite scene is a Nam June Paik-style jumble of old TVs tuned to a twinkling starlit sky — a chaotic altar to technology with a curious sense of spirituality.

Finally, we come to mortality and endings — a wretched inevitability that all pet owners dread. There’s a bittersweet inversion of this notion at the end, with an inevitable goodbye (no, it’s not what you think) that compels me to try and hug Oni, who squirms away from my grotesque display of maudlin human emotion. Stray ends on a vague but hopeful note, which felt immediately unacceptable to me, a petty person who hates ambiguity when it comes to cute animals. It takes me a second to step back, after the credits, to gather my thoughts and mentally vacate the role of “cat protector.” I realize I have drunk deep from the well of kitty Kool-Aid, and I’d do it again.

Stray doesn’t do anything new. But through strategic manipulation of our love for cats, it does give me a profoundly sentimental window into my relationship with Oni — my first cat, with whom I am admittedly obsessed. I started projecting him onto the protagonist from the get-go, and his constant presence as I played made for a strange meta experience of Stray’s emotional design. It’s a markedly different journey from cultivating care for a character in a typical role-playing game, whose quirks and lovable characteristics must be learned over time, through dialogue and gameplay and storytelling. Every small detail in Stray was a reminder of my finite time with both my on- and off-screen companions; once the game was over, I reached out to Oni, full of gooey feelings, and as expected, he yelled at me and ran off. BlueTwelve knew exactly what it was doing, spending so much time and care modeling real cat movements and behavior, but having a real cat at hand was a fitting jolt back to reality. Stray is truly (and perhaps fittingly) the work of sly cat people. And for this reason alone, it’s a triumph.

Stray will be released on July 19 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Annapurna Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.



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