I must start with a confession: I'm actually much more a dog person than a cat person. I have nothing against cats, but they were always my last choice when it came to pets. My mother hates cats, so there was no chance of ever owning one, and the fact that the mere sight of one would send my dog into a barking frenzy gave me a slight animosity towards them.
I never actually hated cats. I would watch a funny cat video to raise my spirits, and playing with my friends' cats did open my mind to the possibility of feline friends. Despite being more of a dog person, I was fascinated by Stray, the recently-released game where you control a cat who has to navigate their way through a post-apocalyptic world where robots are now the dominant life form.
While I knew the main appeal of the experience would be controlling a cat - and seeing the world through its point of view - the thing which drew me to the game was the fact that you were controlling a realistic-looking cat as opposed to a cartoony one (like in Blinx The Timesweeper or even Sonic the Hedgehog's Blaze the Cat). How can a regular cat with no special abilities carry an entire adventure? That was the main question I wanted to answer.
Upon the game's release, I was able to get a real taste of what it was like to be a cat and...it was actually a lot of fun! The movement is easy to grasp, enjoyable to control...mind-boggling in certain parts, and intense in others. I would definitely recommend Stray to cat-loving gamers and people who want to have fun in short bursts with some great puzzles.
What really resonated with me - perhaps unsurprisingly - was the cat itself. At this point I should stress that Stray is a very story-driven experience and in order to discuss the game I'll need to move into spoiler territory. If you want to go in blind, I recommend avoid reading further.
Stray stars a ginger cat who spends his days exploring the city (and finding plenty of opportunities to nap); we never actually discover his name. Most characters you'll encounter in the world will refer to him as "Kitty", "Little Friend", and other nicknames of that kind.
Our feline protagonist is separated from his family and ends up in an underground city. The cat explores said underground city in an attempt to find a way back up to the surface. Along the way, he encounters a population of "Companions" - androids who outlived the human race, replacing them as the dominant species on Earth. They want to see the outside world (where the cat originated), but they're trapped in the underground city due to a bunch of killer creatures called "Zurks".
During your travels with the cat, you'll encounter a bunch of characters who can potentially help him to find his way home. They too will benefit from your help. Whether it's a young lad reuniting with his father, to a group of outlaws who wish to see the outside, and even some betrayers, you'll meet a lot of characters on this journey. Although none are as meaningful as the cat's robotic companion, B-12 (a nod to the developers, BlueTwelve Studio).
B-12 is an A.I. that the player transfers into the body of a small robot in a laboratory. Grateful for being granted a physical form, B-12 agrees to accompany the cat on his journey back to the outside by translating what the Companions are saying, holding the cat's items, translating signs, and even offering protection from Zurks. In return, the cat lends a paw to those in need. But none of the characters stick around long; B-12 is the only one who stays with you through the entire adventure.
In case it wasn't clear, B-12 does the talking for the cat. Of course, it does meow every so often in response to what's going on (and there is indeed a button dedicated to meowing - yes, I got the trophy for 100 meows). But being a cat means it reacts much like a real cat would; this isn't a criticism, it made me realize why this experience is so special.
What's genius about this is that you're not just controlling the cat; you are the cat. It is the nature of third-person games that you're controlling an avatar who isn't you per se. Some games, like The Legend of Zelda, include a silent protagonist who doesn't have their own independent personality or reactions, for the most part. This is an intentional design choice, to make it easier for you put yourself in Link's shoes. The cat in Stray plays a similar role. The fact that he has no real name could symbolize the idea that it's actually you underneath that small body.
Where the cat augments the player's physical movement, the player in turn provides the puzzle-solving power (there's no way the cat could solve any of these puzzles without human intervention, obviously). The relationship between cat and player feels intimate and symbiotic.
What really drove the point home though is the ending. After a long journey, the cat managed to open the door to the outside with the help of B-12 (who sacrifices himself in the process). B-12's death is the most emotional point in the game because he was the one companion who was by the cat's side through the whole adventure.
Stray ends with the cat opening the door to the outside, shining light on the Companions trapped in the underground city and ridding them from the threat of the Zurk sin the process. For the first time in the game, the cat appears to be overtly sad as it curls up next to the dead B-12 as something of a final goodbye. Just like the cat, I felt sadness at the loss of B-12; it was genuinely sad seeing him die in order for the cat to escape. I realized that I felt this way not because I had empathy for the cat, but because I was the cat.
We never see the cat reunite with his clowder (yes, that's a real world; it refers to a group of cats). We don't know what his future holds because the game ends here. More specifically, our view of the cat's life ends here; this is where our symbiotic relationship ends and we depart company.
Never in my life would I have imagined that being a cat would feel so satisfying and even deep. I may still be a dog person in my heart, but being a cat was definitely a pawerful moment.
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