STRAY: a wonderfully told sci-fi yarn
I will always have a soft spot for science-fiction stories that take a vast built-out world and explore just one miniscule part of it. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy the original Blade Runner so much; in the context of the film’s world, the story of Deckard & Roy is so incredibly small that it feels personal. The world is sewn together by the characters’ movements through it and there’s a sense of discovery as the story plays out. So, it’s no surprise I have a soft spot for a game that places you in a sci-fi world as a small—and seemingly inconsequential—stray cat.
I say ‘seemingly’ inconsequential because Stray’s story does eventually grow beyond its means in the last act and your cat's impact on the world becomes slightly too big. Personally, I just enjoyed the story more when its scale was a little less grand. On that note, Stray’s narrative flows along at a wonderful pace and its story reaches a satisfying conclusion, especially in the relationship between its two central characters: your Stray cat and a robot called B-12.
Yes, Stray’s story is fun and satisfying but its focus on incredible world building is what really made me fall in love with it. BlueTwelve Studio has achieved something groundbreaking in world discovery and exploration. From passing conversations to graffiti on the wall that must be translated to understand, the world of Stray is one that’s drip fed to you. The more information you get, the clearer the picture becomes and you begin to realise how fully realised this world is, with its own history and stories.
On top of that there is a lovely tenderness to the game from a dedicated ‘Meow’ button to being able to have a nap on a sleeping robot. The team clearly never loses sight of the fact that the player is exploring the world as a cat. These functionalities add a level of softness to the game’s dystopia. Although the world around you can seem bleak, the game never loses sight of its warm and tender centre—and is better for it.
Platforming in Stray requires you to look at specific areas and your cat will jump and stick to that surface. I can see others being critical of the ‘stickiness’ as it can feel quite limiting at first but I would argue that any other way of doing the platforming would break up the flow of movement. When you hit your stride jumping across buildings, it feels incredibly satisfying and natural. I also can imagine it wouldn’t be much fun to repeatedly throw your cat off the side of a building when you miss a jump.
Stray has small open world sections within its story and these sections were a highlight for me, not only because they are beautiful neon lit streets full of vibrancy, but also because of the wonderful level design. These sections will often have puzzles you need to solve, but I never found myself running around not knowing what to do. Everything is so naturally placed and there is a satisfying sense of discovery once you know what you are doing.
I also found myself enjoying how often Stray would mix up certain elements of its gameplay. Although a lot of the game requires you to either be stealthy or run for your life, every now and then Stray will throw something new into the mix. These new things prevent the game from feeling repetitive and it largely succeeds.
I don’t think I’ve enjoyed playing a game as much as Stray in a long time. Similarly to PlayDead’s Inside, I played it all in one sitting, mainly because I was so intrigued to where the story would take me and what else I would learn about this world. There’s something deeply immersive about playing these 4-5 hour games in one sitting. It feels like you're going on a journey and when you look back at the end and see how far you’ve come, there's a real sense of achievement. It’s a great length and these games never seem to outstay their welcome.
A part of me wishes Stray kept its scope smaller in its final act, however, I can’t deny that this is a wonderful science fiction tale. Small gripes don’t matter when a game is this original and well designed. I really hope this sets a standard for more games like this (no, not just playing as cats but also I wouldn’t be against it). It would be great to see more small sci-fi, fantasy, and drama indies get as big a marketing push as Stray has; it’s great to see stories like this and I’m sure I’ll be playing through again in no time.