Piquing my interest on a game takes almost as much effort as it takes for me personally to get out of bed in the morning‒not much, but increasing by the day. During Sony’s June PlayStation event last year, showcasing some of the first gameplay and reveals for their upcoming PS5, a lot of games begged me to take a second look. One of them, however, nudged me into quietly pondering its existence at least weekly for the rest of the year. Now that the year is over, we have reached the three hundred and sixty-five day era where the majority of games trailer-book-ended with “2021” will be announcing their inevitable delays. Will Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart be pushed out of its projected 2021 launch? No. Will nearly every Square Enix title featured in the same event? Yes. Will Horizon Forbidden West similarly see the fate of a pandemic-fueled industry-wide developmental scramble? Only sightly‒I will play and dissect that game in 2021.
The one game that was different and significant enough from that June event’s pack of likely stellar games was, you guessed it, Stray. The concept was simple. The execution was quietly masterful. “Stray is a third-person cat adventure game set amidst the detailed neon-lit alleys of a decaying cybercity and the murky environments of its seedy underbelly.”
Stray is everything. Stray is the collision of the experimental corner of the industry‒a decade long maturation of Goat Simulator‒and the dawn of the prestige, UE4-backed indie. Stray is as much Untitled Goose Game as it is Hideo Kojima.
I might be able to back up at least some of my claims. While preparing for this article, I knew that I would have to tear apart, teeth first, the Sony-released teaser trailer and every bit of public information available on Stray. I’m not impressive, I promise. I just found the developer blog of the original project name, “HK Project,” and did a minor amount of LinkedIn stalking. You can do it too!
HK Project, the development codename for Stray, began as a concept as far back as 2015. A couple of independent developers released short glimpses of a cat moving around an urban environment. It’s clear from the start that the project’s soul existed even back then with the core focus on the movement of an action game protagonist unbound from bipedal movement. In 2016 they demonstrated smooth, seriously cat-like movement navigating across obstacles. Even seeing such early footage today, five years later, you can feel how special Stray was, is, and will be. The bipedal tank genre‒nearly every game in Metacritic’s top 50‒is overdone. While that really isn’t a bad thing, it is however a good thing every time a video game tries to deviate from the established script.
For the rest of 2016, the team continued to share more environments and more cat in said environment. (While we’re here, I must say that I really couldn’t find a lot of information on BlueTwelve Studio. They have listed multiple cats in production positions, including the CEO, and I think they’re only partially joking.) It presented a world glowing with an endearing edge. Robots composed themselves with ‘retro’ computer hardware and the streets lined with industrial equipment‒it’s kindergarten cyberpunk. In Stray’s teaser trailer, a shot displaying “R.I.P. Humans ♡” immediately, delicately defines an understandable, yet rich atmosphere that a short novel’s worth of text containing AAA writing could not dream of capturing. The game, with its gritty realism and harsh post-apocalism, is dark. Yet it juxtaposes the cybercity with subtly adorable robots and the everpresent cat. Inherent irony exists with the idea of a cyberpawnk gameplay experience, but the mood is not lost on Stray as I can read even from these small manufactured glimpses that it captures the exact necessary atmospheric traits.
It is difficult to ascertain too much out of the brief segments of footage currently available (by my luck, a gameplay trailer will have launched before this is published), but one element of gameplay particularly stands out within the stray’s optimistic dystopia: organic level design. Environmental storytelling and level design are deeply, integrally connected. In Stray, the game is managing to put such a dual emphasis on the world as a unique video game location and storytelling device because of the fundamental mechanical beast once again: the cat. It creates a world that is as much about subconsciously conveying a story as it is a free flowing naturalistic playground. Even without seeing any open gameplay of Stray, I can tell that the developers have put precise care into the movement of the cat and the countless objects that act as potential platforms in its world.
Feline agility and intelligence navigates the world in a different way than humans, and even many of the animal-based games that have come before. Farm animals may have twice the amount of walking limbs as Nathan Drake, but a goat cannot scale a building with grace‒the fundamental idea that made Goat Simulator ‘work’ as a premier viral game in an early, post-Minecraft gaming Youtube. Have games come a long way since the Goat Sim? No. But they have rolled in a lot of the same dirt, creating a much deeper hole. Stray is not a viral or funny game that could dominate Twitter for a week, deviating even from Death Stranding’s naturally shareable experiences. Untitled Goose Game was such a sharable hidden laugh track of an experience that it had to implement cooperative play. Stray is lonely, ponderous, and the humor derived from it will be the sort that the player never tries to share.
I believe that Stray will live and die by its restraint. Sony’s PlayStation Store listing for Stray highlights three key ‘features’: exploring the cybercity, acting stealthy, and befriending a droid. I’ll be honest, I made the Hideo Kojima comparison in my notes before I saw that the game might include stealth elements. I’ll use this as cement towards my professional understanding of this unreleased game. The cat likely lacks any attack actions, maintaining its focus on its world and exploration. The only executable action in Stray is ‘be a cat.’ For some people this will be a drawback, but those people are dog people. Stray’s gameplay is its least important element that it most crucially must hold back on. Simplicity will be the soul-bounded quality that makes playing the game be more than playing Stray.
More interestingly within the key features information is “befriending a droid.” It claims that the cat befriends a small frying drone with the name “B12.” I have played enough robot games to know that every concoction of letters and numbers is an invitation to look too far into even the most seemingly meaningless detail of a game. B12 is notably a vitamin that humans (supposedly dead in Stray’s world) consume‒usually through animal products. I haven’t purposefully consumed foods high in vitamin B12 in the past decade, making my likely deficiency an imaginary authority on the subject. What significance does B12 have to this world? Robots don’t need vitamins, especially ones of the cartoonishly outdated nature in Stray, right? The cat who likely has a diet high in B12 doesn’t seem capable of naming companion drones‒at least, on face value. How self-aware is this cat? Will it make sense for the player’s complex understanding of the game world to manifest intelligence in the spirit of this stray cat who is likely unaware of its presence in a video game? Based on an animated gif posted on a 2019 job listing showcasing the cat licking itself clean on the back of an exercising robot (push-ups), I am simultaneously led to believe that this is just an ordinary cat and an extraordinary protagonist of an adventure video game. I… am going to place my bet on “B12” being a bit more human than the rest of its fellow inhumans, possessing the most human quality possible: liking cute cats. Based on the brief scene in the trailer where B12 is features, it appears to be a sort of scanner.
Part of my confidence in Stray stems from its publisher, Annapurna. This is a company that has published numerous critically acclaimed masterpieces, and one that labels their gaming division alongside film and television as “interactive.” Interactive is a significantly better name than “video game,” and demonstrates the sort of company that Annapurna is. I specifically wanted to explain my excitement for Stray without leaning on any other game published by the company. And I had to try very hard not to say such titles as Outer Wilds, Journey, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Kentucky Route Zero, The Pathless, Solar Ash, or I am Dead until this point. The artistically motivated, adventure-centric interactive work will see massive progress as a medium in this decade.
If it hasn’t been made clear by the previous fourteen hundred words, I am hyped for this video game. It might not be my most anticipated release of all time or even my most hyped upcoming game as of right now, but the opportunity that Stray wields will surely result in an experience at least as good as I want it to be. Without playing it, I can tell you now that Stray is something special, and it will be a notable video game. If Celeste was the Dark Souls of Super Mario, Stray will be the Super Mario of Dark Souls. And whether or not Stray is 2021’s Game of the Year will depend on whether or not the cat dies at the end.