A couple weeks ago, as I was idly browsing Twitter on the bus, something jumped out at me.
A promoted video ad captioned, “Fast travel as a cat,” showed an orange cat hopping towards the screen and into a bucket. Propelled by its weight, with its cute little paws hooked over the edge, the cat flew down what looked like a repurposed line-and-pulley clothesline from one neon-lit, slightly janky building to another.
My first thought was, “This is a cyberpunk video game about a cat,” and my second thought was, “I’m going to buy it.”
The game, a third-person adventure called “Stray,” is the first big title from BlueTwelve Studio, based in Montpellier, France. For me, a cat lover who games as much as being in the newspaper business allows time for, this was not a targeted ad, it was a laser-guided one. Turns out, I’m not alone at Real Change. In just the newsroom, three out of four of us have a cat. Henry Behrens, our arts editor, brought up their excitement for the game’s release completely unprompted, and Camille Gix, from our advocacy department, had already played seven chapters of it before Henry or I could even download it. When Henry did get around to it, they sent me a chat saying simply, “‘Stray’ is so cool.”
Suffice to say, I was jealous but even more eager to play. When I finally found time for a playthrough, which takes about five hours, I was not disappointed.
First off, about that five-hour timeline: it’s fine. Naysayers have complained that $30 is too much for such a short playtime, but it costs $30 to have two beers and a plate of fries anywhere anymore, and that only lasts about 30 minutes. Even so, I don’t mind paying $30 for the relatively ephemeral experience of beer and fries, because the enjoyment of things is — or should be — about quality, not quantity. “Stray” is a game that, in its well-told story and its thoughtful depiction of the mannerisms and movements of a cat, delivers on quality.
The story begins with four cats relaxing and doing adorable cat stuff in an outdoor alcove at some sort of abandoned industrial facility. After a short tutorial where you learn the basic controls by hopping around a series of pipes and ledges with your trio of cat friends, you learn that the large trench you’re navigating is actually the roof of a sprawling megacity. At a particularly long pipe-to-pipe jump, the game switches to a cutscene in which your little orange avatar barely makes it across. With a rusty, ominous creak, the landing pipe sags down, sliding your cat off into a seemingly endless black void.
This is the first time you realize that, while “Stray” might have been made by a studio full of cat fanciers, they don’t plan on sparing your feelings.
Your poor little nameless hero goes sliding and careening down a series of concrete slopes before cratering in a mucky, gloomy, abandoned area. From there, you proceed pretty rapidly into the cramped alleyways and seemingly endless tenements of Walled City 99, inspired by the actual environs of Hong Kong’s long-since demolished Kowloon Walled City.
Kowloon, an area of the Hong Kong peninsula that was originally a Chinese fort, is considered the world’s first megastructure. While the Chinese continued to claim sovereignty over the fort, preventing the British from exercising any authority there, China also refused to govern it. What began as a post-World War II refugee camp grew into a solid mass of tenements that were built into, around, under, over and between one another, earning its name despite not having any actual walls.
That city’s design was, as the developers told USA Today, “the perfect playground for a cat,” offering a never-ending thicket of protruding air conditioning units, awnings and signs, which the game faithfully reproduces. The graphics are modern but not hyper realistic, which is a good thing in a sci-fi setting. I enjoyed the hodgepodge of slapdash tenement buildings as well as the graffiti plastered all over them, written in the language of the game’s robot denizens, called Companions.
The best thing the game has to offer visually, however, is your cat character’s animations. As the caretaker of an orange one myself, I was stunned at how well the game’s designers captured a cat’s natural movements, from hunching down in anticipation of a jump to the particular arch of the back mid-carpet-scratch. Mechanically, the game really felt like being a cat, or at least what being a cat seems like to those of us who observe them closely.
Anyway, the first area features little crablike parasites called Zurks, feasting on what are essentially the corpses of humanoid robots. Yes, it’s a cute cat game; yes, it’s also incredibly dark. These first Zurks aren’t hostile, but you can tell you’re supposed to be wary. When the first swarm comes rushing at you later in a ghostly, abandoned area of the city, you know instantly that your only hope is to flee.
A particularly nice thing about “Stray” is that it doesn’t hold your hand much, nor does it have to. Gameplay is intuitive and, while the puzzles and action sequences it throws at you grow increasingly complex as the game goes on, everything you need to succeed is evident. With the exception of one helpful gift midway through, your protagonist has no way of directly engaging with the game’s various enemies, making stealth and swiftness your main tools in action sequences.
I’ve seen online complaints that your cat can’t jump freely — instead, when you approach obstacles you are meant to scale, you’re offered a prompt to hit the jump button. But, I don’t think free jump would have made the game any better, just longer and more tedious, maybe. The times where you needed to move fast, lining up a tight series of fixed jumps to escape swarms of Zurks, still felt as fraught and focus-inducing as other movement-heavy games I’ve played.
After that first frantic flight from the Zurks, you get your first puzzle, which reveals a buzzing drone helper named B12 who fills out both the emotional arc of the story and the remainder of your cat’s gameplay mechanics. As a disembodied AI consciousness, B12 can’t remember anything from before besides that it helped a scientist. Once loaded into a drone, B12 is able to piece things together as you experience the game’s world together.
Without giving away any spoilers, B12’s story is effectively that of Walled City 99, and it is an incredibly sad one. While the game does not attempt to tell the story of Kowloon, “Stray” certainly does not shy away from some of the same issues that faced the real Walled City.
Unlike Kowloon, the haves and have-nots are walled in together, divided into upper- and lower-class tiers by a massive internal rampart. Also unlike Kowloon, which was one of the most densely populated areas in human history, there are no humans. Instead, Walled City 99 is home only to what is left of the Companions: sentient AIs in humanoid robot forms. The game is peppered with vague hints about a pandemic that wiped out all organic life.
Save the Zurks, of course. Zurk-infested areas tend to feature flesh-like material on walls and floors, but as you descend into the sewers, the texture becomes ubiquitous. Eyeballs abound in this substance, and, at the climax of the chapter, your character nearly comes to grief after confronting a particularly large, particularly creepy one.
The mystery of the pandemic is never fully explained, but the game’s story is a masterclass in trusting the audience. Encouraged to read between the lines, astute gamers will have plenty to pick up on. The message sent regarding the game’s pandemic is obvious, but it plays into a broader narrative theme of class division; you learn later on that the city’s overseer class attempted to wall themselves off from the threat. Suffice to say, only the non-sentient servant robots remain. See also: The long and growing list of powerful people who have had COVID-19, some multiple times.
More relevant to the real Kowloon is the idea of a massive slum — the lowest section of the city, where you start out, is simply called the “Slums” — that has been left to fend for itself. It is heartbreaking to think of how the real city of Kowloon was used as a political football between imperialist Britain and China, then left to Triad gangs to carve up when it was no longer useful to the great powers. But it is also heartening to realize that, in the face of abandonment, the people of Kowloon forged a functional society of sorts. So, too, do the robot residents of the Slums, left by the Midtowners and their corporate overlords to fend for themselves against the Zurk menace.`
In one rather profound moment, you and B12 have a chance to stumble across a long-dead robot on a rooftop in the Slums, who despite losing power is still gazing up at Midtown. This triggers a memory in B12 from human times when it was common for Slum dwellers to strive for a place higher up. B12 marvels that robots, despite certain advantages in logic, reproduced the same caste systems as their creators, which I took to be a subtle commentary on the way capitalism exists as an almost unfathomably large, and therefore inescapable, superstructure.
Besides the sadness in Walled City 99’s Slum district though, there is a lot of beauty. One side quest, which I didn’t quite finish, involved finding lost pieces of sheet music to pass on to a street musician who can play any tune but doesn’t know a single one on his own. When you deliver him a sheet, he plays the music from it — hauntingly beautiful electronic tunes by the game’s composer Yann van der Cruyssen — and you can press a button to curl up in the pillows next to him for a serene catnap. “Stray” is frenetic at times but also full of these meditative moments.
Moving on to Midtown, you learn that the zone’s Companions are living under corporate authoritarianism imposed by the somewhat ironically named Neco Corporation (“neko” is “cat” in Japanese). There is no shortage of Peacekeeper police robots who spend their time cracking down on anyone who dares talk about going “Outside.” The idea in Midtown, it seems, is to keep people engaged in commerce and consumption, working for the corporation or any of the area’s retail or service businesses where members of society are strongly encouraged to spend their free time and extra cash. Couldn’t possibly be a metaphor for Western imperialist capitalism, could it?
The game spares some ire for China’s authoritarianism as well, depicting Midtown’s more subversive residents as only lightly stylized recreations of real Hong Kong protesters. In a nightclub scene, one patron with an ornate neon dragon mask informs your cat/drone duo that, besides looking cool, the mask protects against police facial recognition technology. For a cyberpunk cat game, it has a surprising amount to say about how we organize our societies on both sides of the Pacific.
However forward thinking it may be, “Stray” has been criticized by other outlets for leaning too heavily on Asian imagery to evoke a cool-as-hell, future dystopia feeling. While I do hope that every metropolis will have a million fabulous ramen places with funky neon signs if we’re going to live through the apocalypse, there have got to be better ways to do cyberpunk than by relying on tired Asian stereotypes. For example, “Stray” did not need so many robots in rice paddy hats. Yes, we get it, it’s a fictionalized Kowloon, but the nods to that feels weird and forced, especially given that there is no in-game mention of where Walled City 99 is situated geographically.
That said, while I agree with many of the criticisms around the orientalism in “Stray,” I also agreed with Polygon’s Alexis Ong, who wrote, “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.”
By the final chapter of the game, that was indeed the overwhelming feeling I had. To be fair, I was invested in the little fluff ball about halfway through the tutorial (making the pipe jump scene that much more gut-wrenching), but spending five hours following the cat’s journey, watching its friendship with B12 flourish and coming to understand the tragic past of Walled City 99, I felt a genuine sense of loss as the credits rolled. I didn’t want it to end.
That, I suppose, is the best thing you can say about any work of art, but I think it’s also worth reiterating that “Stray” is one. What I thought was going to be just a cute game about a cat ended up being one of the more poignant and political storylines I’ve encountered in any medium. For perhaps the first time ever, I don’t regret clicking on a random Twitter ad.
Read more of the Aug. 3-9, 2022 issue.