In the days before YouTube, finding videos online often had the clandestine quality of a drug deal. A friend would murmur a web address to me and, that night, my brother and I would dutifully connect our modem to access a digital trove containing short, pixelated clips with names such as “funny cats” and “suicide cat”.
The latter was a favorite, and far less macabre than it sounded. In the video, which is still online today, a cat with a fluffy tail is rolling around on a bed when it is startled by a loud noise and dashes headlong into a wall. We loved the slapstick, live-action Looney Toons of it. Little did we know that this was the foretaste of a world to come, the final days before cats came to rule the internet.
Today they hold dominion over YouTube, are mascots in the land of crypto, and some have social media followings to rival A-list celebrities. When world wide web creator Tim Berners-Lee was asked what most surprised him about the popular uses of his invention, he answered: “kittens”.
So when I heard about a new video game in which you play a house cat living through a cyberpunk dystopia, I thought it sounded like a cynical ploy to monetise this long-running obsession. Stray came out last week and quickly became the biggest PC title to date for its publisher, Annapurna Interactive. My curiosity was piqued. Was everyone succumbing to hype? Or was a genuinely good game hiding under those saucer eyes and glossy fur?
The game casts you as a slender ginger who lives in a humanless future. Your hero is imbued with neither magical powers nor an arsenal of quips: it’s just a regular moggie, mute but for miaows and purrs. An accidental slip sends it tumbling into a sunless underworld occupied by friendly robots with TVs for faces and nasty little creatures called Zurks. With the help of a drone companion, your mission is to find a way back to the surface and work out what happened to the humans. The game balances puzzles, stealth and platforming with exploratory quests more reminiscent of old point-and-click adventure titles. Its gameplay is well constructed but unremarkable.
Where it stands out is in its world-building. We have seen cyberpunk dystopias a thousand times — those neon-streaked streets, ramshackle slums and vaguely Oriental decor — but the aesthetic harmony of these alleyways is painterly, with careful detail lavished on graffiti, lighting and even piles of rubbish so that the environment tells a story all its own. Meanwhile the robot inhabitants, called Companions, add warmth and humor through intricate character writing. On their walls you see posters of palm trees, a symbol of an outside world that nobody believes they will ever see. Touches like this give the game a quiet melancholy that cuts through its cuteness.
Still, if you are a fan of felines, the game is catnip. It’s easy to imagine a room of developers making a huge list of all the particular things cats do and incorporating them: you can scratch at carpets, push objects off roofs, walk on computer or piano keyboards to chaotic effect and settle down for a nap on any available pile of cushions. There’s even a dedicated “miaow” button whose sound on PS5 issues intimately from your controller. Most of these features do not serve a gameplay purpose — the game just wants you to enjoy being a cat.
Stray is charming and evocative, but I was still surprised by the frothing of online appreciation during launch week. An entire Twitter account is now dedicated to documenting real cats watching Stray, Meanwhile Annapurna has capitalized on the craze with merchandise including a £160 Stray-branded cat rucksack with a little porthole that you can stuff your pet inside when you travel. What is it about cats that makes them appeal so much to gamers and the terminally online?
It might be that they’re the introvert’s choice — cats don’t require you to go outside or pay them much attention. But Stray articulates something else — your cat protagonist never speaks and, though helpful, its intentions are ultimately unclear. Cats are inherently mysterious and inscrutable, which only makes them more fascinating. We project our own needs, desires and morality on to them, but they remind us that at the heart of each being, ourselves included, is something essentially unknowable. Or, as BuzzFeed once put it: “Dogs are trying too hard.”
‘Stray’ is out now on PC and PS4/5. It is currently free to PS Plus subscribers