Stray was one of those games whose gimmick attracted attention from the moment of its announcement.
Play as a cat in a strange cyberpunk-looking world.
As far as I knew, the game didn’t need to sell itself any further to me based on that premise alone.
But as I continued to play, I realized I had done myself such a huge injustice because the ‘gimmick’ of Stray is great and all but everything else about the game was a genuine marvel in game design.
Within the first half hour of playing Stray, I was enraptured.
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You know how when a pet decides to lay and sleep on you, and you don’t want to move to disturb it?
And you feel like you’ve been specially chosen, and it gives you that really warm feeling in your gut, and you’re happy to stay like that forever?
Well, that’s how I felt playing Stray. I felt like I’d been chosen, and I never wanted it to end.
Maybe that’s why I finished the game in one nine-hour sitting.
But what exactly made this game so good and – by my definition of the word – perfect?
Honestly, I could write an essay about it, but I’ll focus on the best parts.
How Stray Reminds Me
I often hate comparing games or saying things like ‘this game is the new version of…’ because it often deters from the game and instead focuses it on its comparison. However, there were many instances where Stray did remind me of one game, one of my all-time favorites; Half-Life.
One of the most beloved games in all of gaming history remains to be Half Life and Half Life 2 because of how it perfectly intertwines the joys of gaming and storytelling.
From the very start of the game, you realize you’re being watched. Guided through a derelict and downtrodden abandoned city, while someone or something is luring you somewhere.
And yet, you don’t feel as though this entity is malicious, somehow through minimal interactions, this silent observer feels like your one and only source of help in this strange land you’ve found yourself in. You use your feline dexterity and maneuverability to make your way along rooftops, leaping from place to place in this seemingly lifeless city.
Until you finally encounter something else that’s living and breathing, but it doesn’t quite go as expected, and soon enough, you’re running for one of your nine lives down these silent and lifeless streets. All the while, you start to wonder if the things chasing you are the reason for the eerie lifelessness of this city.
A marvel in game design
The first instance I realized just how flawless the game design in Stray is was during the aforementioned chase scene.
You’re being chased down these winding streets, and yet through subtle little context clues and visuals, you know exactly where to go and what path to take. All the while, you never feel as though you’re being corralled or herded into a location.
Never once did I encounter an artificial wall or feel railroaded because every location was ingeniously designed, making you feel like you can explore and interact with the world. Each level features its little gimmick, too, whether it’s parkour, outrunning an enemy, looking for special items, defeating the Zurks, or outsmarting enemies!
Each game level keeps things interesting and lively, meaning you’ll never get bored or feel as though one level has outstayed its welcome.
The Titular Stray
I may be a cynic but I often get so tired of stories where the characters are animals for no other reason than ‘look, a cute animal’. Then they continue to do things any other kind of character would be able to.
How many films or games are there which feature an animal character that could have been replaced with anything else, and it wouldn’t change the outcome of the game?
Stray, though, playing as the titular stray cat was the only way you could have played this particular story. There are places you can’t get to without the nimbleness of a feline, things you can’t do without being a cat no one pays much attention to.
And throughout the game, there are instances where you can do the things a cat would do. Knock things off ledges, scratch up the walls, carpets, or furniture, and then to your delight, these very things are what help you progress the game.
Remember how you scratched up that wall earlier? Well, now you need to scratch up these electrical cables. Oh, and don’t even get me started on how much I loved seeing those same scratch marks still there.
The tiny details of my scratching up a wall and carpet stuck around. This might seem like such a small insignificant detail, but it’s the kind of attention to detail that shows how much the developers really loved this game and spent their time making it. Letting the world breathe and react to you.
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The story wouldn’t have worked if you were not a little stray cat because as you start to learn about the world, you slowly understand why it is the way it is and why no one else has been able to change it.
But you, you’re the one who comes along, and you change everything, a little stray cat who has no idea just how wonderful of a thing they’ve done, completely blissfully unaware of the tremendously fantastic deed they’ve done.
There’s no celebration for you, and yet… as those credits started to roll, you feel an overwhelming amount of pride and happiness, you don’t need to be thanked or hailed as a hero. Cause you’re not a hero, you’re just a lil cat. What you need is a nice warm nap.
An Emotional Ride
To be able to make a player care and love a character that doesn’t speak or emote the same way they do is a phenomenal feat. And yet, I found myself loving every single character I encountered.
Throughout the game, you meet various robotic humanoids, they barely emote facially, and you can’t understand their language without the help of your drone friend, B12.
But thanks to the genuine talent of the artists behind their body animations, dialogue, and personal stories, I was rooting for every character I met. I laughed with them and even cried because these characters with whom I’d only briefly interacted had never felt so alive.
At one point in the game, I was running around and turned a corner and accidentally tripped one of the robots up and watched them fall, I had never felt so guilty for a fictional character until then, and I waited patiently to see them get up and see that they were alright.
B12 is the little drone friend who accompanies you throughout the game, providing company and a deeper look into the world around you. Translating the robots’ speech, telling you what happened to the world and why it is the way it is.
All the while, this tiny little drone is barely able to emote other than through its word and flight pattern as it hovers around you, taking part in your adventure and helping you progress.
B12 is one of those NPCs that was integral to the game, both B12 and the stray are the protagonists of the story, and their mute relationship is such a pure and genuine display of kinship, one that I was highly attached to from the second they met each other.
A Living and Breathing World
Ironically, the post-apocalyptic world feels more alive than most other game worlds’. Every location is memorable, and each feels distinct, you go from location to location, traveling throughout the city, and you slowly begin to unravel the story of the world.
You see signs and languages in something non-English or even non-terrestrial, and you begin to wonder where exactly this world is set. You start to encounter creatures that look almost alien and wonder if perhaps this is a scenario akin to Half-Life 2, either an alien world or an incursion?
The little creatures you later learn are Zurks further make you wonder just how terrestrial this is. But as you progress, whether it’s said outright by B12, you start to find the puzzle pieces, and the image gets clearer. You start to understand what exactly has happened and what is happening.
So few games pull off environmental story-telling well, it can border too close to being obvious or can stray too close to being vague. But in Stray, you will see and encounters things that plant seeds in your mind, and later you’ll find something that only confirms it.
The game never tries to shove the answers down your throat and lets you wonder; it gives you a sense of curiosity and satisfaction when you realize you were right!
The game lets you sit and mull over things, and even better… sometimes it doesn’t answer your questions. In some cases, even the world doesn’t know what’s happened.
I distinctly remember a location in the Sewers that had me stop and stare at the screen in terror and awe. I went through this location without any explanation of what I was looking at, yet I loved it.
Specifically, I loved not knowing what I saw, what had happened, or what the implications were; I felt exactly like what I was playing. A scared and confused little animal in a world I only recently learned was much bigger than I thought.
There are very few games I would call flawless. I am quite critical about media, but Stray is a game I would call perfect.
Every little thing about this game is phenomenal, it features a brilliant story, fantastic characters, gorgeous set designs, and fun gameplay. As a game, this is a masterpiece.
I feel genuinely lucky to have even had the chance to play this, and I know that this game has cemented itself into my top 5 favorite games of all time. This is one of those games that will be seen as a classic, and I can’t wait for everyone to play it.