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Monday, July 22, 2024

The Freedom of Playing a Very Un-Catlike Cat in Stray

In Stray, the postapocalyptic adventure game from BlueTwelve Studio, players are cast as an unnamed orange and brown-striped tabby cat. At various points in this cat’s journey across a futuristic, neon-drenched city, button prompts will appear, floating over the arms of leather couches or hovering before the metal legs of bipedal humanoid robots. Press the corresponding controller inputs and the cat will rhythmically dig its claws into fabric or rub its head along the limbs of synthetic people. Sometimes it may even jump onto the lap of a reclining robot and curl into a tight ball to catch a quick snooze.

This kind of behavior is immediately familiar to anyone who’s spent time around cats, and it’s believably animated enough that the game appears to perfectly capture the animal’s essence. But spend enough time with Stray and the illusion fades, replaced by a series of contradictions. The feline protagonist may look exactly like a cat, but it doesn’t actually seem to be one in any sense beyond appearance.

A nagging sense of disbelief begins to creep in from the moment the player begins moving their character around the screen. The cat, as is to be expected of most video game avatars, responds immediately to the player’s directions. It hops neatly onto metal handrails and ductwork, following paths through the urban landscape as if guided by an omnipotent laser pointer. Unlike a real cat, it never seems wary of open spaces or doubtful that it can execute a superheroic leap from one spot to another. It never hides out of view to carefully monitor its surroundings.

Once it’s teamed up with an artificially intelligent drone called B-12, it also, well, doggedly follows instructions when real cats would be more likely to ignore them entirely. As Stray continues, it becomes difficult to ignore how essentially un-catlike the character becomes. The nimble little creature works toward specific goals, solving multistep puzzles that require abstract thinking. No matter what flashing lights or interesting smells it stumbles on, the cat stays entirely focused on tasks that have nothing to do with its species’ actual interests, like eating stinky fish treats, hunting prey, or finding warm, hidden spots to nap in for hours on end.

All of these points may seem like unfair criticism—nitpicks that demand more from a mainstream video game than it’s capable of reasonably offering—but they point toward the knot of contradictions that ultimately make Stray such a fascinating game. By considering the ways in which Stray’s cat protagonist really doesn’t act like a cat at all, a question forms: How would any video game maker authentically create an experience that captures what it might be like to inhabit the role of a nonhuman animal?

A cat’s world is basically unknowable to the human mind. As much as we anthropomorphize the animal’s behavior to make sense of it, cats are shaped by an evolutionary path that’s resulted in an outlook that differs greatly from our own. While we can comfortably live alongside domestic cats, attempting to imagine how another animal perceives our shared world requires a questioning of how we understand reality itself. Doing so isn’t just a tough proposition; it may also be, at this point in time at least, close to impossible.

Stray slinks in and out of engagement with this problem during its protagonist’s journey through the sci-fi city. Though its cat mostly acts in decidedly human ways, BlueTwelve Studio appears very aware of how difficult a task it set out for itself from the game’s premise onward, and has created a narrative that acknowledges its anthropomorphic design.

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Set in a far future, robot-filled take on Kowloon Walled City, Stray presents a world that’s tried to move on without human rule—but one that can’t escape the long shadow of our influence. In it, a domestic animal whose species has learned to live alongside humanity ends up living alongside robots that emulate humanity instead. As the cat moves through the game’s city, it discovers machine-run neighborhoods whose mechanical citizens have recreated the kind of societies an extinct humanity has left to them. The achievements of our species carry on in robot visual artists and musicians, their crafts plied in friendly robot communities. Our failures, more notably, find new life in the form of brutal robot police forces and unnecessary, strictly enforced class hierarchies that see our machine successors sorting themselves into strict strata of haves and have-nots.

At the end of the game—and without describing the plot in detail—the cat and robots can only find their way toward a more fulfilling existence by discarding the dictates of the humans who previously modeled society for them. These thematic concerns justify BlueTwelve’s decision to cast Stray’s player as a wordless cat. The game simply wouldn’t make the same impression if it didn’t star a domestic animal alongside humanlike robots—if it wasn’t the story of the world passing from our hands and into the paws and steely fingers of the organic and synthetic creatures we previously controlled.

Still, this approach gives the impression that Stray’s creators found an excuse for, instead of a solution to, the problem of how to design a nonhuman animal as the protagonist of a video game.

In previous years, other designers tackled this issue more directly. Japan Studio and GenDesign’s brilliant 2016 release, The Last Guardian, for example, partners the player character—a human boy—with an enormous mythological creature named Trico whose appearance and behavior references dogs, cats, horses, and birds. Rather than respond immediately to the player’s commands, Trico needs to learn to trust the boy and will balk at certain directions, capturing the idea that it’s a living animal with its own thoughts and feelings about the world it lives in.

Videocult’s 2017 Rain World, like Stray, allows players to inhabit the role of a nonhuman animal—in its case, a wiggly, soft-boned creature that resembles a doe-eyed white cat—but uses its sprawling levels to model the violence of a strange ecosystem that forces the player to consider their surroundings less like an apex predator-human, and adopt the viewpoint of an animal in the middle of the food chain instead. In place of clearly outlined mission guidelines and written or verbal communication, Rain World’s main character must learn (in often bloody ways) how to use its unique physiology to navigate a landscape where food and shelter are hard-won, and the mortal threats posed by hungry predators and the natural world itself are never distant enough to ignore.

That Stray ignores the tradition of design experimentation that made both The Last Guardian and Rain World stand out is unfortunate. Although a very good game in its own right, its lack of interest in modeling a cat beyond the kind of behaviors mentioned earlier—nuzzling, scratching, curling up on laps—means that it’s also a game that’s more interested in animals as plot devices rather than potential avenues for new ways of thinking about our relationship to other species.

As Stray’s plot suggests, breaking free of humanity’s influence may be the best chance an Earth doomed by our actions has to provide the planet’s other inhabitants with a future. If we can better imagine the world that animals perceive through our art and science, we can naturally decenter our own species’ viewpoint and hopefully gain some of the humility needed to reassess our relationship with our natural environment, too.

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