What do a lost cat, a demonic lamb, and a cute fox have in common?

All are mammal main characters from indie games that earned nominations at the 2022 Game Awards. You play as animals in three of the five titles up for best indie: StrayCult of the Lamb, and Tunic. (What about the other two nominees? You’re a martial artist in Sifu and a celestial assassin in Neon White.)

Any of the games could realistically win the category, but Stray’s major breakout moment, spurred by cat lovers and their furry companions, positions it as the front-runner. The game’s portrayal of animals aims to be the most realistic of the bunch, despite its imperfections. You play as a tabby cat who receives ample opportunities along its sci-fi adventure to scratch at living room walls and paw items off ledges. Many cats at home were eager to get in on the action.

On the other end of the spectrum is Cult of the Lamb, with a decidedly anthropomorphic protagonist. This evil lamb is more shepherd than sheep. You battle bishops and maintain a humanoid cult of followers who worship you, marry you, tend to your garden, and sometimes even end up in your stew. The game’s synthesis of edgy content and kawaii visuals leaves a distinct impression on the player. Keeping that in mind, widespread technical issues at launch may hold the fiendish title back from winning the best indie award.

Similar to Cult of the Lamb, the developers of Tunic cast their fox protagonist as more of an adorable mascot than a lifelike depiction. The fluffy fox wears green clothes reminiscent of Link from the Zelda franchise as they slash through hidden dungeons and face beastly bosses. Although Tunic did not impact the zeitgeist as much as Stray, the indie masterpiece remains one of my favorite releases of the year.

What’s the deal with this animal obsession, though? While creatures in video games are not a new phenomenon, their recent prevalence matches other trends in gaming culture. There’s a shift away from human-centered experiences and a tilt toward more abstract escapism. For example, popular Vtubers may use an avatar that’s part-animal and part-human or altogether animal.

So did furries finally win the culture war? Well, yes and no. You won’t find litter boxes in kindergarten classrooms. That’s a myth rooted in transphobia that conservative circles latched on to in 2022. (Plus, no cohort will ever be as obsessed with pretending to be animals as the Warrior Cats crew.) You will however find furry aesthetics impacting contemporary game design choices, like the hairy heartthrobs featured in the werewolf expansion pack for The Sims 4. The alignment follows years of commingling between furries and gamers.

Human-inspired protagonists are far from passé. Elden Ring or God of War Ragnarök are poised to take home the biggest awards of the night. Even though Stray did snatch a nomination for best overall game, in addition to best indie, it would be a surprise to see the exploratory feline beat out a historical bestseller.

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