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.