Every gameplay mechanic and design decision in Stray is driven by a single idea: Because you’re a cat. The world of Stray is filled with anthropomorphic robots, futuristic Hong Kong-inspired streets and makeshift skyscrapers built on heaping piles of trash, and it all serves as a playground for the protagonist, an orange tabby on a mission to escape the city and reunite with its family. And knock over as many delicate objects as possible, of course.
In a hands-off preview event for Stray, producer Swann Martin-Raget of BlueTwelve Studio consistently repeated the phrase, “because you’re a cat,” justifying his decisions to topple various items, jump to precarious ledges and curl up to sleep on top of buildings.
“It is required to scratch every wall and sofa because you’re a cat and that's very, very important,” he said, the orange tabby digging its claws into a random robot’s couch cushion.
Set pieces that would be afterthoughts in games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or Cyberpunk 2077 are integral to Stray’s gameplay. A paint can left on a rooftop, the textured arm of a sofa, a bucket abandoned in the corner – from the perspective of a cat, these items are irresistible, and in Stray players are rewarded for succumbing to every feline instinct. Gameplay relies on curiosity and freewheeling exploration, with platforming challenges, physics riddles and spatial puzzles built into the environments at cat-level.
Take that abandoned bucket for example. As a cat, players can pick it up with the handle in their mouth and chuck it into a fan on the side of a building, jamming the blades and opening up a new walkway. Scratching walls and sofa cushions makes the PlayStation 5 DualSense controller rumble, and pawing at doors can open up new areas to explore. After knocking over that rooftop paint can – because you’re a cat – and spilling yellow goo all over the floor of an empty warehouse, players can walk through the spill, leaving small paw prints in their wake.
This last example isn’t exactly crucial to game progression, but it’s one of the many adorable details that bring Stray to life.
Plenty of actions in Stray exist simply because they make sense for a cat protagonist (and probably because they’re cute as hell). There’s a discrete button to meow, even during some cutscenes, and the robots react with shock and frustration when the cat cuts across their board game, throwing pieces to the floor. It’s possible to curl up and sleep basically any time, anywhere – even directly on top of a robot stranger. When the cat gets pets and cuddles from the robots, it purrs and the DualSense’s haptics fire up in response.
“You really feel that you are holding a cat in your hands,” Martin-Raget said. “So that's quite nice.”
But even seemingly innocuous actions can drive the narrative in Stray. There’s an abandoned couch and television set in a back alley of the city, and the cat can turn on the TV and learn more about the world through news programs and ads. The cat’s momentum will make some platforms pivot when it jumps to them, creating new passageways as they swing. The robots are living full lives in every corner of the city, and it’s possible to walk by and gather information from some of them, learning more about the citizens in each environment. The local barman is particularly good in this regard, as barmen in adventure games tend to be.
As cute as all of this sounds, Stray tempers the sweetness with dystopian background details. For instance, End Village is a community built on a sea of trash in an abandoned reservoir, with robots living in a makeshift tower sprouting out of the debris. The robots here are struggling but complacent, and the environment is in stark contrast to the neon lights and vending machines of the main city. In End Village, the cat can roam around, using dangling buckets as elevators and disrupting board games, and there’s a mission to collect flowers for a robot called Zbaltazar, who has knowledge to share about escaping the city.
“End Village is a very interesting example because it shows how we can really use the fact that we are playing as a cat to have fun in level design, in terms of verticality, for example, or types of paths that you can find,” Martin-Raget said. “You can still be, you know, annoying to everyone if you want to.” Because you’re a cat, it goes without saying.
There’s no fall damage in Stray, meaning every jump is a successful one, and dying isn’t a core mechanic (no, not even nine times). It is possible to be killed by the game’s main enemies, these pale beige blobs with glowing yellow eyes that chase the cat as a mob, but otherwise, it’s all about agility and the freedom to explore. Action sequences with the enemies are fast-paced, and the scene Martin-Raget showed off had the cat running and leaping down a long alleyway, the blobs close on its tail.
While Stray encourages exploration, the path forward is usually clear, with crates and ledges marked by splotches of yellow and graffiti-style arrows that try to blend into the scenery. Players are able to carry a flashlight and other tools in a small inventory managed by B-12, a cute drone that lives in a backpack the cat picks up along its journey. B-12 has its own backstory, according to Martin-Raget, and it’s the main way the cat interacts with technology and talks to robots. The drone also displays the current objective.
“I don't want to reveal too much about this, but there are a few points in the story where B-12 is a bit more powerful than what I show you now,” Martin-Raget said.
And now some rapid-fire facts about Stray:
There are no customization options for the cat.
The cat doesn’t have to eat, drink or sleep to stay alive, but it can do these things because they're cute.
The cat doesn’t have a name.
There are no laser-pointer mini games.
Stray exists somewhere between a futuristic survival game and a housecat simulator, with some machine-powered dystopia sprinkled across the entire thing. It’s about discovery and exploration, but mostly, it’s a game about being a cat.
“As you can see, even though all the jumps are successful, I'm still really free to move around anywhere I want to,” Martin-Raget said, the cat strolling by a can on a ledge. He swiped a paw at it and it clattered to the ground. “I have to make that fall because I'm still a cat.”
Stray is due to hit PlayStation 5, PS4 and PC via Steam on July 19th.