Stray Review– An Optimistic Twist on Dystopias

Ever since its initial release date in 2020 passed by, Studio Blue 12’s upcoming adventure game, Stray, has been on everyone’s minds. There are quite a few twists to the game that have appealed to plenty of people, but one of the main attractions is that players have to navigate the world from the position of a little orange cat. 

Even for those who aren’t cat lovers, Stray’s worldbuilding features an incredibly rich, mysterious landscape. The game suggests some sort of apocalyptic event has happened, possibly a conflict between man and machine. As the city is filled with robots and drones alike, it appears humans lost the battle. What many have claimed to be a “cyberpunk world” has a bizarre big city vibe, full of bustling, humanoid figures bathed in neon light. 

Since Stray is as “indie” as indie gets, built and developed by a humble team in the southern French city of Montpellier, the game has taken a while to reach players. Originally, the title was to be released in 2020, then later in 2021, but developers announced that they decided to prioritize the team’s mental health over meeting a deadline. 

Exciting rumours suggest that Stray could finally come out this year, likely in the next few months. In preparation for the anticipated release, let’s take a look at some of Stray’s most interesting aesthetic and narrative features. 

Looking at the World through the Eyes of a Cat

As mentioned, the game gives players the viewpoint of a house cat with a little machine strapped to its back. Despite this perspective, the player doesn’t have full control of what the cat does within the narrative. Developers emphasized their desire to make the protagonist as cat-like as possible, including not completely heeding what players tell it to do. For example, while running through an alley, the cat might stop in its tracks to mess with a cockroach or push a pen off the ledge of a table. 

While it’s mostly fun and cute to see that the main character does what it wants during gameplay, it’s also an interesting comment on anthropocentrism, the idea of putting human thought before all other beings. Considering the fact that the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting, where no humans exist anymore, de-centering anthropocentrism makes the worldbuilding in Stray all the more faithful and rich. 

Glowing Neon Lights in the Never-Ending Night

Stray’s moody neon environment is reminiscent of noir films like The Lost Weekend, which has been famously referenced and parodied in a variety of shows and films. However, unlike the black and white haze in noir films, Stray gives us a technicolour light show as the feline protagonist passes by casinos, nightclubs, and 24-hour shops. Although it’s important to note that the cat isn’t wandering through a real city, but a cyber city. Imagine a creature strolling through the internet, navigating a sea of vibrant online games, music videos and delivery courier sites! 

This indie adventure game does an excellent job of translating internet graphics into an explorable environment. When looking closely, you can see the different elements of the Internet in the game. One element we couldn’t help but notice was the influence of the gaming industry on Stray’s aesthetics. Most memorably, Stray’s yellow light is reminiscent of the warm, incandescent light seen in casinos. What’s interesting is how the indie game plays with the exchange between reality and virtuality. For example, while Stray imbues the warm light of casinos in real life, it also takes from elements of online games like slots. The colourful, fast-paced lights flashing on the brick alleyways reflect the colours and graphics seen in the iGaming industry’s vast content libraries of titles available online. 

Besides iGaming graphics, Stray also hints at the ads seen in eCommerce, mimicking the sensation of a virtual mall. The stunning eye candy of a shoe advertisement, with its glossy texture and bold colour, attracts the robots while the main character appears undeterred by its appeal. This is particularly interesting because it shows how the cyber environment affects beings depending on their perspective. Blue12 also seems to make an interesting comment about the hyperreal loop of reality copying virtuality and so on. 

The Hopeful Future: Finding Havens in Ruins

It’s uncommon to see visions of hope in dystopias, but Stray seems to be one of the few that does. The protagonist’s main goal is to reunite with their family, however, as seen in the few gameplays that have been released, the cat also welcomes small victories too. 

For example, some missions are very small, like finding a pan of water from a stranger or a few pillows to sleep on for the evening. Because this game doesn’t centre on humans, there isn’t much of a human perspective. The hero’s journey, where one hero goes on a grand journey to achieve a great mission, doesn’t exactly fit in Stray. Instead, the game appears to appreciate the protagonist’s ability to create its own, albeit small, utopic haven inside the dystopian, cyberpunk world it inhabits.

 

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