Stray: First impressions (Oh gods, what is that on the walls?)

A while back, Tegan and I became aware of an upcoming video game in which you play as a cat. All I knew about it for sure was that you could knock things over, you could find places to curl up and sleep, and you could interact with other cats. It sounded like a cute, harmless game that might be fun for unwinding. Then, more recently, we saw the launch trailer, and it was very clear that there’s a lot more to this game than just wandering around as a cat.

I’ll try to avoid any spoilers that aren’t in the trailer, but as you can probably tell, all is not well in the world of this game. Early gameplay is a little confusing. It takes you through the basic controls by having you go through the normal life of yourself and your cat family. The game starts when you get separated in a very dramatic moment, and find yourself in a strange underground world full of pipes and fuseboxes, odd lighting, and graffiti.

As the trailer shows, when you encounter “people” – the robots – they’re terrified of you. It seems a little odd, as you’re just a cat with a little backpack, but as you learn about who the robots are, where they came from, and what their lives are like, you learn to share their terror.

This is a horror game, without question, but the moments of fear and revulsion are cushioned by genuinely beautiful artwork, and a very peaceful atmosphere. And then you go deeper, into the sewers where robots dare not tread, and you learn that the robots were more right to be afraid than they knew. The walls are alive, and they’re watching you.

And lest you’ve forgotten, you’re literally just a cat. There’s an achievement for using up your first nine lives – want to know how I found out? In that regard, playing this game can be a little rough, but not as bad as you might fear from what I’ve written so far. The fact that cats are small and agile is central to both the plot and the gameplay, and as in real life, the wise cat gets very good at running away.

I’m not sure how far into the game we are (Tegan’s been watching over my shoulder), but I’m guessing maybe halfway through? The story is fascinating so far, and I already know I’m going to have to play through again because there are a number of things I’ve missed, and can’t go back to complete. I’m also very impressed by the way the people who made this game have been able to convey so much with only little bits of dialogue and exposition here and there. You only get to learn what the other entities around you know, and often they know very little.

This is a game for cat lovers, if a little stressful for them to play. It’s also a great game for people who like stuff like the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I think I might have nightmares…

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  1. Micah T. Drayton says

    HP Lovecraft himself was a cat lover. It is one of the weirder and more charming things about his writing that he does occasionally write stories about eldritch horror and also cats. The best example of this (and some of his better writing) was “the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

    Disclaimer in case you want to read it: I probably don’t have to tell anybody who has run across H.P Lovecraft before about this, but even this story, which takes place almost entirely in a fantasy world and is mostly quite charming, has one or two moments of what I would call conscious or unconscious racism. It’s a bit like what you might find in Tolkien–just a line or two, but quite off-putting.

  2. johnson catman says

    The story is fascinating so far, and I already know I’m going to have to play through again because there are a number of things I’ve missed, and can’t go back to complete.

    Actually, you can replay any chapter again without having to replay the whole game, so you can go back and pick up missed collectibles. I had read about the game months ago and anticipated it greatly. I pre-purchased it on Steam and downloaded it on July 19 (the first day available). I extensively explored everything and talked to all the robots, so I only missed a couple of “memories” and collectibles on my first playthrough. I am going back now and trying to get all of the Steam achievements. The only one I am lacking right now is the “speed run” where you must complete the game in under two hours. You don’t have to do it in one setting, fortunately. You can do a chapter at a time, set it aside, and come back to it. The timer only runs when you are actively playing. I must say that I have enjoyed the game very much. Quite different from the shooters that I usually play. An excellent game and I highly recommend it. (I hate Zurks!!!)

  3. says

    Yeah, but I want to get everything in linear time, you know? If I’m leaving the slums and I can’t go back, then I want to role-play it

    I’m a little sad that to hear about the timing on the speedrun, because it means that I’m probably right about being halfway through already.

    Still, I want to know how the story turns out.

    Edit: We’ll definitely replay chapters on the run Tegan and I have been doing together.

    Edit edit: If you like the “best strategy is to run away” part of Stray, I think you’d also really appreciate the Subnautica games.

  4. says

    And yeah, Lovecraft was a weird and bigoted person and that REALLY comes out in a lot of his writing.

    I still appreciate his influence on horror.

  5. johnson catman says

    My first playthrough took me about 12 hours. As I said, I was exploring everything so I was taking all kinds of side trips, etc. I didn’t look up any walkthroughs because I wanted to experience the game on my own. In the speed run, you just have to do the main stuff because if you get sidetracked, you will not make the cut to two hours. And you have to plan out everything to cut time where you can. There are 12 chapters in all. Some are shorter than others.
    I had thought about getting Subnautica after reading Marcus’ blog posts on it. Maybe I will pick it up on sale sometime.

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