I don’t have the hard data on this, but I assume it took less than five seconds from the release of Stray’s first trailer for someone to call it the “cyberpunk cat game.” And, boy, did it ever catch on. When you Google that phrase now, the top result is Stray’s Steam page, followed by trailers and a bunch of news headlines that use those three words (or close variants) as a shorthand for the game’s premise.
I too spent months thinking of Stray as the “cyberpunk cat game,” and the more I sat with that description, the more I found myself wondering how you could fashion those two things into a cohesive whole. Superficially, sure, I got it. Stray features a cat exploring a city full of neon and graffiti and robots, and our fuzzy main character even gets a drone companion, B-12, to aid them on their journey. Cat plus cyberpunk. But I was curious how developer BlueTwelve Studio would merge the two ideas on a deeper level.
After all, the cyberpunk genre comes prepackaged with a bunch of concepts that only really register at the scale of humans and the society they inhabit. Beneath all the technology and neon and rain-slick streets, good cyberpunk is about the ways oppressive power structures entrench themselves in the objects and spaces humans build in the physical world. It’s a critique of the present as much as it’s a vision of the future, drawing a straight line from our late-capitalist hell to the even more dystopian outgrowth that might soon await us. Often, though not invariably, it’s about how we can use the same tools that subjugate us to fight for meaningful change.
And the protagonist in Stray, to be clear, isn’t intended to be the sort of anthropomorphized cat we usually get in cartoons and video games. They’re not Sylvester or Garfield or even one of the many animated cats that don’t speak but still demonstrate humanish emotions, like Mochi in Big Hero 6. Stray’s protagonist is, at least on the surface, a Real Cat. Being a stray in a far-future world where humanity has seemingly gone extinct, they don’t even have a name1Stray’s promotional materials are vague, apparently intentionally, about the sex of our feline protagonist, and the topic never comes up in the game itself. There are—and I cannot believe I am writing this—no visible genitals on the cat. They have an orange coat, but that thing you might’ve heard about all orange cats being toms isn’t true. Though rare, female orange cats do exist. So I’m sticking with “they.”.
Real cats lead uncomplicated lives. They take pleasure in simple things and live wholly in the present. They spend their time chilling on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What I’m getting at is, if you told the smartest cat in the world that we needed to throw off the shackles of our corporatist society, they would not rally to your cause and slap on a tiny revolutionary beret, no matter how impassioned your speechifying. The only injustice cats are capable of recognizing is the unequal distribution of treats.
To BlueTwelve’s credit, Stray doesn’t actually sell out either half of that premise—the cyberpunk or the cat—for the sake of telling a story. The elements of good, thoughtful cyberpunk are present and accounted for, even more so than in a certain other game that took way more people way longer to make and literally had “cyberpunk” in the title. Nor does Stray cheaply project human emotions onto its furry hero. In fact, the commitment to feline plausibility is thorough enough that the ending, without giving anything away, actually feels a little bit sociopathic. You don’t really get the sense that the cat cares about anything they’ve done over the past eight hours, other than, perhaps, that the scary parts are over.
But Stray does, perhaps inevitably, betray the idea that you’re playing as a Real Cat through its gameplay. Don’t get me wrong: BlueTwelve has done a phenomenal job of transforming a wide range of cat-accurate behaviors into gameplay actions. You can walk on keyboards, swat objects off ledges, scratch at furniture, take naps, rub against a friendly leg, meow for no reason, and leap many times your height onto ledges. The animations for all these things are nothing short of stellar, expertly observed and deftly recreated. It’s just that the way all those cat verbs wind up strung together, as a series of objectives and puzzles, feels distinctly uncatlike.
In the opening minutes everything is straightforward enough to be sensible. The cat is chilling with their group of companions, sleeping through a rainstorm and then going out on patrol. After a nasty fall, our hero is trapped in an unfamiliar place, unable to get back home. They move forward in the only direction that’s available to them, encountering creatures, called zurks, that resemble miniature headcrabs. While they seem harmless at first, the zurks eventually turn violent, leading to a chase that feels delightfully unlike any similar sequence I’ve ever played—more harried, more frantic, and more authentically cat.
But even here, early on, before you’re deep into any cyberpunk narrative, there are little betrayals. There’s the moment, for instance, when you come across a spinning fan blocking your path forward. The solution, as you’ll eventually work out, is to grab a bucket from down below, climb back up, and drop the bucket into the fan, stopping the blades. This, in itself, is already so far removed from how a cat might be able to reason as to be laughable. I’m fairly certain if I sealed my two cats in a room with a fan and a bucket, they would starve to death or get themselves decapitated before they figured out how to stop the blades.
Like I said, this was all probably inevitable, especially in a game that’s trying to tell an adventure story. That a work of media requires us to suspend disbelief is not in itself a criticism. But that doesn’t stop it from feeling weird, especially in this context. Viewed through the lens of gameplay, the cat in Stray is a kind of Schrödinger’s cat—not simultaneously alive and dead, but simultaneously cat and not cat, both animal and human.
The situation only gets more muddled once you team up with the drone, B-12. The game repeatedly frames all your actions—hacking doors, starting conversations, showing objects to NPCs—as originating with the cat. Despite being a sentient machine, B-12 is the one taking orders. The cat somehow uses him, per button prompts. And even when B-12 does offer guidance to the cat, he does so with language, which makes no sense. Of course, it does make sense, because he’s really talking to you, the player, and you’re steering the cat. But it breaks immersion to be constantly reminded of your own presence as puppet master, the ghost in Stray’s machine. It’s dissonant.
At one point, I wondered if it might be possible to salvage this aspect of the game by thinking of it as a comedy of unlikely coincidences, like the old Mr. Magoo cartoons. Maybe the cat actually isn’t listening to anything anyone tells them to do but is instead just happening to do the exact right thing that needs to happen for the story to advance by living their cat life and doing cat things. Maybe the game is actually poking fun at anthropomorphism, mocking how we project complex human motives onto animals that don’t actually possess them.
As neat as it would be, though, that framing can’t really hold up to scrutiny. When the cat is somehow reading the four-digit numbers scrawled on the wall and making the drone input them into a keypad, we’re through the looking glass.
There’s a reason that Stray’s best segment, by far, is a level in the first half of the game, when you’re set loose in the city’s slums. Dense alleyways disguise dozens of little interactions. Vending machines, air conditioners, and rusted pipes weave numerous pathways to a separate rooftop world above. This is the game unfurling up to you, asking you not only to move through linear pathways with the agility of a cat, but to see a whole, fully realized space through new feline eyes. Sure, you’re exploring to solve puzzles and tick off some objective boxes, but the fun of it comes from something entirely plausible: a cat in an unfamiliar environment, charting their new territory, chasing after whatever seems interesting and knocking over a whole lot of stuff in the process.
The biggest shame of Stray is that the game quickly proceeds to close back up, and the dimensionality of the slums chapters never really returns to any meaningful degree. Your journey spokes off into linear levels, and when you eventually move onto a second open area, it’s almost totally flat by comparison, both literally and figuratively. Back-half segments that fall into much more conventional gameplay frameworks—like giving you a weapon to fight back against the zurks or forcing you into stealth encounters complete with color-coded vision cones—aren’t poorly executed, but they only serve to drag you further out of the illusion that you’re a cat.
Look, I don’t mean to say that this unresolved tension between protagonist and premise ruins Stray. It doesn’t. This is a finely made, enjoyable game that you won’t regret playing. But I do find myself wondering what Stray might be like if BlueTwelve had committed to building something that let us more truly embody a cat—not just in what we can do, but in how we see the world and what we try to accomplish within it. To exist in a city without the need to understand it, without having to bear the weight of being its savior, unintentional or otherwise, would make for a far more interesting fantasy than the much safer one Stray offers instead.
Stray does a great job at letting you act like a cat, turning a wide range of true-to-life feline behaviors into clever gameplay mechanics. But it’s much less successful at making you truly feel like a cat, as the game’s more conventional approach to its gameplay and story routinely shatters your immersion in odd ways. If you can suspend your disbelief and look past the missed opportunity of a more cohesive experience, however, there’s a lot to like in its moody cyberpunk world and varied challenges.
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|Stray is available on PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC. Primary version played was for PS5. Product was provided by Annapurna Interactive for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|