There’s been so much buzz about Stray, so many news stories, memes and people talking about it, that I’m probably not alone in feeling like I’m watching a TV series an episode at a time while most people binged it in a day or two.
But that’s not how I play, and it’s not how most game developers want players to experience their stories. Modern games, especially games like Stray with their bespoke environments and unique encounters, are built to immerse players in their worlds. The entire point of video games is the interactivity, the choices and agency of the players. They’re designed so when you choose to wander off the beaten path or take a few moments to linger over something visually impressive, the experience is rewarding.
Maybe you’ll find a rare item, a compelling vista, a secret passage or a funny sign. The point is, there’s incentive to look deeper. It gives games a feeling of possibility and the thrill of the undiscovered.
These stories are not meant to be passive experiences, nor are they meant to be devoured. I won’t be speed running through this mysterious alternate future version of Hong Kong. The journey is the entire point.
Picking up where we left off, the Good Boy (that’s what I’m calling him, for now at least) must learn to navigate this new and potentially dangerous urban environment, and he must do so with a feline’s skill set.
There are no opposable thumbs here. If our hero needs to move an object, he’s got to carry it in his mouth like a mom cat does with her kittens. If he needs to move a barrel, he’s got to get inside and run like a hamster in a wheel to propel it forward. If he needs to stop a fan’s blades from spinning so he can get through a window, he’s got to drop or swipe something into the blades to jam them up.
Appropriately, one of the main mechanisms for making new routes is knocking things over. Knock over a piece of plywood and Good Boy has a bridge. Knock over a can or a box at just the right angle to flip a switch and so on.
Good Boy meanders through a seemingly abandoned Kowloon City, padding through quiet streets and taking shortcuts through empty flats. There’s power, the city is illuminated by incandescent lights, neon and the glow of TV sets indoors, so someone must be around.
Our feline hero soon learns new tenants have moved in, and they’re not friendly. I’m not sure what they’re called, and the game doesn’t name them, but Kowloon is now home to swarming, artificial tribble-like creatures that attack Good Boy on sight and can take him down if he doesn’t run and shake off any enemies who manage to latch onto him. (Side note: I do not like dying in this game. What did Good Boy ever do to deserve being attacked?)
The first encounter with these enemies turns into a twisting chase through dimly-lit alleys, crumbling staircases and tight streets. Good Boy manages to evade the evil robot tribbles and finds sanctuary in a secure flat.
Once he attends to his needs, which include some carpet scratching and rehydrating, he’s contacted by a machine who uses TVs, computer monitors and other electronics in the apartment to communicate with the tabby.
The machine directs the cat through a few simple tasks necessary to free him, then meets Good Boy in the flesh.
The bot, a palm-size drone named B-12, is damaged and his memory is corrupted. He’s as lost and confused as Good Boy is, and he proposes a partnership. Good Boy, who sees the value in a drone who can open locks, translate signs and communicate with others, agrees. B-12 outfits his new feline friend with a harness that allows him to dock on the kitty’s back, then he saddles up and the new teammates venture forth.
For the first time, the protagonist is able to glean real information about his environment and has a sense of direction. He also gets to travel by makeshift ziplines, hopping into buckets hanging from the city’s ubiquitous wires.
Next episode: Our duo fights back! Same cat time, same cat channel.