Determined to get inside an apartment, the ginger tabby leaps onto the ledge of an air conditioner unit, then onto the roof, where he drags a piece of debris to the edge, swipes it off and watches it shatter a skylight.
Boom. Kitty door created!
The scene isn’t part of a Youtube video or a documentary about smart cats, it’s a gameplay sequence from the upcoming Stray, a game in which the protagonist is a lost cat who’s been separated from his family and dropped into an eerie, near-future Hong Kong.
The overlap (or Reuleaux triangle) in a Venn diagram of gamers and cat-lovers is pretty sizable, and for that enthusiastic cross-section, there’s no game more highly anticipated than Stray.
Previously we’d seen a short trailer and still screenshots, and now a video from the developers shows off more than four minutes of glorious game footage following the feline protagonist as he explores Hong Kong’s streets, back alleys and noodle shops.
The developers are clearly cat lovers: The kitty hero of Stray moves with the grace, energy and caution of a real domestic feline, and the game forces players to tackle obstacles and challenges the way a cat would. The protagonist cat gains access to a vent shaft, for example, by swiping a coffee mug into fan blades to get them to stop spinning. In another scene, the cat is startled, jumps a full pace back and lands on all fours in a way only cats can.
Everything from gait to reactions is perfectly cat-like. In the opening moments, our kitty hero is clearly injured, nursing one of his back legs as he hobbles down an alley. In a later scene he bats curiously at a drone the way a house cat would with a new toy.
There are no magic abilities or impossible inventories here: As the player, you can only do things a cat can do in real life, although you’re given a boost later on when a friendly character equips you with a harness on which B12, the above-mentioned drone, can dock. B12 can interact with man-made inventions, understand your cat’s intentions and facilitate rudimentary communication.
If, for example, your kitty character is dehydrated and stops to paw at a vending machine, B12 can send a signal to the machine, order it to dispense a beverage, then open it for the adventurous cat. B12 also helps your catagonist fight off enemies. By flashing a purple light at hostile machines, for example, the little drone can render them harmless and deactivate them.
Ultimately, though, the game designers want you to think in cat terms to make your way through the game world, and that means considering feline physiology when encountering obstacles, and feline psychology when trying to solve puzzles.
The project’s lead designers are both industry veterans who decided to strike out on their own by forming an independent studio after years of working for UbiSoft, the game industry giant known for game franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs. Like those games, Stray gives players the opportunity to explore a highly detailed open world.
“Our goal is to create a unique experience playing as a cat. We are inspired everyday by Murtaugh and Riggs, our two cats,” creative director Viv said. “Most of the team are cat owners as well, giving us all a lot of helpful first-hand references. Cats are always so playful, cute and lovingly annoying that it’s an endless stream of gameplay ideas for us.”
For the game’s atmosphere, the creators were inspired by Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, a former military fortress that became a slum in the days of British-ruled Hong Kong, with Chinese triad gangs serving as de facto authorities in the lawless zone. Today, the former Kowloon Walled City is a park.
“It is also a very unique point of view for an adventure game. Exploring the strange world we are building feels really fresh when you’re sneaking under a car, or walking the rooftops with the inhabitants below unaware of your presence. Or if you want them to be aware, you can just meow endlessly to annoy them.”
Stray was originally slated for a late 2021 release, but it’s looking more likely that we won’t see it until the first quarter of 2022. Given the recent history of highly anticipated and rushed projects like Cyberpunk 2077, few gamers would begrudge a development team taking its time and getting things right rather than going into a months-long crunch period to meet a holiday deadline. Good things come to those who wait, especially in the complex world of game development.