More news in the world of Stray, the play-as-a-cat video game that’s taken the world by storm with rave reviews, plenty of memes and hilarious videos of real cats reacting to their humans playing the game.
Thanks to players who create custom game mods, short for modifications, Stray players can now replace the game’s ginger tabby protagonist with cats of their choosing. Currently there are mods that make the title cat a Siamese, a black cat with yellow eyes, a white cat with heterochromia (different color eyes), a tuxedo and a Calico, among others.
The most popular mod, dubbed Pick of the Litter, features many different coat colors and patterns that users can select and switch between.
There are currently at least two gray tabby mods, but neither of them match Buddy’s chubby incredibly muscular physique.
One modder is taking commissions from gamers and creating custom cat avatars based on photographs, so if a player’s cat has a unique color or pattern — or you just want something more accurate — they have that option. Perhaps we’ll inquire if it’s possible to add huge meowscles as well as edit coat patterns and colors.
Other mods allow players to substitute a dog as the protagonist (come on, now…), add snazzy spectacles to the kitty, and tweak graphics settings for greater photorealism.
Finally, if you’re a fan of a certain lasagna-loving cartoon cat, you’re in luck: He’s now in the game thanks to the efforts of one dedicated fan, and he’s as lazy and heavy-lidded as he’s always been.
It should be noted that mods are unique to the PC, which is an open platform. If you’re playing the game on a Playstation 4 or 5, you’re out of luck.
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.
Stray is the real deal. The game is beautifully atmospheric and slipping into its world feels effortless.
The adventure begins amid beautiful urban decay, with the titular feline and his family of three other moggies waking from a nap on the ledge of a concrete reservoir in the process of being reclaimed by Mother Nature. Tangles of branches and leaves push through the crumbling man-made structure everywhere, creating canopies, waterfalls and pools, and our hero and his buddies navigate their idyllic home in perfectly cat-like manner, leaping up, dropping down and pausing to lap water from reservoirs of running water.
The game gets you started with a few classics from the feline repertoire. You can walk, run, leap, hop up and, perhaps most importantly, meow by pressing the Alt key. A general interactive key allows you to sidle up to your feline friends for some head bunting and allogrooming, and the furry family members purr at each other in appreciation.
But things don’t remain idyllic, of course, because this is an adventure.
Our cat, an adorable ginger tabby, is separated from his tribe when he follows them across a chasm via a rusty pipe and the metal gives way.
It’s an enormous credit to the animators that they’re able to convincingly convey the panic and fear on kitty’s face as he tries to stop his fall, clawing at the edge futilely until he takes a nasty tumble onto hard concrete a few hundred feet below. Conveying authentic emotion on the faces of human characters is challenging, but doing it with a non-anthropomorphized animal is another thing entirely.
When you land, you can hear the distressed cries of your fur friends far above but can no longer see them, and your cat is injured: He limps along on three legs through a dimly lit sewer before passing out from his injuries.
An indeterminate time later he awakes, sniffs out a cat-size path of egress from the sewer and finds himself in the neon-tinted Walled City of Kowloon in an alternate future. (The real Kowloon Walled City, infamous for its urban density and its status as a hub for Hong Kong’s triad gangs, was demolished in 1994. It’s now a park.)
There’s so much that could go wrong with a game like this. It features a radical shift in perspective, putting players closer to the ground than they’re accustomed to and in the paws of an animal who isn’t particularly well-represented among game protagonists. Animating a feline is an enormous challenge, and cats have their own version of the uncanny valley: The slightest mistake in the rhythm of a moggie’s gait, for example, can throw the whole thing off, rendering the character unnatural. (See the wacky gallops of Assassin’s Creed’s horses, for example, or pretty much any third-person game in which a human character can run. More than two decades into making modern third-person games, developers still have trouble animating human running sequences that don’t look broken or comical.)
The care that went into animating kitty is evident, as is the work that went into controlling him feel effortless and instinctive. There’s no adjustment period here. From the first moment moving like a cat feels like second nature.
We’ll have more on the gameplay and story as we spend more time in Stray’s world. So far, the game gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from Buddy the Cat and me, his humble human servant.
In the meantime, as Stray sets sales records for an indie game and continues to generate incredible buzz on social media, publisher Annapurna Interactive is using the opportunity to help real life kitties, including a game code giveaway with the Nebraska Humane Society that netted more than $7,000 in donations.
We're teaching these kittens how to turn on a PlayStation so they can play Stray, the new cat adventure game from @HKdevblog and @A_i! 🎮
I bought my copy of Stray and I’m all ready for when it goes live at noon on Wednesday. I expect Buddy will find his place on my shoulder, drawn by the meows of the game’s protagonist, and perhaps even “attack” enemies on screen like he’s done in the past.
In the meantime, Stray has become Steam’s most-wishlisted game. Steam is by far the most popular digital platform for PC players, so reaching the top is quite an achievement for an indie studio. Stray is also an exclusive launch on Playstation, so XBox players will miss out on this one for the time being. (Sorry, dudes.)
Early reviews are in, with a developing consensus that Stray provides a refreshing change in perspective for the adventure game format. Some are even calling it one of the best games of the year, which is great news: The history of gaming is full of titles that looked amazing in previews and generated incredible hype only to fall flat when players finally got to experience them.
Of course we’ll have our own review here on PITB, and we’ve been looking forward to this game for years now, so I don’t want to go in with too many preconceived notions.
I can’t wait to jump into the paws of the game’s furry protagonist and experience the eerie future Hong Kong for myself.
If you can’t get enough Stray in the meantime, the developers have written a blog post introducing the world to Murtaugh, the real-life inspiration for the game’s feline protagonist. Murtaugh was rescued from under a car near Montpellier, France, he’s one of two cats who count studio founders Viv and Koola as their human servants, and he’s known as “The Boss” to the development team.
“Even though the character in the game is not a direct reproduction of Murtaugh, he was definitely a huge inspiration for its appearance and was a great support during the whole development,” Stray producer Swann Martin-Raget wrote.
Main character animator Miko also looked to Oscar, a Sphynx, when trying to capture the grace of feline movements. Oscar’s lack of fur allowed Miko to see his underlying musculature work as he went about the daily business of being a cat.
“Oscar is a Sphynx who comes to work with us at the studio almost everyday and was super helpful when Miko needed to have actual video reference of some jumps and runs,” Martin-Raget wrote. “Animating a quadruped is already quite challenging but the subtleties of a cat’s movements are incredibly precise and hard to convey properly.”
And finally there’s Jun, whose official title is executive chief general president commander director officer at the studio. Jun was responsible for supervising the humans working on the game, and of course, napping:
As a game that puts players in the paws of a feline protagonist, Stray is all about forgoing familiar video game tropes in favor of forcing players to think like a cat.
To do that, Stray’s developers spent a lot of time looking at vast amounts of reference material via the digital archive of feline images and videos known as the internet, and studying two of their co-workers — the office cats who play, lounge and provide inspiration for the development team.
“They are called Oscar and Jun,” producer Swann Martin-Raget wrote, “and even if they are not the most productive employees to be honest, they definitely add a lot of cheerful liveliness to the studio.”
Stray’s tight-knit team spent seven years bringing the heroic moggie and his world to life, and on July 19 players will finally get to explore the neon-drenched environs of a futuristic Hong Kong from a cat’s eye view.
The developers worked hard to get the approval of Oscar and Jun, who could not be bribed with snacks.
“Seeing them interact with objects around the office (even sometimes shutting down our computers at the worst possible moment!) gave us quite a lot of inspiration for the various cat interactions that are possible throughout the game,” Martin-Raget wrote.
We’ve been following the development of Stray for a few years now at PITB and can’t wait to give it a spin. Check out the launch trailer here:
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.