This feature contains massive spoilers for the entirety of Stray. Do yourself a favor and go play it before you read this.
Putting the cat in catastrophe
The second I saw the announcement trailer for Stray, I knew it was a game I was going to play on release day, no questions asked. I am a cat mom, after all, so anything with a cat, let alone as a playable character, is a big win in my book. While it was pretty easy to get me on board with the premise of Stray alone, one thing I wasn’t expecting was just how rich and compelling the story was going to be in this game. I mean, it was published by Annapurna so that should have been my first clue, but even so, it slipped my mind.
To start, the worldbuilding was incredibly detailed and made talking to NPCs, a pretty important mechanic when you’re trying to gather information for your quest, a fun and surprising part of the game. It’s the details that really got me, like the robot laying on the roof in the Slums looking up at the “stars” that are actually just lights on the roof of the city, or the robot in Midtown who was sitting reading a book and philosophizing about the “metaphor” of the Outside, or the grim detail that robots in jail can have their entire memories wiped so that they’re left as the perfect model citizen.
A story in vignettes
A vast majority of the NPCs had their own little stories, not just in what they were physically doing, but in what they thought of the city they live in and how they cope with being stuck there. We have a clear throughline with the cat and B-12 having their own narratives respectively, but most of what we learn about the state of the world and the underground city comes from NPCs giving us glimpses into their lives and inside their heads.
While the whole story of how the city met its demise is an interesting one, what I found most fascinating was how everyone talked about the Outside. Some were afraid of it, because it was unknown and because of the risks they would take to get there. Some were mystified by it (like the Outsiders). And some didn’t even believe it existed at all. Regardless of what they thought individually, the Outside had become something of a legend among the robots after hundreds of years in the city, and I can’t say I blame them.
I also found it so interesting how the robots would speak about humans — they seemed almost sentimental about who the humans were and what they left behind. With the world seemingly in constant decline these days, I’ve had a lot of existential panic about the idea of humans all dying out one day. I actually find the way Stray discussed life after human existence comforting rather than terrifying, which isn’t usual for me.
One of the most charming games I’ve ever played
The whole game has this underlying charm that runs through everything, because it not only has an adorable cat protagonist and cute mechanics like scratching at carpets or taking a nap on a cozy pillow, but because it somehow manages to be really hopeful in the face of a bleak situation. All of the characters that help you along your journey, although they may be dreaming of the Outside themselves, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way or stay behind just to keep you moving forward.
Even what you might consider the antagonists of the game, the security robots, weren’t acting with any kind of malicious intent — the protocols that they were carrying out to keep everyone in the city are just remnants from a time when the Outside was still a dangerous place.
Hope, even in the end
What Clementine said in that final moment where she helped us escape the prison really stuck with me — even if it meant she couldn’t go with us, just the idea of someone making it to the Outside was enough for her. Then, of course, there’s the heartbreaking finale of B-12 sacrificing himself so that the cat could open the door.
The image of that little orange cat curled up with his friend on the floor of the Control Room made me cry more than a game has in years. They leave us on the note that while there has been great loss, this cat, and the residents of the city, are at a new beginning full of new, beautiful possibilities. Even in a world where people have gone extinct, love and hope can still thrive, and that’s one of the most comforting sentiments I can think of in the face of… well what we’re facing.
Stray is certainly one of my favorite games not only of this year, but maybe of all time. Its story is one that I find myself still thinking about, and Stray honestly might have helped change my perspective when it comes to dreading the end of the world. It’s only a matter of time before I dive back in and immerse myself in its story again, because I’m certain there are still plenty of hidden details I missed. There’s certainly so much more to it than I was even able to touch on in this article.
Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.