As candidates for the protagonist of a post-apocalyptic power fantasy go, feral cats (ginger, no less) are an unlikely pick. With no opposable thumbs, aiming a gun will prove a challenge, and what feline could hope to outrun, say, a band of Mad Max-style villains racing scrapheap muscle cars? Stray, however, presents a different sort of end-of-world vision, a city slum abandoned by humans and instead inhabited by their bipedal robot servants, who dutifully sweep the streets and weed and water the flowerbeds. In this context, the vagrant cat proves a potent cipher. In the dense and warren-like subterranean slums, manoeuvrability and the capacity to lithely slip through rusty railings are far more valuable assets than raw animal strength and military-grade weapons (although a bit of firepower does eventually, inevitably, come your way).
Stray’s world is based, compellingly, on Kowloon Walled City, the claustrophobic, densely populated real-world Chinese enclave in Hong Kong that became, prior to its dismantling, a notorious hotbed of human vice. Stray’s city is ostensibly rundown, but with its Instagrammable strings of amber lanterns and geek-chic neon-lit bars, it’s a more sanitised, Pixar-esque interpretation of shantytown poverty. There is no prostitution or gambling here, only launderettes, robot buskers and backyard electronics fixers. The humans moved out and took the sin with them, apparently. What remains is a place of abandonment, not exploitation, where the robot citizens have been left behind to rust and decay among the paraphernalia of human desertion.
Casting the player as a cat brings more value to Stray than mere marketing clout (cats remain ripe for memeification, even at this advanced stage of the internet’s development – or decline). Every sill, shelf, bedframe and railing is a point for potential launch and landing, enabling you to slip and leap through the world with pleasing haste. You can nuzzle the legs of robots to whom you take a shine, claw at yielding rugs and even curl up in a ball and snooze if you find an old mattress on a rooftop. The substance of your feline life, however, is the mission to escape the slums by helping those enterprising robots who dream of following their makers out of the shadows. This means running errands, searching abandoned apartments for useful items and figuring out spatial-reasoning puzzles while outrunning the occasional gang of face-huggers you meet down a dark alleyway.
The game’s wonder is in the delicate details: knocking over piles of books; tinkling your way along the keys of an old piano. It’s elegantly designed and well told, and in opting to build a compact world dense with detail and intrigue rather than one that sprawls flimsily, Stray feels like a high-production proposition despite its modest-sized production team. Most enduringly, this is a game in which playing as a cat is not a mere gimmick but intrinsic to the experience, proving that survivors are not always the strongest, but those who best fit their environment.