Confession: The first and only time I encountered a video game up close was over 20-odd years ago when Mortal Kombat came to India. I never did play it – games have never been my thing, literally and figuratively. But I remember being fascinated by the fabulous blood splodges that blossomed across the screen of the only friend who owned a PC back then (Yes, I was a macabre child).
Since then, gaming has come a long way, of course. I, however, have remained blissfully ignorant of that universe. My closest brush with it in the recent past was a date with someone who designed video games for a living, one that I rushed out as quickly as possible, claiming that my contact lens had gotten lost in my eye.
However, as someone obsessed with cats, I couldn’t help but be curious when I heard about Stray, the recently-released video game about a cat lost in a strange, futurist, post-apocalyptic world inhabited by robots and evil Zurks. The game, released on 19 July for PlayStation4, PlayStation5 and Windows, developed by BlueTwelve Studio and published by Annapurna Games, essentially has the player navigating this world as a cat trying to find its way back home. Though I haven’t yet played the game (I am especially dying to press the ‘O’ button on my computer that will allow me to meow), I did watch the entire game walkthrough, and I must admit I loved what I saw.
The game begins on a rainy night with a family of four cats in some walled Old-World place, all ready to curl on a dismantled cardboard box (no surprise there) and snooze. Before bedtime, they bat playfully at each other, groom and rub against each other, movements that any cat owner, including myself, will recognise as very true to life. The following day, however, catastrophe (yes, this is the perfect word here) strikes; one of the cats, the orange one, possibly male (ginger cats are more likely to be male than female), gets separated from the rest and falls into this other-world. The cat’s eyes widening as it loses its grip and falls into Dead City, watched by its three friends, is one of the most realistic and heart-breaking parts of this game (there is another towards the end, but I won’t give that away).
The game, divided into 12 chapters, has the cat negotiating different parts of this strange new world: the eerie forgotten Dead City, an abandoned flat where it proceeds to scratch a carpet with cat-like efficiency, bounding over trash cans, stools, AC units and rooftops (again, very feline), making friends along the way (studies indicate that orange cats are the friendliest).
Stray’s reviews have been overwhelmingly positive so far. The only significant complaint is that the game is way too short. While I am not in the position to comment on the technical aspects of the game, I must admit that the landscape, design and texture of the world it creates are breathtaking. Since you are negotiating the world as a cat, you see the world from a close-to-floor and rooftop perspective, making the game a hugely immersive experience.
I like to think that this, coupled with the fabulous attention given to cat movement and behaviours (the designer is definitely a cat person), is what has made the game so popular. And guess what, the cats seem to think so too. A Twitter account titled Cats Watching Stray (@CatsWatchStray) has cropped up, filled with pictures of multiple cats engrossed in the Stray experience – a simply delightful account with more than 37,000 followers.
The game's premise admittedly is not a novel one: finding your way out of a distant land and going home has been the staple of multiple narratives from time immemorial, including the Odyssey, the Wizard of Oz and the parable of the prodigal son. But, like all classics, it works well, especially since the protagonist is feline. As someone who has loved and lost many cats, the game offers hope that missing cats sometimes actually do manage to return home. And that is why I think I will be playing Stray soon.