The first time I died in Stray, I felt the shock in my gut. My bruised body was covered with a swarm of vile creatures. The screen turned red, prompting me to “try again”, but the message was clear: you are dead.
I clung to the idea that my little alter ego on legs [mon avatar félin] had simply passed out. I couldn’t believe that such a nice game could really let me down. Eventually, my illusions were shattered and I learned that the creatures in question, the Zurks, were originally experimental bacteria and would eat anything and everything, even metal.
I glanced at Oni, my real-life ginger feline, who had been meowing at me throughout this sequence, intrigued by the sound effects and the raging Zurks. let me explain what is it like to play stray with a cat.
stray [un jeu de mots entre “s’égarer” et le terme désignant les chats errants] is not an adventure game like the others. It’s a psychological experiment designed for cat lovers, especially those who grew up watching The Incredible Journey [un film Disney de 1993]. If it’s not quite the same starting point, it’s on the other hand the same anguish that grips you when you see these adorable balls of fur brave adversity.
I realize that the assiduous presence of Oni, my adorable little jerk who wouldn’t last five minutes outside, influences the image I have of the character of stray : I suspect that many cat owners will have the same impression. Most people don’t like to see animals hurt themselves: they immediately feel involved, emotionally and psychologically, and this is combined with our innate protective instinct for babies.
Come home or die
The game opens with a family of tomcats living in lush, sun-splashed ruins. I’m a little ginger cat and life is good – full of games, naps and mops. This sequence is a short tutorial where I practice moving my clerk body and vocalizing. stray is above all a linear platform game, interspersed here and there with puzzles; it is articulated not around fights but around the ability of felids to sneak up, to flee, to dodge.
My peaceful existence comes to an end when I easily miss a jump while trying to get off a pipe. My loved ones see me helplessly disappear into the darkness. I land on a pile [de détritus], stunned but unscathed, in the trash-strewn bowels of a forgotten city. There is neither grass nor light. I am alone and distraught.
The principle of stray is simple: I must return to my household or leave my skin here (sometimes in the literal sense; other times, I will just be tasered). In the Dead City, I befriend a flying drone named B12, who gives me a small backpack to help me recharge its battery and store useful items (thanks to some unknown technology, B12 is able to dematerialize objects such as bottles and documents and rematerialize them on demand). It also helps me walk through doors and connect with others.
Not a human in sight
We meet a community of robots, the Companions, who once served humans (since extinct) and who continue to go about their business as humanoids. Among them are the Exteriorists, a small minority who believe in the blue sky myth.
Soon, my personal goal merges into the larger one of survival in a police state, in a conspiratorial atmosphere where one wonders if there really is an outsider. Besides the Zurks, there are the Sentinels [la police]perilous passages for toms, threatening vegetation that extends throughout the city and disturbing creatures in the sewers.
The movements will seem familiar to you if you have ever seen a cat make: acrobatic leaps from perch to perch, crawling while wriggling the hindquarters, and from time to time the big back, with a lot of spitting and growling . There are a few cozy little places to sleep, including the welcoming belly of a robot, and I take real pleasure in rubbing my legs against strangers. and to see their little face-screen then light up with a heart.
I can knock things off shelves, scratch at doors to open them for me, carry things around in my mouth, and climb on unsuspecting robots. This “chattitude” gives me a constantly renewed pleasure that pushes me to redouble my vigilance for the safety of my little furry alter ego, like a wandering Eye of Sauron watching for danger in the slightest corner.
There are several events where I find myself having to escape swarms of Zurks, which worries the human that I am but makes Oni happy, who meows non-stop in front of the image of his little pixelated double and the zoning creatures that surround it. I play on PC with the Nintendo Switch Pro controller, which deprives me of the vibrate function of the PlayStation and therefore purrs and meows, but on the other hand probably saves me having to dislodge Oni out of my arms all the time.
Hong Kong inspired
The character of Stray, like real-world cats, spends its time climbing. The city is designed as a vertical dystopia – a popular concept in science fiction. The world below is poor and neglected, while those above live in a consumerist and flashy world. Whoever is in charge necessarily lives upstairs.
Later, I come across a metro map that delimits the lower town and the upper town (the Downtown) and, at the very top, the Exit. The cyberpunk influence is evident here, with a lot of neon lights, narrow alleys and ultra-dense architecture of odds and ends, Kowloon citadel style [un bloc urbain enclavé de Hong Kong, détruit dans les années 1990 et réputé pour son extrême densité et ses ruelles exiguës]. Buildings evoking the thong lau [des bâtiments typiques du sud de la Chine, de Hong Kong et de Taïwan] to the ubiquitous wild postings, with their eight-digit telephone numbers, the reference to Hong Kong is obvious, which is hardly surprising when you consider that the working title of stray was HK Project [“Projet HK”].
I navigate the game telling myself both that it is indeed Hong Kong and that the authors are from there, guessing in the slightest flavor text a sign of daily resistance against an oppressive state and the importance of art in desperate situations – which is not unique to Hong Kong either, since the art of resistance has been an integral part of political expression for centuries.
Hong Kong’s struggle to preserve its autonomy as a “special administrative region” from the Chinese regime has inspired activists around the world, with its protests relying on the “Be water” tactic. [“Soyez comme l’eau”] to avoid tear gas and move together. For years, police brutality in the city made international headlines until, most recently, student protesters and resistance figures were publicly persecuted, vilified and thrown behind bars.
By reaching the city center in Stray, all this information resurfaces in my mind in front of civilian robots attacked by Sentinels in charge of peacekeeping. I instinctively expect a tragic duel with law enforcement, but that’s not the kind of stray – the principle here is to shave the walls, be forgotten and stay alive.
A small studio in Montpellier
Until the end credits, I thought that stray was the work of a Hong Kong developer (I prefer to know as little as possible when starting a game). So I was surprised to learn that the BlueTwelve studio was French, led by an enigmatic duo from Montpellier. Apparently, this typical Hong Kong atmosphere intrigued the public enough that the studio publishes [sur son blog] a note in the form of frequently asked questions in which he returns to the genesis of the project and its sources of inspiration.
The developers explain there that they wanted to create a dystopia apart, but that it is a challenge at a time when Western cyberpunk is based on a very specific corpus of visuals evoking East Asia. stray manages to create a world that is both evocative and familiar – BlueTwelve’s homage to Hong Kong is well done and packed with detail – but I wonder when the video game industry will pay the same attention as Annapurna [l’éditeur américain du studio BlueTwelve] to projects set up by Hong Kongers themselves, which would evoke the identity of Hong Kong in a deeper and more personal way (as in Name of the Will, in development).
Contemplating a certain spirituality
Luckily, it’s not its cyberpunk vibe that makes stray a unique game. I’ve written about this at length in the past, but cyberpunk has largely exhausted its critical potential and, in many cases, serves only to instantly evoke a modern dystopia. Because, let’s be honest, BlueTwelve would have set the story in a steampunk slum of the Victorian era that it would have produced the same effect, namely constant vigilance for our little tomcat.
The game’s most striking settings are hidden behind the city’s gray walls – rundown but charming interiors with their CRT screens, portable radios and the typical orange and green palette of the 1970s. to this game that takes place in the indefinite future. My favorite decor is a pile of old TVs, Nam June Paik style [une grande star sud-coréenne de l’art vidéo (1932-2006)]whose screen shows a starry sky – a messy altar erected to the goddess of technology, shrouded in a curious form of spirituality.
We finally come to the question of finitude and mortality – the fatal outcome that all pet owners fear. The ending offers a bittersweet reversal of this concept, with an inevitable goodbye (no, it’s not what you think) that prompts me to take Oni back into my arms – which starts squirming all over the place. to escape this grotesque manifestation of human sentimentality. stray ends on a slightly hazy note of hope that seems unacceptable to a simple mind like me who hates any form of ambiguity about our little acolytes.
It will take me a second to take a step back, after the end credits, pull myself together and strip myself of the role of “protector”. I realize then that I had plunged body and soul into the world of cats and that I would gladly do so again.
The dialogue speaks for itself
stray does not offer anything new. But, through skillful manipulation of our love of Raminagrobis, the game made me discover the extent of my feelings for Oni – my first cat, for whom, I admit, I have a real obsession. From the start of the game, I began to project him onto the character, and his constant presence by my side during the game gave a particular resonance to the emotional design of stray. We are quite far from the mechanisms by which affection is woven for a classic role-playing character, whose little quirks and qualities must be learned gradually, through dialogue, the narrative framework and the gameplay.
The smallest detail of stray reminded me that I only had a limited time with my little companions, whether real or virtual. The game over, I turned to Oni, overflowing with altruism. Unsurprisingly, he meowed at me and stormed off. BlueTwelve knew exactly what they were doing putting so much care and time into developing realistic movements and poses, but having a real mistigri on hand brings me back to reality. stray is clearly the work of skilful tomcat lovers. And, if only for this reason, it is a clear success.