There’s a degree to which Stray will always be “the cat game.” For quite some time after BlueTwelve Studio’s new project was announced, it was widely known as “that cyberpunk-ish game where you play as a kitty.” Even after Stray was finally released earlier this week to widespread critical acclaim and incredible early player counts, the title is still arguably being defined by its social media presence. Those who played the game early couldn’t wait to share their videos of cats watching them play the game and other social media currency-generating reactions. Everyone else was left to wonder, “What is that cat game everyone is talking about?”
You can call Stray’s early success a meme or a meme-supported movement, but you’d be doing the game a huge disservice. Stray is a brilliant little game that expertly combines worldbuilding, storytelling, movement, puzzles, sound, and atmosphere to offer the kind of experience that hooks you almost instantly and refuses to let go. Stray’s path to what certainly seems to be sales success may have been bolstered by the internet’s obsessive love of cats, but it’s the game’s genuine greatness that will keep it in the conversation long after those jokes have lost their luster.
Besides, no amount of cat memes could have single-handedly elevated what Stray really is: a linear and incredibly short game released at a time of live-service titles, open-world epics, and other experiences designed to occupy as much of your time as possible. Does that make Stray’s success an anomaly? Perhaps. However, I think that the bigger lesson to take away from Stray’s success is that “linear” isn’t the bad word some gamers seem to think it is.
Stray Proves That Great Level Design Is Sometimes Better Than a Massive Open World
Not long after Stray was released, thousands of people could be found asking variations of the question, “Is Stray an open-world game?” It’s a common question that reveals not only the incredible popularity of the open-world genre but how confused some are when they learn a single-player game everyone is talking about isn’t open-world. We’re seemingly creeping up to the point when more people will just start asking developers to explain why they didn’t just make an open-world game.
BlueTwelve hasn’t officially answered that question, but they really don’t need to. Beyond the obvious answers (the time and cost of a smaller studio trying to make an open-world game) is the simple idea that not every great video game world needs to be an open world.
While some parts of Stray afford you a small degree of freedom, most of the game sees you follow a fairly straight path from one objective to another. Any incentive to stray (tee-hee) off the beaten path will come from your desire to see and understand as much of the game’s world as possible.
It’s a testament to Stray’s brilliance, then, that you’ll find yourself exploring the game at every possible opportunity.
Stray doesn’t offer many clear explanations about the history and nature of its world, but you won’t need them. The game is filled with little details that eventually paint a pretty clear picture of how things got to be the way they are. Besides, explanations are generally less important than how the game’s world makes you feel. You can’t walk down a street in Stray and not feel the weight of the world around you. There’s a lingering sense of dread in Stray (there always is in dystopian futures), but there is also a sense of culture, history, and the idea that the places you visit exist for reasons that go beyond your interactions with them.
It’s that sense of purposefulness that would have so easily been lost in an open-world game. Climbable surfaces in this game flow so beautifully into each other in order to create the believable sensation of being as quick as a cat. Every NPC, building, and sign feel perfectly placed. Stray’s developers knew (or had a pretty good idea of) where you were going to go in the game, and they carefully constructed the world around that path to trigger a sense of wonder and tell a story.
That’s the funny thing about more traditional “linear” level design. Open-world games may be a sandbox, but more linear games can sometimes feel like more of a playground. Developer BlueTwelve Studio filled Stray’s world with carefully constructed set pieces that almost never fail to excite. It’s like thinking back on whatever playground you went to most when you were a kid. In reality, it probably wasn’t that big and almost certainly didn’t feature every available toy. Yet, the memories it filled you with can make you smile to this day. That’s what Stray’s linear world offers.
Stray Shows the Power of a Likable Protagonist Over an Angsty Antihero or Player-Created Character
As noted above, Stray probably wouldn’t have generated as much buzz if it didn’t star a cat. Beyond the obvious ways the game capitalizes on the internet’s obvious love of cats, BlueTwelve did an excellent job of building a game that felt like it was made with a cat protagonist in mind and simply wouldn’t have worked with any other main character.
However, the best thing about playing as a cat in Stray is the feeling of being a pure, heroic protagonist when so many other games want us to be antiheroes and created characters.
I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush to help make this point, but it feels fair to say that it’s tough to create a truly great video game protagonist. It also feels fair to say that members of the gaming industry (like prominent members of the film and TV industries) went through a prolonged period where they were obsessed with creating antiheroes of various degrees of quality. Elsewhere, the rise of pseudo-RPGs and loadout-based multiplayer games led to more instances of creating a character who sadly usually feel more like a vehicle for the rest of the game than a fully-fleshed character.
It’s not that there haven’t been great video game protagonists in recent years, but rather that the industry has changed. It’s noticeably less common to find a video game protagonist who is the undeniable star of the show, the game’s biggest draw, and someone who you simply feel great playing as. Games that offer those things (Insomniac’s Spider-Man titles being a great example) typically stand out.
That’s certainly one of the qualities that help Stray stand out. Yes, it’s fun to run around as a cat, but it’s just as (if not more) enjoyable to brighten someone’s day as a playable cat. Like the pets in our lives, Stray’s protagonist often brightens the game’s world or an NPCs day simply by interacting with them (or even just existing). The first time you rub against a robot’s leg, watch its face light up (in its own way), and bend down to pet you may also be the first time in a long time that a video game character made you feel powerful for reasons that go beyond their combat abilities.
Mind you, I’m not saying that those characters, or even violence in gaming in general, don’t play an important role in the industry that needs to be carried on and advanced. However, at a time when antagonism can be found everywhere you look, it’s truly wonderful to play as a pure video game protagonist that spreads joy to the player and in-game characters in equal measures.
When you create an open world, there’s the inevitable temptation to make the world the star. It inevitably needs to dwarf everything around it. Stray reminds us that there are times when it’s just as valuable (and possibly more welcome) to focus on the right character and built the world around them.
Stray’s Gameplay Makes the Most Out of What Bigger Games Treat As Filler
The fact that Stray is a short and linear game that is rapidly becoming a blockbuster (by indie standards, at least) is impressive enough. What really impresses me though, is that the game is achieving everything that it is achieving while primarily relying on stealth, adventuring, and puzzle solving as its main gameplay draws.
Granted, there is some shooter-style action in Stray, but it’s a small part of the experience that also happens to be one of the worst (though certainly not terrible) sections of the game. The rest of Stray sees you bounce between platforms, solve puzzles, sneak around powerful foes, and, for the most part, non-violently make your way to the next area. If you’re good enough, you can see just about everything the game has to offer in a handful of hours.
In other words, Stray is often an amalgamation of many gameplay concepts that we’ve been lead to believe won’t appeal to a wider audience or will simply alienate gaming’s “core audience.” So how is Stray not only reaching so many people but such a wide variety of gamers? Maybe it’s because the game’s developers show each of those ideas the proper respect and don’t treat them as afterthoughts.
It often sucks to have to sneak around in an action game, and it’s often a chore to solve puzzles in an open-world game. We’ve been so conditioned to treat so many non-violent and brain-teasing gameplay ideas as filler that it becomes easy to subscribe to the narrative that they’re not what people want. However, it turns out that when a developer constructs generally compelling puzzles, comes up with creative non-violent solutions, and captures the joy of simply moving your character around, people do want to experience what they created. It also turns out that when all of that is wrapped up in a package that doesn’t overstay its welcome, people will not only not run away from that same game; they’ll flock to it.
There’s no one way to make a great game. More importantly (much as it was with Elden Ring), there’s no guarantee that any game that follows too closely in Stray’s footsteps will copy its success. Stray was a labor of love, and that’s probably the one thing about the game that so many people are ultimately responding to. There’s something very encouraging about that.
If there is big lesson that developers and gamers can take from Stray, though, it’s that “linear” shouldn’t be a bad word used to diminish a smaller game in comparison to a quantity-obsessed open-world title. The universal use of linear as a negative is the kind of thing that has led studios to justify the unstainable growth of the Triple-A gaming industry in the name of the idea that games must constantly be bigger. Games don’t always need to be bigger, but they do always need to be better. Like a kitten softly purring as it rubs against your leg, Stray is a gentle reminder that the smallest things can sometimes generate the most joy.