When a video game has us playing as an animal, it’s usually some psychedelic anthropomorphic cartoon creature such as Crash Bandicoot or Sonic the Hedgehog. Rarely do we actually behave like an animal, although when we do, it can be hilarious: 2019’s breakout cult hit Untitled Goose Game stars a nasty goose honking, pecking and chasing its way around a village of peeved humans, for instance. Stray, released last week, has us playing as the internet’s favourite animal, a cat, doing cat stuff: pattering across roofs, snoozing on cozy cushions, pushing things off shelves for no discernible reason.
Players and critics have lapped Stray up. Even Peta likes it. But it’s also been winning over the feline population. Players have been posting pictures and videos of their own cats watching the game, apparently fascinated by the virtual cat’s surprisingly realistic movement and meows. The Twitter account @CatsWatchStray has now compiled hundreds of them.
“Working for so long on a game, you really lose perspective, so seeing people posting their reactions, and more importantly their cat’s reactions, after playing the game this week has been a very rewarding and surreal experience for the whole team,” says Swann Martin-Rage, producer at the game’s developer BlueTwelve Studio, based in Montpellier, France.
Stray has been in the works since 2015. BlueTwelve Studios’ cofounders, Colas Koola and Vivien Mermet-Guyenet, who go by Koola and Viv, were fascinated by Kowloon Walled City, the mysterious, reputedly lawless and sun-staved enclave of Hong Kong that was demolished by 1994. They felt that the verticality, mystery and hidden paths of such a setting would lend themselves well to exploration as a curious feline, and so the concept for the game was born. Stray was finally announced in 2020, after arthouse publisher Annapurna Interactive picked it up.
It is obvious from all the charming details – such as the way the cat scratches on any available fabric surface – that this game was developed by cat people. Indeed, the team were inspired and comforted throughout Stray’s long development by their own cats. “One of the cofounders’ cats, Murtaugh, was the main inspiration for the hero’s visuals,” says Martin-Rage. “He was found on the streets of Montpellier and has been here since the beginning of the project. He was right under our eyes the whole time and has been a constant source of inspiration and support in his own particular way. While the protagonist is not a carbon copy, Murtaugh seems happy with the result.”
There were even cats in the office with them – which occasionally meant a rather chaotic working environment. “We have two cats that work with us almost every day in the studio: Jun, who belongs to Clara the level artist, and the hairless sphynx cat Oscar, owned by Miko, the main cat animator,” Swann explains. “They are very lively additions to the team and we love them very much, even when they step on the computer power button just when we are about to save our work.”
My own cat – Kim, a nine-year-old bengal cross who enjoys making mysterious noises in the middle of the night until I am compelled to come and investigate – was entirely unbothered when I was playing Stray, because she is a contrarian and would never do anything social media-worthy to please me. Watching clips of other people’s cats twitch their ears and examine the screen with a curious paw, though, has been a delight. “It was a really nice moment when we started to see the office cats react to the cat on screen,” says Martin-Rage. “It gave us a great feeling that we were going in the right direction. And when we saw that so many other players’ pets were having these strong reactions – trying to play, catch and interact with the cat on screen – we were super happy.
“We hope cats enjoy Stray as much as their owners do. I have seen some messages where people said that after finishing the game, they just wanted to hug their cats, and really that’s the best reaction that we could have hoped for.”