If you want to open today’s door on the RPS Advent Calendar you’re going to have to jump and pull on the handle, or scratch on the door until someone comes to open it for me. Unfortunately, today you don’t have opposable thumbs – but you’re way better at climbing, which is going to come in useful.
You’re a cat lost in a big city. Of course, it’s Stray!
James: Why are there not more games where you play as cats? It’s perfect: whenever we start playing something completely new, we sniff around environments, attack anything unfamiliar that we think we can take, and if there’s a loose object next to a ledge, you know damn well we’re pushing it off to see what happens. We act, essentially, like cats.
Stray understands that the human and feline desires to explore (and nap) aren’t all that different. And happily, the ginger tabby you control for its tightly-paced eight hours is built by nature for clambering. Ever had a little frisson upon spotting a kitty leap ten times its own height, or perform a perfect tightrope routine across a slim fence without breaking stride? You’re doing that kind of thing almost constantly in Stray, with a clever contextual traversal system that’s smoother and more satisfying than the “jump to conspicuous yellow handheld” climbing system that’s become industry standard among action-adventurers.
The cat itself is a darling, nameless but filled with character through some wonderful animation work.
The cat itself is a darling, nameless but filled with character through some wonderful animation work. Any moggy parent will recognise the little wind-up before big leaps, the way their sides puff out when breathing heavily, or the focused trot of a brisk walk. And many interactions exist solely for the purpose of letting you be a cat, doing cat things, like scratching up sofas or snoozing on cardboard.
If you’re not a cat person, that’s fine, as there’s plenty to get out of Stray besides cooing at the little orange darling. Exploration is a consistent focus, but Stray is never afraid to introduce new twists – stealth, puzzles, outright platforming, even a bit of shooting – then swap them for something else before it gets too repetitive. If anything, I wouldn’t have minded a little less action, please. Blasting parasites with a UV ray isn’t nearly as much fun as wandering through the neon-tinged streets of Stray’s ravaged walled city, scampering over tin rooftops and bunting against the remaining robotic denizens.
Don’t get me wrong: I adore this game. It’s affirming and tense and funny and sad and so, so powerfully atmospheric. It’s the only game, in my two-decades-and-change of playing, that I’ve started, finished, restarted, and finished again in the space of a week. Anyone with an affinity for singleplayer adventures, even if they don’t also have one for soft kits, should try it.
Rebecca: My favourite thing about Stray is the adorable cat, and I’m not about to insult your intelligence by pretending I feel otherwise. My second favourite thing about Stray, though, is how often it switches things up. I have a strong affection for sub-10 hour action adventure games composed of varied set pieces, of which Stray is a great example. It’s a game that rarely asks you to solve a problem the same way twice, as you move through different districts of the city where different rules apply. So even if you’re not enjoying something (I personally wasn’t a massive fan of some of the chase sections), the odds are good that you’ll still find plenty to love as you leap about the rooftops unencumbered by a clumsy human body. You won’t convince me that this is anything less than video game escapism at its finest.
Stray is also one surprisingly few video games to date which have made me cry, given how many games I play that get tagged with things like “story rich” and “emotional”. Specifically, that bit at the end. You probably know the bit. The best part, though, was my partner seeing I was upset and trying to cheer me up by explaining that a cat couldn’t really understand what was happening. This of course pushed me over from misty-eyed to actively snuffling, because the kitty didn’t even understand what was going on. Yeah, that probably didn’t go as intended, but it does make for a funny anecdote.
In case you too find yourself overwhelmed with emotion at this game, I simply can’t leave you without one of my favourite YouTube videos from this year, which uses MATHS and SCIENCE to determine whether Stray has a happy ending. Spoilers incoming, obviously, but if you have finished the game I urge you to give this one a watch. James immediately declared it headcanon when I shared it with the RPS Treehouse, and if that’s not recommendation enough I don’t know what is.
Katharine: I’ll tell you what else you should watch. This lovely GIF, on repeat, until the end of time. You’re welcome.