Entertainment PS5 hit Stray is an overnight success built on over 20 years of cat memes
PS5 hit Stray is an overnight success built on over 20 years of cat memes
If you’ve not been on the internet for an adult lifetime, you may not realize that cats have always run the place. Back in the early 2000s, one of the preeminent communication methods through email, burgeoning social media platforms and forums was, in fact, cat memes.
Similarly, if you’ve ever used terms like “hecking good boy” or “boop the snoot”, what you may not realize is that the root of your internet speak is in fact Kitty Pidgin, the “I can has?”-laden language born from the Lolcat meme era, some of the earliest traceable pidgin of its kind online.
However, the internet is just a new medium for a preexisting human fascination with felines. Whether in ancient wall paintings or the meme-like photography of Harry Pointer, we’ve inextricably linked ourselves to cats for over 9,000 years. Research has even shown that cats, effectively, domesticate themselves (opens in new tab), which makes sense of their sometimes maddeningly indifferent attitude towards us.
It’s no surprise, then, that while they may not quite have the supreme power they once held over the online space, cats are still a huge cultural mainstay. As proven by the viral sensation that is the third-person cat adventure game, Stray.
Now over 60,000+ Concurrent Players for Stray on SteamI absolutely cannot over emphasize how incredible these numbers are for an indie title. These numbers are much closer to what a successful AAA titles reach. HUGE hit for Annapurna Interactive and BlueTwelve Studio https://t.co/B8TbOKExta pic.twitter.com/2LSGNzIQQoJuly 19, 2022
Though weeks of hype surrounded the game in the run-up to release, a veritable tsunami of cat content breached our Twitter, TikTok and even Facebook feeds upon release. Reaching 60,000+ concurrent players on Steam, a number that rivals some AAA titles, Stray has clearly captured something otherwise absent from the current gaming scene.
Paws for thought
Some readers may recall a little old site called ‘I Can Has Cheezburger?’ from back in the day, which posted text memes featuring an array of recurring characters and themes – some of the earliest memes I remember finding on the internet.
Whether it was one of the earliest cat blogs like MyCatHatesYou or the Infinite Cat Project, memes like Ceiling Cat, Long Cat and Cheeseburger Cat or even the Caturday posts of 4Chan, cat culture was strong and sprawling, spreading quickly from imagery to video as sites like YouTube became more accessible.
Rapidly, the universe of cat memes was expanding. Now, we had keyboard cat, “No No No” cat, Grumpy cat and, of course, our pop tart pal Nyan cat. Reporting from Buzzfeed in 2012 even found that, while dogs were more frequently searched for, cat content was much more prone to virality.
Fast forward to the present and we have Stray, which capitalizes on now-decades of cat legacy on the internet. If you’ve been asking yourself quite why this game has won hearts, look no further than its attention to detail when capturing the joy of cats.
Stray puts you in control of an orange cat that has been separated from its group of feline friends and thrust into a post-post-apocalyptic cyberpunk city, walled off from the outside world. The inhabitants of the city are Companions, helper bots abandoned by humanity that, over several centuries, have evolved to mimic the behaviors, beliefs systems, and even aspirations of humans.
Throughout the game, you and your drone pal B-12 explore and investigate the various dwellings within the walled city in hopes of finding a way to return to the outside world, and as a byproduct, freeing the Companions that are trapped within its walls.
As a premise, I’d be remiss to say it’s totally innovating the post-apocalypse adventure genre, but what really elevates Stray to the next level is seeing it all through the lens of a cat.
Whether you’re scratching up carpets and trees, drinking from puddles of water, or meowing at the push of a button, this game oozes cat charisma.
The moment I realized this game had more to it than just beautiful graphics and some solid platforming mechanics was the first instance in which a throwaway animation was included for no other purpose than to add depth to the experience of being a cat.
Early in the game when you meet B-12, the drone dons you with a harness. The interaction that follows had me wheezing – the cat tumbling tantrumously to the ground as though cursed with the most grotesque of burdens. If you’ve ever tried dress-up with a cat that’s not acclimatized to it, you’ll have got a similar response. It’s not an animation that occurs again anywhere else in the game – just a really neat acknowledgment of the mannerisms of cats.
Likewise, there are numerous pianos around the world that you can jump on and walk all over a la keyboard cat; multiple instances where your job as the cat is to destroy things by pushing them off ledges with a timid, curled paw; and even times when walking across a computer keyboard is a crucial part of plot development.
These small but significant interactions add to a greater narrative, a sense of self-awareness that Stray has – and one that, I feel, many larger teams and studios would struggle to capture with such nuance. It’s this raw, unadulterated charm, in my opinion, that has captured the hearts and minds of players the world over.
The cat’s pajamas
There’s a knowingness to the Companions’ relationship with the eponymous stray, too. Despite many of them not even knowing what a cat is, referring to it as a quadruped, they have a very human desire and appreciation for the creatures.
Rub up against the leg of some Companions and they will emote with a heart. One bot lies on a couch and can be jumped upon, reacting at first with surprise before giving in to the cat’s will, stroking it and returning to sleep. On the less loving side, you can hop onto a table where two bots are playing dominoes, spraying tiles everywhere, and then watch in glee as they meticulously replace the pieces… only for you to do it all over again.
Another favorite interaction of mine occurs upon delivering sheets of music to the audiophile bot, Morusque. The Companion will play the piece on its makeshift guitar – and you have the option to curl up next to it on a pile of cushions and listen to the song. It’s a simple, sweet moment, reminiscent of cozy afternoons spent next to my own feline friend.
Stray captures the essence of cozyness in its nods to those small moments in life that bring you peace and contentment. In Danish, they have the word ’hygge’ to explain this, and I can think of no better descriptor. For me, it’s like pausing for a coffee at Brewster’s in Animal Crossing, just to watch the simple animation of a little cup being raised with stubby fingerless hands, sipped, and enjoyed.
We get it, you’re a dog person
Is all of this to say that Stray is for everyone? No, clearly not, judging by some of the reception. Stray’s greatest strength is also its biggest weakness – it depends upon you appreciating the cultural place of cats, or having the experience of owning one, to really shine.
The other day, I read a piece from Vice (opens in new tab) that suggests Stray undercuts itself – offering too human a lens on a humanless world. But I have to disagree. There is a fundamental juxtaposition in Stray between the way the robots so desperately emulate humanity, and the survival of cats in this barren, post-human world. In the end, the thing that charmed me the most about this simple game was that an intelligence created in our image will always strive to be human, to be more. Cats? They’ll just keep being cats.
Stray is far from the perfect game; I’d go as far as to say that, gameplay-wise, the second act was a little disappointing due to a lack of verticality when compared to how beautiful and detailed the first act was. However, it’s undoubtedly one of my favorite games of recent years. Appreciation of entertainment and art forms is always subjective, and nothing demonstrates that like the invention of the cat game person. You either are one, or you aren’t.