WWhen a video game makes us play as an animal, it’s usually a psychedelic anthropomorphic cartoon creature like Crash Bandicoot or Sonic the Hedgehog. We rarely actually act like an animal, though when we do, it can be funny: the 2019 hack cult hit Untitled Goose Game is a bad goose honk and tap and chase its way around a village of harassed humans, for example. Stray, which was released last week, has us playing as the internet’s favorite animal, a cat, doing cat things: patting across rooftops, sleeping on comfy pillows, pushing things off shelves for no apparent reason.
Players and pundits have rounded up the stray. until PETA loves it. But it also wins over the feline population. Players post photos and videos of their cats watching the game, seemingly fascinated by the amazingly realistic movement of virtual cats and their water. Twitter account Tweet embed I have now collected hundreds of them.
“Working for so long on a game, you really lose perspective, so seeing people post their reactions, and more importantly their cat’s reactions, after playing the game this week was a very rewarding and surreal experience for the whole team,” says Swan. Martin-Rage, Producer at Game Developer BlueTwelve Studio, based in Montpellier, France.
Stray has been in business since 2015. BlueTwelve Studios founders Colas Koola and Vivien Mermet-Guyenet, who go by Koola and Viv, were fascinated by the mysterious, lawless and sun-soaked Kowloon Walled City in 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 cat, hence the game concept was born. Stray was finally announced in 2020, after being chosen by arthouse publisher Annapurna Interactive.
It’s clear from all the charming details – like the way the cat scratches on any available fabric surface – that this game was developed by a cat. Indeed, the team has been both an inspiration and a comfort throughout the long Stray development of their cats. “One of the founders’ cats, Murtu, was the main inspiration for the protagonist’s visuals,” says Martin Rag. “It was found on the streets of Montpellier and has been here since the beginning of the project. He has been right in front of our eyes the whole time and has been a constant source of inspiration and support in his own way. While the protagonist is not a carbon copy, Murtaugh seems happy with the result.”
There were cats in the office with them – which sometimes means a somewhat chaotic work environment. “We have two cats who work with us almost every day in the studio: John, who belongs to Clara the level artist, and Oscar’s hairless cat sphynx, owned by Miku, the lead animator for cats,” explains Swan. “They are very vital additions to the team and we love them so much, even when they hit the computer’s power button when we’re about to save our work.”
My cat—Kim, a nine-year-old Bengal cross who enjoys making fuzzy noises in the middle of the night until I find myself compelled to come and investigate—was completely unfazed when I was playing Stray, because she is conflicted and will. Never do anything worthwhile on social media to please me. Still, watching clips of other people’s cats flicking their ears and checking the screen with a curious paw was fun. “It was a really cool moment when we started seeing office cats interacting with the cat on the screen,” says Martin-Rage. “It gave us a great feeling that we were headed in the right direction. And when we saw that a lot of the other players’ pets were having such strong reactions – trying to play and catch and interact with the cat on screen – we were so happy.
“We hope the stray cats enjoy as much as their owners. I’ve seen some messages where people said that after the game was finished they just wanted to hug their cats, and that really is the best reaction we could have hoped for.”