Op-ed: Stray and the breezy appeal of less is more game design

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NB: This article includes very minor Stray spoilers

Stray, a whimsical little morsel of a video game about doing Cat Things in the far flung future, has reportedly become the best user-rated Steam game of 2022 (so far). The title currently has an overwhelmingly positive rating on the platform with over 43,000 user reviews, suggesting the Aristocats were bang on the money when they made the rather spurious assertion that everybody wants to be a cat.

Of course, it’s worth noting that despite being the brainchild of relative unknown BlueTwelve Studio, Stray did have the might of darling “indie” publisher Annapurna Interactive behind it. But still — near-universal adulation in the games industry is that rarest of things, and after spending a few evenings leaping through Stray’s quietly hopeful post-human world I’m convinced the title’s minimalist, laser-focused approached to game design was absolutely key in helping this particular cat get the cream.

I also concede that having a dedicated ‘meow’ button probably helped.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Meeps?

Although most of the folks who’ve played Stray — on Steam, at least — seem to be pretty smitten with the title, some Reddit users on r/games have been struggling to parse the hype. During one of my (all too regular) post-midnight Reddit dives I stumbled across a thread laden with folks for whom the sheer amount of praise being heaped upon a video game that’s just “one step above a walking simulator” was incomprehensible verging on insulting.

Some of the more sarcastic commenters seemed to suggest that players must have alarmingly low expectations if an experience in which “a cat climbs stuff for 3 hours” was deemed worthy of song. I’m not trying to legitimize those reductionist remarks. This is the internet, after all, and that means you’re never far from an opinion that feels alarmingly extreme given the subject matter. We’re discussing a game about CATS, people. It’s not trying to be the next The Last of Us.

What Stray IS trying to be, however, is a little slice of escapism for people who want to spend a few hours pretending to be a rambunctious ginger feline. As one wonderfully honest Redditor put it: “I just wanted to be a cat for a few hours.” I feel you, internet rando.

Stray isn’t trying to be The Last of Us

Stray isn’t striving to be a sprawling triple-A adventure, which is somewhat ironic given BlueTwelve was formed by a group of former devs from Ubisoft, a studio with a rich history of cramming every conceivable mechanic into its products.

No. As that Redditor so succinctly put it. Stray is a video game about becoming a cheeky little mouser. Sure, there are some gorgeous (if somewhat problematic) cyberpunk trappings, but the sell here is watching Stray’s furry protagonist interact with a mysterious world and its robotic denizens. Almost everything in the title is geared towards making that green-eyed furball spark joy in players, which is precisely why it succeeds.

The animation and audio work is damn-near perfect, and whether you adore cats or simply tolerate them (don’t worry if you fall into the latter camp — they’d understand), it’s almost impossible not to catch feelings when Stray’s adorable moggy starts reacting to its virtual trappings, causing mayhem by springing onto pool tables, pushing precariously placed cans of paints off shelves, curling up on the lap of an unsuspecting snoozer and purring away, or yelping in pain after a particularly treacherous fall.

All of those moments are impactful because, yes, we all empathize with the cute kitty, but also because they’re beautifully realized and framed on a technical level. You can see where the budget and production time has been spent, and that insistence on ensuring Stray’s four-legged explorer is constantly pulling on players’ heartstrings whether its prancing across pipe-strew rooftops or stopping for a quick catnap is fundamental to the game’s immediate appeal.

Less really can be more

Indeed, it’s actually when Stray tries to tries to fall back on more traditional mechanics that it begins to fall apart. As we all know, video games must have combat in some form — and to its detriment Stray is no different. At one point in the game players are handed a UV-light style weapon that can be used to explode enemies into symphonies of goo, essentially allowing a cat to commit mass murder (okay, okay, it’s self defence but you take the point).

There are other sections that also force players to weave around nibbly little foes for set periods of time just… because? These segments are evidently designed to add more tension and weight to proceedings, but ultimately they feel like surplus padding. Moments designed to stretch the title beyond its means and remind people that, yes, you are still playing a video game.

Like all cats, Stray does stick the landing for the most part by letting players spend the vast majority of their time simply existing and exploring the world (with the help of a handy drone) — learning more about what happened to our seemingly forsaken planet by deciphering graffiti, nattering with those who remain, and finding clues in the form of memories hidden among the detritus. 

It’s an easy, breezy, wonderfully chill experience that proves (often through its few missteps) that effective game design is sometimes just about finding your niche and leaning into it unashamedly.

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