Annapurna’s Stray Totally Understands What It Means To Be A Cat
If there’s a cat in your house, how does it typically walk around? With its tail pointed straight up, probably—y’know, like any normal cat. But the feline protagonist of stray is a bit more modest: He primarily keeps his tail down, at least based on gameplay footage viewed during a hands-off streamed preview event attended by Kotaku.
In other words, no, you very likely won’t see much of the cat’s butthole in stray.
strayan adventure game to be published by Annapurna Interactive for PlayStation and PC this July, is the debut of French developer Blue Twelve Studio. It takes place in a futuristic city devoid of humans, mysteriously largely occupied instead by iPod-looking robots. Whereas most games with such a setting would put you in the rugged boots of a battle armor-clad soldier, stray puts you in the softer, infinitely cuter, arguably deadlier (hey if you know, you know) boots of an orange tabby cat. The game caught a ton of buzz during its reveal at at 2020 Sony showcaseand was initially planned for a 2021 release before getting delayed to this year.
Throughout the preview session, I couldn’t shake one feeling: stray isn’t an adventure game in which you play as a cat. stray is an adventure game in which you are a cat, right down to the stuff you do in-game.
Swann Matin-Raget, a producer at Blue Twelve, played through roughly 20 minutes of stray, narrating several segments from a selection of levels throughout the game. (Though stray is partially open-world, it’ll also feature more traditional, seemingly linear stages.) Much of the quote-unquote gameplay centers around some extremely typical feline behavior. You can push bottles and jars off counters. You can disrupt a board game played by two robots, sending wooden pieces scattering in a flurry.
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There’s also a legit mechanic in which you scratch all the things cats like to scratch: the carpet, the sofa, anything else that frays easily and also just so happens to be held dear to your heart. By alternating the right and left triggers on your controller, you can sharpen your claws on a litany of in-game objects. (On the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, you’ll feel some Returnal-style force feedback.) This isn’t just cosmetic, either. At one point, Matin-Raget clawed at a nondescript door in a neon-lit alley. A few seconds passed. A robot opened the door. That’s how you progress into certain inaccessible areas.
“I’m doing something very unrealistic here [in] that I’m entering straight away,” Matin-Raget said. “You know any cat would probably wait 10 to 20 minutes before doing so.”
It makes sense that the folks at Blue Twelve are so well-positioned to adeptly capture what it means to be a cat, seeing as many of the members of the studio have cats of their own. Purely for crowd-pleasing purrposes, here are some:
In fact, even the cat you play as is in part based on one of those cats: The orange tabby (pictured) is named Murtaugh and lives with the studio’s co-owners. Matin-Raget noted, however, that Stray’s player character does not have a name.
Before you ask, Murtaugh did not serve as a motion-capture actor for stray‘s stray protagonist. No cat did. This is going to be hard to believe, I know, but apparently it’s not so easy getting a cat to wear a motion-capture suit and follow stage directions. Instead, stray‘s protagonist was fully animated by hand, which presented its own set of challenges.
“It’s quite harder to animate a quadruped in general as opposed to a biped. The center of gravity is really different and the fluidity of the overall animations needs to be really high to be convincing,” Matin-Raget said. “Also, when you try to animate a human, you can easily film yourself doing anything to use as a reference. But when you want to have something very specific with a cat, you need to extrapolate the material that you might be able to find or create.”
More than just “cat stuff,” the core gameplay in stray centers around platforming with light puzzle elements. You’ll automatically complete every jump in the game, always landing on your feet, and you won’t take any damage while just exploring and moving around. Progress seems primarily blocked by environmental puzzles. At one point in the preview, Matin-Raget came across a spinning industrial fan. To stop it, he directed the cat to pick up a nearby pail in its mouth, then rolled it toward the fan. It wedged between the fan and its vestibule, stopping the blades to open up a pathway into the next room.
As with most third-person adventure games, you view your character from behind. Obviously, this, um, poses a potential issue. (Since stray does not support character customization, you can’t, say, equip a Twinkle Tush.)
“We didn’t specifically take any steps to avoid having players having to see the butt the entire game,” Matin-Raget told Kotaku in a follow-up email. “But we did work a lot on the tail animations in several different situations, and that helps a lot.”
One thing that struck me here: Throughout the preview, Stray’s protagonist kept his tail down. I have two cats. Many of my friends have cats, too. (Welcome to journalism!) Most of these cats walk with their tails in a “flagpole,” or straight-up, position. According to Matthew McCarthy, DVM, the founder of Juniper Valley Animal Hospital in Middle Village, NY, that’s an invitation for social interaction. It’s one indicator of a “cat’s desire to make a connection,” McCarthy told Kotaku.
“Fearful cats will create a smaller silhouette,” McCarthy said. That can mean crouching, pinning back their ears, or, yes, tucking their tail down. “Out of sight, out of mind. Hopefully.”
It’s sad, but stray‘s protagonist has a lot to fear. When Blue Twelve first revealed the game, its rich, atmospheric setting—and, y’know, the whole playing as a cat thing—helped capture a lot of folks’ attention. But there wasn’t a whole lot of info about what it is you actually do. The general consensus at the time could’ve been summed up as: “I’m a cat? I walk around a city? I sit at the bar? Great! Sold. Gimme.”
Aim a trailer released last summer showed a totally different side of stray. One scene showed the cat sprinting away from a horde of antagonistic creatures, trying its best to escape. He’s accompanied by a floating robot drone. He hops onto a speeding cart, dodging enemies and careening through a chasm as if starring in Uncharted: Cat’s Fortune. This wasn’t the placid exploration game shown off the year before.
The preview clarified a bit more about what was going on there. According to Matin-Raget, the creative decision to feature intense segments was a pacing choice made close to the game’s inception, which has been in development in some capacity since 2016. The robot’s name is B12 (an obvious nod to the studio’s namesake). It serves as both a protector and a translator, seeing as it’s capable of language and you, a cat, are not. When asked about whether or not you’re limited to nine lives, Matin-Raget demurred and didn’t clarify exactly how health, damage, respawns, and the like work.
Hands-off previews rarely offer insight into whether a game will be any good. More often than not, they’re marketing charades—and even more curated by PR than hands-on previews, since you can’t even get a sense of what the game feels like. It’s why we typically veer away from them at Kotaku.
That said, I came away from stray buzzing with excitement to a degree I usually don’t. And this is from someone who’s generally at hype-meter-level-1,000 for game announcements, someone who’s (somehow) not yet spoiled by the cynicism that infects so many people who turn a hobby into a job! Maybe it’s just feline-adjacent instinct, but I’ve got a good feeling about this one. It will, if nothing else, be a welcome departure from the typical snarky action fare that tends to clutter the summer release calendar.
Just don’t expect any butts.