Stray wastes no time in laying on the charm. It’s there when your furry friend first lets out a squeaky meow, daring you not to put your life immediately on the line for them. It comes pouring out of the controller as our feline hero kneads rugs, like Paul Hollywood’s tabby cousin. And who among us can’t say they melted inside when the robot made a little heart face as you nuzzled up against it?
These instances of arresting cuteness aren’t the reason I’m so fond of this irresistible indie, however. No, the best moments of Stray – which you can play for free on PS4 and PS5 – are its most contemplative ones. Early on in the game, I pad across the rooftops of the Slums, an area where the only light comes from humming neon signs. Spotting a robot gazing up at the sky, their legs dangling, clearly lost in thought, I head over to take in the scene and discover I can curl up near them.
As the cat starts to slumber – a soul-warming purr coming through my DualSense PS5 controller – the camera slowly zooms out to give me a dioramic of the city, letting me meditatively drift as if floating away from the game itself. In that moment, all I can think about is the time I used to spend with my own cat, and that’s the magic Stray captures when you nestle down for a nap. The real joy of owning a pet is captured in these fleeting little snoozes.
One paw-fect moment
As many pet owners will know, there are times when just sitting near your best bud and doing nothing is restorative. Throughout Covid lockdown, I’d sometimes see that my cat, Mitzi, was just chilling on the bed – and so I would lie down near her and enjoy the company. Maybe it would be to listen to music while she stretched over my legs. Sometimes it would be to talk at her, which I’m sure was much to her annoyance. At others, it was just to look at something infinitely cuter than the walls I’d been staring at all day. I’m not quite sure how I would have coped without these little breaks in my day.
These are the moments that came flooding back to me the first time I wandered into a sleeping spot in Stray. Approaching a bot for a snooze was a reminder of the time I spent with Mitzi, and struck me in a way that no mashing of the meow button could ever do.
Slowing down the action in this way isn’t unique to Stray. Other games have used breaks in the action to great effect, such as Life is Strange – in which you’re able to sit on a bench and listen to one of the series’ stars reflect on the events that are happening to them. Likewise, The Last of Us – which is getting a ground-up remake for PS5 and PC – takes time out of its harrowing journey to have Ellie and Joel stroke a roaming group of giraffes. These intervals give you a greater connection to the stories and, in that sense, Stray is using a neat piece of gaming vocabulary to ground you in your environment – so that you take in more of the world that your cat needs to navigate.
A hero’s tail
But that’s not what makes these times in Stray so special, especially when compared to the games above. Because while I can never relate to looking out over Arcadia Bay or stroking a giraffe in an abandoned city, I can remember the time Mitzi plonked herself on my lap and started to doze away after I finished drunkenly watching Trainspotting at 2am. If those games want you to take in their worlds, Stray feels like it wants you to fold in your own experiences.
There’s a reason so many people are putting their own cats into the game – it’s hard not to see your own pet when taking on this adventure. OK, yes, the illusion is trickier to maintain when you’re a bit cack-handed at the stealth sections, but I don’t imagine most cats having the abilities of Solid Snake either. It’s a testament to BlueTwelve’s mastery of cat mannerisms that Stray sails over the uncanny valley and lands on its feet, instantly making us think of our own furry friends.
That’s also why I think Stray’s real beauty comes from the cat napping. Because it’s the first time since Mitzi passed away that something has reminded me of what it’s like to have a cat. As good as the meowing, clawing, or biscuit-making are, they’re just sweet little flourishes. The true joy of a furry pal is in the respite – where you can just lie side-by-side and let the world drift away, if only for a second.