WWhen we play an animal in a video game, it’s usually a psychedelic, anthropomorphic, cartoon creature like Crash Bandicoot or Sonic the Hedgehog. Rarely do we truly act like an animal, though it can be hilarious: 2019’s breakout cult hit Untitled Goose Game, for example, features a mean goose honking, pecking and chasing its way through a village full of angry people. Stray, released last week, lets us play as the internet’s favorite animal, a cat that does cat stuff: slap across rooftops, snooze on cozy pillows, push things off shelves for no apparent reason.
Players and critics have lapped Stray. Even Peta likes this. But it has also won over the feline population. Players have posted pictures and videos of their own cats watching the game, apparently fascinated by the virtual cat’s surprisingly realistic movements and meowing sounds. The Twitter account @CatsWatchStray has now compiled hundreds of them.
“When you work on a game for so long, you really lose perspective. So it’s been a very rewarding and surreal experience for the whole team to see people posting their reactions, and more importantly, their cat’s reactions, after playing the game this week,” said Swann Martin-Rage, Producer of the game developer BlueTwelve Studio based in Montpellier, France.
Stray has been in the works since 2015. BlueTwelve Studios co-founders Colas Koola and Vivien Mermet-Guyenet, who call themselves Koola and Viv, were fascinated by Kowloon Walled City, the mysterious, supposedly lawless and sun-drenched enclave of Hong Kong that was demolished in 1994. They felt that the verticality, mystery, and hidden paths of such an environment would lend itself well to exploration as a curious cat, and so the concept for the game was born. Stray was finally announced in 2020 after art house publisher Annapurna Interactive picked it up.
The fact that this game was developed by cat people can be seen in all the loving details – such as the way the cat scratches on all available fabric surfaces. In fact, during Stray’s long development, the team was inspired and comforted by their own cats. “One of the co-founder’s cats, Murtaugh, was the main inspiration for the hero’s visuals,” says Martin-Rage. “He was found on the streets of Montpellier and has been here since the beginning of the project. He was right under our eyes the whole time and in his own way was a constant source of inspiration and support. While the protagonist isn’t a copy, Murtaugh seems happy with the result.”
Even cats were in the office – which made for a pretty chaotic work environment at times. “We have two cats that work with us in the studio almost every day: Jun, who is owned by Clara, the level artist, and the hairless Sphynx cat, Oscar, who is owned by Miko, the main cat animator,” explains Swann. “They are very lively additions to the team and we love them dearly, even if they’re just stepping on the computer’s power button just as we’re about to save our work.”
My own cat — Kim, a nine-year-old Bengal crossbreed who enjoys making mysterious noises in the middle of the night until I’m forced to come and investigate — was completely unimpressed when I played Stray because she’s a lateral thinker and would never do anything social media worthy to please me. Watching clips of other people’s cats twitching their ears and examining the screen with a curious paw was a delight, though. “It was a really nice moment when we started to see how the office cats reacted to the cat on the screen,” says Martin-Rage. “That gave us the good feeling that we were going in the right direction. And when we saw so many other players’ pets showing these strong reactions – trying to play, catch and interact with the cat on screen – we were super happy.
“We hope cats enjoy Stray as much as their owners. I’ve seen some messages where people said they just wanted to hug their cats after the game finished, and that’s really the best reaction we could have hoped for.”
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