OWhen a video game has us playing as an animal, it’s usually a psychedelic anthropomorphic cartoon creature such as Crash Bandicoot or Sonic the Hedgehog. We rarely behave like animals, though when we do it can be hilarious: 2019’s cult hit Untitled Goose Game features a naughty goose honking, pecking and chasing each other through a village of irate humans, for example. Stray, released last week, puts us in the shoes of the internet’s favorite animal, a cat, doing cat stuff: crackling on rooftops, dozing on comfy cushions, pushing things off shelves for no apparent reason.
Players and critics lapped Stray up. Same peta likes this. But he also conquered the feline population. Players have been posting photos and videos of their own cats watching the game, seemingly mesmerized by the virtual cat’s surprisingly realistic movements and meows. The Twitter account @CatsWatchStray has now compiled hundreds of them.
“Working on a game for so long, you really lose track of it, so seeing people post their reactions, and more importantly their cat’s reactions, after playing the game this week has been a very rewarding and surreal experience for everyone. ‘team,” says Swann. Martin-Rage, producer at 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 go by the names Koola and Viv, were fascinated by Kowloon Walled City, the mysterious enclave of Hong Kong’s famed lawlessness and sunshine that was demolished in 1994. They felt that the verticality, mystery, and hidden paths of such a setting would lend themselves well to exploration as a curious feline, and so the concept for the game was born. Stray was finally announced in 2020, after arthouse publisher Annapurna Interactive picked it up.
It’s obvious from all the charming details – like the way the cat scratches on any available fabric surface – that this game was developed by felines. Indeed, the team has been inspired and comforted throughout Stray’s long development by their own cats. “One of the co-founders’ cats, Murtaugh, was the primary inspiration for the hero visuals,” says Martin-Rage. “He was found in the streets of Montpellier and has been there since the start of the project. He was in front of our eyes the whole time and was a constant source of inspiration and support in his own way. Although the protagonist isn’t a carbon copy, Murtaugh seems pleased with the outcome.
There were even cats in the office with them, which sometimes meant a rather chaotic work environment. “We have two cats that work with us almost every day in the studio: Jun, who is owned by Clara the level artist, and the hairless sphynx cat Oscar, owned by Miko, the main cat animator,” explains Swann. “They are very lively additions to the team and we like them very much, even when they hit the power button on the computer just as we are about to save our work.”
My own cat – Kim, a nine-year-old Bengal cross who likes to make mysterious noises in the middle of the night until I have to come and investigate – was not bothered when I was playing Stray, as she is contrarian 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, however, was a delight. “It was a really good moment when we started seeing the office cats reacting to the on-screen cat,” says Martin-Rage. “It gave us the feeling that we were going in the right direction. And when we saw so many pets from other players having these strong reactions – trying to play, catch and interact with the on-screen cat – we were super happy.
“We hope cats enjoy Stray as much as their owners. I’ve seen posts where people say that after they finish the game they just want to hug their cats, and that’s really the best reaction that we might have hoped.
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