‘Stray’ Is a Cat Adventure Game that Can’t Stop Thinking About People

For as charming of a game as ‘Stray’ is, it undercuts its thematic core by imagining a post-human future in decidedly human ways
A screenshot of stray depicting a small orange cat walking on a pipe as a neon city quietly hums below.
Screenshot by BlueTwelve Studio

In Stray, you play as a little cat who, while exploring with their family, falls down a big hole into a walled city. There, you slowly limp through abandoned city districts before coming across B-12, a little robot who, through your inexplicable understanding of human English, asks you for help escaping the city. You also learn that humans have been dead for a long, long time. What follows is a mostly sweet, occasionally perilous adventure through the city’s several districts—beginning in the slums, climbing, through the sewers, to midtown, and finally arriving at the top of the city.


Stray is a terrific tone piece, a solid adventure game, and a great way to spend five-or-so hours being a little cat. On all of these fronts, it is a rousing success, but I couldn’t help but leave the game feeling warm and empty as the credits rolled. Stray is a game about imagining what the world looks like when humans are gone, and its imagination is as artfully realized as it is small.

Stray’s districts are gorgeous, mostly because of Stray’s exceptional eye for lighting, composition, and framing. The slums, where you’re first introduced to “Companions,” the game’s humanoid robots which have begun living their own lives in the absence of humans, are introduced with a slow walk down a long, cramped, neon-lit alley. At the end of the alley is a robot, backlit red, sweeping absentmindedly. They turn, notice you, and panic. A siren rings out as you do your little cat trot down the street, before being confronted by a staff wielding robot named the Guardian. The whole scene leaves a striking impression, one that the game maintains through its camerawork and level-design, which lends itself to screenshot-worthy views.

The homes are, generally, too cluttered for humans to live in, but humans don’t live here anymore. The companions mimic human actions, like sweeping, but don’t seem to have many real hang-ups about mess, unless a little cat pushes a can of paint off a roof and onto the stoop of their home, at which point they care very, very much. This cluttered, lived-in feel makes the district extremely fun to explore and play around in as a little cat. You can rip up carpets or drapes, which the companions seem unbothered by, or find little nooks for taking naps—all of which are extremely cute.

A cat sits near a flooded street while a neon sign lights up "HELP" above it.

Screenshot by BlueTwelve Studio

Midtown and the slums are unmistakably alive. Companions walk the streets, occasionally tripping on your tiny cat body. They have conversations with each other and play board games. They knit sweaters. It feels like a lovingly rendered place where people live. I wish it felt like more than that. The companions were made by human beings, who they now emulate. Some take on social roles, removed from the contexts which created them. They speak, with occasional religious fervor, about the “soft ones” who made them and built their world. They have done exactly this for the last several hundred years. They have built, and been, little else.

You’ll spend the majority of your time navigating these homes, searching for various objects with which to solve adventure game logic puzzles. One early quest has you searching through apartments for journals, and another getting a poncho from a grandmother through bartering. At no point did I feel much friction from these puzzles, and instead they acted as a welcome opportunity to slow down and explore.

In addition to its puzzle solving, Stray consists of basic platforming, which feels fine or bad depending on the moment. Stray doesn’t have a jump button in the traditional sense, instead, you will see a prompt to jump to a specific ledge or object. Most of the time, this feels totally fine and you’ll jump to the thing you want to jump to. Other times, you’ll be awkwardly trying to position yourself in such a way that you can actually target the ledge you want to jump to. This is a minor annoyance, until it causes you to fail a stealth sequence or to be covered in “zurks,” the game’s giant, bacterial, land-piranhas.

A cat is chased through narrow city streets by small, orange, bacteria-like creatures.

Screenshot by BlueTwelve Studio

It is those zurks that define the game’s many escape sequences. At various points throughout Stray, you will leave the relative safety of the populated districts, and move through the abandoned, zurk infested streets and rooftops. These escape sequences will involve some platforming, and some on the fly puzzle solving as you attempt to trap zurks behind fences, or find an alternative route through an area. The puzzles are the kind of easy that still feels satisfying to execute well. I knew how to kite the zurks into the cage and then close the door and it felt good to do it, which is all you can ask for from this sort of puzzle.

Stray’s world is, for the most part, frictionless. There are no complex social dynamics or conversation trees to navigate. There are, admittedly, some restricted areas but most of the time they’re only restricted for companions and open to a little cat. The games stealth sequences range from fine to frustrating, but they represent the only time I felt pushed by Stray. This is by design. Stray is supposed to be cozy and warm and cute, which is why the game ends up undercutting its thematic core. Spoiler warning from here on out.

Stray is about imagining a post-human, post-post-apocalypse in which the world’s referent has changed from human beings to anything else. This is a worthwhile thing to imagine. In the midst of our own pandemic and global climate collapse, it is worth thinking about what a world that isn’t built around us looks like. Is it better? Is it more interesting? How do you even measure these things without a human perspective?


On this front, Stray’s choice of protagonist is a resounding success. As a little cat, you have a fundamentally different relationship to human spaces than people do. You find unintended routes through architecture, slip between bits of rubble, and move through spaces in ways that do not just feel like fun exploration in a video game, but actively recontextualizing the way you understand space. But what you find there is unmistakably human, or an idiosyncratic copy of it.

A screenshot of stray depicting a little cat in front of a Grandma robot, who is knitting.

Screenshot by BlueTwelve Studio

The companions are functionally similar to people. They have similar priorities because they learned them from mimicking humans. They become workers or failed business-owners. Sometimes they sit on couches or choose to die, for a while. The only difference is that they are facsimiles. The couch doesn’t feel noticeably different from corrugated sheets of a roof, if we’re to believe the experiences of B-12, your little drone friend. They have spent several hundred years in this place without imagining it into something strange and new and unrecognizable as anything but theirs. 

The companions have to feel like humans for the game’s premise to work. They have to, instinctually, love petting a little cat. They have to be vulnerable to the shenanigans of a cat in the same way that humans are—prone to falling or dropping things in your chaotic presence. To interact with your player character in ways that make your brain soft and warm, the companions have to be variations on the theme of “human.” Cats are domesticated animals, after all. Over thousands of years of breeding, they have become inextricably tied to us. This makes Stray very soothing, but deeply limits its imagination.

At one point in the early game, you stumble upon evidence of truly post-human life. It is alien and disgusting, and the game’s camera is terrified of it. In the sewers which connect the slums and midtown, there is something like a living web. Flesh stretches between the buildings above, but here in the sewers it coats the walls. The floor squelches as you step on meat, unprotected by skin. At one point, B-12 wonders if it could all be a single organism—a body the size of a city. The walls have eyes and they hate you.

This creature is, undoubtedly, the result of human’s creating zurks in the first place. They live inside the thing, perhaps they made it. This terrible, hungry thing is a primary part of our legacy. I wish it did not feel so judged. When Stray takes the time to imagine a truly alien, truly post–human life, it cannot help but imagine it as evil.

Eventually, the city opens and you see the little cat who you have spent this game inhabiting walk up the ivy-laden stairs, and back to the post-human world from which it came. We cannot follow it there; Stray's inability to abandon a human-centric frame is evidence of that. I hope the companions do, though, and that when they build cities (I hope they do not build cities), they do not look like ours.