Stray is a deeply unbelievable game. It isn’t the hostile, fleshy monsters that chase you through the sewers which stretch credulity to breaking point. A race of maintenance robots that have evolved individuality and self-awareness after the death of their creators doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility. What completely obliterates the willing suspension of disbelief is the ridiculous idea that a cat would ever help anybody.
Have you ever heard of a bomb-sniffing cat? Seen anyone with a guide cat? Of course you haven’t. Yet Stray is a story about a cat that not only actively helps everyone it meets, but follows direct instructions. This can no longer be accurately described as Science Fiction, make no mistake – Stray is a work of High Fantasy.
Stray depicts the journey of an ugly orange cat wandering through a robot-populated, quarantined city, inexplicably bringing happiness everywhere it goes. Every robot that meets it can’t help but beam at it, gigantic cutesy emojis flashing on their television faces. Absolutely everyone is delighted to meet it, melting whenever the horrid thing brushes up against them. Stray is quite simply a work of feline propaganda, creating a deeply unbelievable world where even the very notion of vague indifference towards the animal has been excised.
From the get go, this cat willingly follows every gesture and request – within the opening 15 minutes it has already helped somebody upload their consciousness into a tiny drone. It doesn’t just go to sleep. Or kill a bird. Or bite or scratch someone for no reason whatsoever. It immediately understands what someone is asking of it and just does it. The entire game is like this. People asking this cat to assist in complex and dangerous tasks and the cat just helping out as much as it can.
I’ve never met a cat that even remotely resembles this creature. The only cat I’ve ever shared a living space with is one who would sneak up behind me while I was minding my own business and plunge its claws into my back. It would stare at you with absolute disgust and disdain if you ever dared to try and get it to do anything as bold as moving it out of the way. My father once woke up on Boxing Day, exhilarated by the prospect of a big lunch made up of Christmas Dinner leftovers. An unexpected phone call summoned him away from the kitchen as he was preparing his feast and he returned to find the cat up on the counter, sitting with its arse in the mashed potatoes and licking the turkey grease from its lips. My father never fully recovered.
I once volunteered at a cat adoption centre and I can confirm with absolute certainty that these creatures simply do not care. For anything. I could spend an hour tidying up a cat’s room, cleaning all the pillows and blankets, getting it little toys and feeding it delicious treats. Clearing every scrap of dust or debris from the floor, giving it a little scratch behind the ear. This wouldn’t stop them from simply deciding it would be more fun to draw my blood. They are not to be trusted, they are deeply unhinged creatures with malice in them. A creature so fundamentally anti-social that it had to evolve a complex relationship with an infectious parasite to brute-force a sense of affection in human beings.
You know what didn’t have to do that? You know which creature loves to help, even if it doesn’t fully comprehend what it’s actually doing? Dogs. Dogs are so pure that you can get them to do literally anything in return for the dopamine hit of a ball as a reward. They see every human being they meet as another possible depository of belly rubs and chicken scraps and will do anything and everything in their power to make us happy. A dog would never jump onto a kitchen counter and eat a Christmas lunch. It would simply sit and look at you, comfortable in the knowledge that the strength of your bond means it’ll almost certainly receive something in return.
Between these two creatures, I simply cannot fathom why you would build a game like Stray around a cat. It simply doesn’t make sense that every robot is so enamoured with it. Surely mechanical brains would be impervious to infection by feline toxoplasmosis. If the game was in any way grounded in reality, the robots would simply use their advanced logic to carry out a rapid cost-benefit analysis of interacting with this creature and shun it entirely from their society.
A dog on the other hand? They would take one look and immediately understand the value. They would see an optimistic and enthusiastic contributor, a wonderful beast of admittedly limited cognitive function that would work tirelessly to carry out whatever task was assigned to it. His fearsome bark compared to a cat’s irritating meowling would keep the fascist robot cops and the biological horrors at bay. A dog would be a contributive member of their community, whereas a cat would be a drain on resources that gives no return.
SPOILERS FOR STRAY AHEAD
Stray ends with the cat leaving the locked-down city and entering a lush and vibrant forest outside. While the humans and their pets have been locked away, nature has survived and the Earth has been restored. A couple of pigeons peck peacefully at the ground, the last peace they are ever likely to know. No doubt the sequel will depict the sheer ecological disaster that domesticated cats wreak everywhere they go, as the Stray immediately chases down and eviscerates the last remaining birds, not even bothering to at least have the decency to eat them. Did you know that domesticated cats represent a threat to 367 species that are at risk of extinction? There’s every chance that Stray’s apocalypse was caused by the little orange murder-machine in the first place.
Casting a cat really is a tragic oversight, reducing what could have been a thoughtful piece of science fiction into magical pabulum. Efforts by modders to rectify this by replacing the cat model with an adorable little french bulldog are commendable but ultimately futile, too much of the game built around a cat’s specific physical capabilities to really make it believable. It may be unfair to lay the game’s ultimate failure at the sharpened feet of its protagonist, but there is simply no escaping the reality of the world’s worst pet.