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Stray Could Only Exist As A Video Game, And That’s Worth Celebrating

The question of ‘what is a video game’ is a broad one. I’d argue it’s broader than ‘what is a movie’, ‘what is a television show’, ‘what is a book’, and ‘what is a song’. Video games are the largest mass market media – they take the longest both to make and to be experienced, which makes them difficult to pin down. Stray though is undoubtedly a video game, and that makes it a compelling – and joyous – experience.

Narratives in video games have gotten significantly stronger over the past decade and a half, but that’s introduced a new problem for gaming. A lot of our very best games now feel like movies. The Last of Us, God of War, and Ghost of Tsushima all follow similar emotional beats and as impressive as they are to play, they are all built with the desire to mimic the prestige of movies. Days Gone tries and falls short.

Red Dead Redemption 2 lets you make your own fun off the beaten path, but if you stick to the main story, it’s very obvious that it’s channeling film as a core inspiration. Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday is a clear influence on Arthur Morgan, while Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch shapes the game in general. I think gaming’s growing maturity is a great thing, and RDR2 is one of my favourite games. There’s nothing wrong with taking influence from movies, even if Sony uses the same sort of movie too often, but it’s still so refreshing that Stray is every inch a video game.

There’s no real narrative here. To quote another famous Western: Narrative? We ain't got no narrative. We don't need no narrative. I don't have to show you any stinkin' narrative! The game is about a cat who falls into a robot city and has to get out again. That’s it. They have a drone guiding them, and they meet some robot characters along the way, but these all drift around the edge of the story. Even the drone is exposition more than it is companionship. In a movie or TV show, you’d need to cram the exploration full of zany characters or adventures with set beginning, middles, and endings. Games trust you a lot more to go at your own pace.

Stray starts out quite linear, then opens up into a city hub for you to explore. The streets are neon soaked, beautifully painted, rancid with garbage, and teeming with life. It’s built of cyberpunk cliches but curated so effectively that it uses this familiarity to feel fresh. You might go the ‘wrong’ way or end up doubling back where you came from, but it always feels like your adventure. It’s perfectly aimless at times, the way only video games get to be. My occasional concern that video games are trying to be like films is not caused by my distaste for movies, but for my respect for video games. We can do things no other medium can, and the more we copy what others are doing, the less we take advantage of our own uniqueness.

Stray is smaller in scope than some of gaming’s biggest hitters, but it never forgets that it’s a video game first, and always builds on that idea. It will probably get talked about as The Cat Game, and playing as a cat is a nice gimmick, but Stray is so much more, and it deserves our respect.

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