Stray is a game with a very simple conceit: You play as a cat. The game’s delightful; I’ve only scratched the surface and can’t wait to really dive into it and see what awaits me. In the meantime, the surface is lovely. As a cat you explore the ruins of a city, solving puzzles by jumping on things, knocking things over, and, sometimes, running. You can scratch rugs and, importantly, there’s a dedicated meow button.
It’s a decidedly odd game, given that most major releases tend to involve exploring a world while looking down the barrel of a gun and not running around doing cat-things. And I like odd games, I like games that challenge the idea of what a video game looks like, whether it’s doing cat stuff, figuring out what happened the morning after a one night stand, or being profoundly moved by a story about quadrilaterals. It’s a thrill to get to play a game that does something, if not entirely new, at least different.
I think there’s a particular image that video games have earned in popular culture at large. They’re either games of the 80s, think Mario and Tetris, or a modern shooter. It’s not quite an unfair image, given that a quick check of the most played games on Steam reveals that, yeah, shooters are an immensely popular genre. But that’s also like saying that all movies are superhero movies and the only things on TV are CSI spinoffs. They’re common, and some of the biggest in the medium, but it’s not all there is.
So when I see Stray cutting through the noise and getting featured on non-gaming websites (often for cats watching the game with great interest) and climbing to the top of Steam’s chart, it gives me hope for the medium of video games. Not because I don’t like violent video games — there are few things I enjoy more than shooting space aliens with my brother in Destiny — but because I hope it changes the image of what a ‘big’ game looks like. We’ve had other ones seemingly take the world by storm — Pokémon Go, Animal Crossing, Among Us, to name a few, and with it, I hope the idea of “what is a modern, popular video game” changes. Because if the idea of a video game becomes bigger than what’s the popular image now, it invites a wider group of people to play and make games, meaning there will be more games that fall outside the usual paradigm. And I can’t wait to see what those look like.