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'Stray' Proves Games Can Be As Dark As They Want To Be As Long As They Are Also Cute

The adorable cat video game about the end of the world

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished 2 years ago 5 min read
Image; Bloody Disgusting

BlueTwelve Studio's Stray is a charming game about a cat navigating a mysterious walled city. You play as an orange feline, effortlessly parkouring on top of railings, old air conditioning units, and signs. You can sleep in the laps of workers and musicians and headbutt cute robot denizens. There's a lot to like in this game, and I highly recommend you play through it yourself because it was a treat.

This cuteness is an interesting juxtaposition to the game's dark subject matter. Terrifying monsters lurk around every corner, and worse, people are nowhere to be found. As you move through alleyways and vents, you realize you are traversing the remnants of a "dead" city whose human inhabitants have long since perished.

This game is depressing but also so incredibly cute, proving that viewers can put up with a lot if you give them something adorable to latch onto.

When I say dark, I mean it. The premise of Stray (and at this point, I am accepting you care little about spoilers) is that humanity is dead — an existentially depressing reality to have in the backdrop of your game. No humans are left in Walled City 99, and we are given no indication that they have survived anywhere. The environment at one point collapsed, leaving people to enter walled, underground cities for protection — at least 99 if the title of this city is to be believed. Now that the environment has recovered, humans don't appear to have made the transition.

The game constantly reminds players of their own fleeting ephemerality. The robot droids of the "dead" city, which have since replaced the humans they once served, refer to us as the "soft ones." They are deconstructing our lives, replicating the art and roles that we once performed in this world that is both filled with decay and renewal. These robots have moved on without us, something that is perhaps more depressing to consider than the much more familiar trope of a "kill all humans" revolution. We were not even important enough to eradicate — time did that for them.

There are other less existential threats in the game as well. The slums of the city are infested with a horrifying organism known as Zurks, which feed on anything that they can get their creepy tentacles on (I swear, every time these creatures latch on to your cat, it is terrifying). Zurks have started to convert the old buildings and streets of 99 into tumor-like growths, where large, human-like eyes begin to open and watch your progress through them.

As you move further into the upper levels of the city, you traverse through an authoritarian police state where drones named sentinels arrest robots for the smallest of infractions. Robots are actively surveilled and can go to prison for hundreds of years. If someone is too rambunctious, their memories are erased, effectively killing them in the process.

Of course, your cute cat is there for all these scary and sad moments, weaving through robot legs and sleeping on top of pillows in chill, rundown apartments. This adds tension, as a cat is a vulnerable creature that cannot kill a Zurk infestation in the same way as your stereotypical gun-toting protagonist. There is a certain terror in controlling a creature this fragile and helpless.

Yet our furry critter also momentarily diffuses the greater existential dread running through the game. Whenever the idea that humanity spent its final years fading away underground becomes too heavy, you can always have your cat sleep on a cute pillow, scratch up an art deco wall, or knock over a precariously positioned can of paint. Where some games have a dedicated dodge or swing button, Stray literally has a button dedicated to meowing.

Stray is not the only pop culture property to rely on cuteness as a mitigator for darkness. In many ways, we are in a Golden Age of "grimdark cuteness"— where cuteness is drawn upon to make difficult subjects easier to digest. The pop culture hit the Mandalorian, for example, buoyed its dark explorations of murder and genocide by having a "baby Yoda" character make adorable gestures on the side. Guardians of the Galaxy has abusive dads and sentient growths bent on destroying all life, but boy, are those talking raccoons and trees cute.

In this way, cuteness has almost become a filter, in the Instagram sense, to perceptually lessen the nastiness of life. The brilliant science fiction minds Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz on the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct did an entire episode on cuteness (i.e., The rise of the cute ~aesthetic~) and remarked on this tension, saying:

“cuteness…it’s associated with animation, and alternate worlds, in a sense. A way of reimagining reality with a filter on it. And that’s why I think it’s important to contextualize it in internet culture, where so much of what we see is filtered, whether it’s Instagram filters, or it’s filtered through some kind of bubble, an information bubble. And so I think a lot of it is connected to the stylization of everyday life, and turning everyday life into a kind of fantasy realm, a kind of virtual reality realm.”

With Stray, we are indeed occupied with a "filter-like" fantasy. While there are evil creatures and oppressive regimes to grapple with, this grimdark nature competes with an adorable cat, scratching up chic sofas and sleeping on floors lit up with twinkle lights. It's not that we want to ignore the fact that the world is ending (or ended, in Stray's case), but we need that filter to make the existentially depressing nature of our reality tolerable.

Remove the cuteness from Stray, and you don't have a bad game. The set pieces alone are worth visiting, and I personally love the philosophical musings of many of its robot characters (shout out to Momo), but it would undoubtedly be more emotionally challenging to get through. Playing as a cat may feel like a gimmick, and it is, but it is also a vehicle to have you explore an intellectually rich game, ranging from themes of environmental degradation to police brutality.

The question becomes: what does this filter say about our reality? Has this cute filter expanded our horizons, allowing us to handle concepts that would have previously been too heavy for us to contemplate, or are we pushing these issues to the edges of our periphery to be, like humanity in Stray, almost forgotten?

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About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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Comments (4)

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  • Elviabj bryonkel2 years ago

    Well written

  • Fortis Rakow2 years ago

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Your descriptions are so vivid.

  • Sherlin Tangredi2 years ago

    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Your descriptions are so vivid.

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