I absolutely hate it when animals are hurt in video games.
I’m not sure what this says about me or how much I’ve become desensitised throughout my gaming life, but it affects me far more than when a person gets wounded on-screen. I can watch battles with zombies, monsters and even fellow humans but the second an innocent animal gets hurt, I’m out.
Let’s take Bloober Team’s Blair Witch as an example. Pete and I were excited to play this game when it came out in August 2019 as we’d both seen the original film in a cinema when it was released 20 years earlier. I might not like handling the controls for horrors but I do enjoy a scary storyline – as long as I can watch someone else play it while I cower behind a cushion.
We stopped after a couple of hours though. The title might not have been scary in the usual way but there was something about it which terrified me. Forget scuttling sounds coming from behind you, demons lurking in dark corners and jump-scares which make you scream out loud. The thing in Blair Witch which frightened me more than any of these was the possibility that Bullet the dog might get hurt.
We all know the outcome for canine characters in any horror media. Your faithful friend remains loyal, tries to protect you from supernatural baddies, alerts you to their presence in the shadows and growls before going for their throats. And what happens? They always end up giving their life to save yours. I’m sure developers, filmmakers and authors everywhere include a dog in their projects simply to punch us in the gut when they meet a grisly death.
Pete had been looking forward to Stray by BlueTwelve Studio since it was announced in June 2020. Those who know him joke about his ‘black heart’ because he rarely shows any emotion, rolling his eyes when there’s anything romantic within a video game and not even flinching while playing something intended to be scary. But put a cat in front of him and he turns into a different man. He can’t go past one without stopping to give it some attention, and our very own Zelda is one incredibly spoilt feline.
When he made a pre-purchase during the Steam summer sale back in June so we could play it together, I was way more apprehensive about starting it than my partner. What if the protagonist got hurt or even died at the end? I’m not really a dog person, but I couldn’t stand to listen to Bullet whimper when was frightened and yelp when he felt pain in Blair Witch. What on earth would I be like in a similar situation but with a cat? Surely it would break my heart and it would put me off video games forever.
Ok, so that’s an exaggeration. But it did hurt to see Little One – the name given to the ginger protagonist by non-player characters (NPCs) – limp around the environment and mew after suffering a rather long fall. It was also difficult to watch him get attacked by Zurks, creatures evolved from bacteria which now exist to slowly eat the world. I took over the controls during the sections where they attempted to swarm Little One, as I seemed to be better at evading them and avoiding death than Pete.
This relates to the reason why Stray ended up affecting me less than Blair Witch. I was in control here: I’d stepped into the paws of the protagonist and handled their movements. If they were sadly hurt or died, I knew I could try again and do better next time to save them. With other releases which feature animals, they’re usually a companion and you have no direct control over their actions. This means you can’t always stop them from being harmed, usually due to trying to protect you.
As for the title itself: it was alright, as Pete would say. Being a cat for the first hour was kind of fun. There’s a lot of joy to be had from jumping on every available surface, scratching at walls and carpets, rubbing up against the legs of the NPCs and knocking paint pots off shelves. I lost count of how many times I pressed the ‘meow’ button (but it must have been a lot because I managed to get the ‘A Little Chatty’ within a few minutes). And it’s cute to watch Little One curl up on a cushion and have a quick snooze.
But the novelty of this wears off after a while and you’re left with the game. The animations are sweet, but Little One’s movement doesn’t feel as nimble as you’d expect from the feline and the fact there’s no jump button is limiting. Instead, you must aim the camera at pre-determined spots and press the A-button on the controller to move to them. There were moments of frustration as we tried to wrestle it into position, and this mechanic makes the platforming sections far less fluid than they could be.
As for the puzzle sections, they’re not particularly long or challenging. We didn’t get stuck at any point and always knew what we had to do; it was just a case of exploring the environment to find the right object or person. This made Stray a relaxing after-work experience, but I couldn’t help feeling as though it would have benefited from a little more difficulty. It would have been good to have a few puzzles which left us scratching our heads for a bit and then feeling excited once we’d figured out the solution.
The main storyline is ok but the best part of the game for us was the sidequests. These had us tracking down hidden combinations to safes, hunting for sheet music for a musician to play, and finding plants for a gardener, with Little One being rewarded with a new badge for his rucksack for each one completed. These sections where when being a feline protagonist really shined. Who better to jump up to high ledges, sneak through dark alleyways and wiggle through tight spaces than a cat?
Not that I want to spoil anything for those who haven’t yet played Stray, but I’m pleased to report that Little One makes it to the end credits. Puzzle fans might be disappointed by the lack of challenge but it’s a nice enough experience for a few hours after work, and cat-lovers will enjoy being a feline. The final scene hints at a possible sequel too so perhaps this isn’t the last we’ve seen of that little furry face.