The following article contains spoilers for Stray, including the ending.
Playing Stray has taught me two things. Firstly, being a cat is absolutely awesome. And secondly, developer BlueTwelve Studio has an over-inflated view of just how much cats care about other people.
Sure, Stray is a fantastic game and I loved nearly every minute of it. If you’ve yet to tackle it, it casts you as a ginger moggy who loses its family and finds itself stranded in an underground city, populated entirely by robots. Your feline protagonist embarks on a quest to save humanity, er, robomanity, which entails parkouring (pawkouring?) across the city, dodging discount headcrabs, and solving some impressively creative puzzles. However, the more time I spent with Stray, the more I found myself craving a cat-faithful, early ending.
Because despite being a game about a cat who’s trying to get back home, Stray spends most of its runtime with you in the service of other people. From a player’s perspective this makes sense; you get to roam the various levels of the city, including the gorgeous midtown. You explore the ruins of mankind’s last city, observing and interacting with the robots that have taken on human roles out of sheer familiarity. Stray has a story to tell, and by giving you a front-row seat, robot backpack and all, it doles it out in dribs and drabs.
But I kept asking myself, “I’m a cat. Why the hell am I doing all this?” Knocking paint cans over is absolutely authentic cat behavior, as is clawing the hell out of anything within a six-mile radius — activities that Stray encourages you to participate in. But saving the world? Unless there’s food involved, where’s the motivation?
“Hang on,” you might be about to say, “helping the robots, dubbed ‘Companions,’ is the only way to leave the city.” To which I’d reply, “What a load of absolute guff.”
Anyone who’s ever owned a cat is familiar with their ninja-level climbing and escapology skills. I’m speaking from personal experience here; I recently swapped out some shelves for a set that was nearly two meters tall. My cat, who’d been used to sitting on top of the old ones, sat on the TV stand, gazing upwards.
“You’ll never make it,” I assured her, getting ready to catch a tumbling moggy. She proceeded to launch herself vertically upwards and, apparently deciding all that gravity nonsense wasn’t for her, landed on top of the shelves.
It’s also a scientific fact that cats can teleport and will find their way into any locked room, even if there’s nothing of actual interest in there. So it’s fair to say that Stray’s protagonist could have escaped the domed city at a moment’s notice, or the cat should at least have had that option.
All that roaming around problem-solving business didn’t make me feel like a cat; I wasn’t being true to their feline self. Instead, it was as if I’d slapped some kind of mind-control device on the cat, while its true moggy self hissed and spat at me from the sunken place. Endling: Extinction Is Forever casts you as a fox, but since the whole game is about keeping your cubs fed, it feels halfway authentic. Stray is an emotional journey, but the emotions in question, such as when you reunite Doc and his son, aren’t those of your protagonist.
That’s not the only reason that Stray’s Stray should have been allowed to stick its fuzzy little nose up at the many quests that were doled out to it. I had more love for that cat than virtually any other video game protagonist, and consequently, it made me feel bad about putting it into danger.
I’m not kidding. Stray’s protagonist and Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft are both virtual, but over the years, I’ve had few qualms about hurling the latter into danger.
Hey, I wonder if Lara could make this jump? *crunch* Guess not. Hmm… What happens if I don’t run away from this T. rex? Oh, that.
I was not about to subject my nonexistent cat to that same treatment in Stray though. Every time Stray’s star was being chased by the Zerks, I was on tenterhooks, and whenever it met a horrifying demise I felt like the worst person in the world. Heaven had a new, fluffy little angel, and it was all my incompetent, ham-handed fault. And I hadn’t even gone so far as to mod my own cat into the game.
So why not let this hard-working cat be true to its feline self and just leave? Make it an alternate, early ending to Stray. It wouldn’t be the first time a game has let you nope out of the main quest; the Far Cry games are famous for it, and I still remember being able to ditch my Disaster Report companion and hop in a rescue dinghy.
Heck, I’d even pay to have this new early ending added as Stray DLC. Let my cat bathe in the hopeful gaze of the Companions, and then strut haughtily away before dashing through a hole in the dome and reuniting them with my moggy family, something that the actual ending cruelly denies them. In other words, let me be, as the late Terry Pratchett put it, a Real Cat.
Throw in the ability to contemptuously cough up a hairball and BlueTwelve and Annapurna wouldn’t be able to take my money fast enough.