Stray, a post-apocalyptic adventure game about a cat, is mostly excellent. We two at kotaku lately driven by its mysteriesdevour it dense, mysterious post-apocalyptic environments and generally enjoy living outside the power fantasy of playing a cat. Then we hit the credits. Of course we had to talk.
Ari note: John, we’re both done Stray. Tell me: has the end landed for you? Or has it… deviated from what made the rest of the game so great?
John Walker: I knew we were only a mustache away from a full one. But I would say my experience Stray was a straight diagonal line that started high and then got lower and lower to its absolutely horrible end.
Ari: I’m not quite the same – more of a really high plateau that fell precipitously off a cliff at the end – but I totally agree that the ending is awful. I really had to warn people: it’s so damn sad!
John: And yet, I’ve had so many people so furiously tell me off for suggesting that the ending completely forgets THE WHOLE REASON I PLAYED THE GAME. But I think a lot of that is a reluctance to admit that the pretty cat sim has long since turned into yet another gray third-person robot game, so the defense against reality is already very high.
Spoilers for follow Stray.
Ari: Ah, yeah, this blog kind of rubbed some people’s skin back, didn’t it? But yes, the whole reason to play Stray is pretty simple: you want to reunite the cat with her friends. And you go through all of those adventures – including those robotic shooter sections, which we don’t agree on the merits of, but in a way I totally respect your opinion on – only to never even suspect he’s seeing his friends again . It’s a very odd ending for a game that’s otherwise so preoccupied with hope.
John: They’re not even just friends, are they? They are siblings who love each other. They are an abandoned litter of kittens, survivors of an apocalypse, and then one of them falls. That sets up a game that, of course, focuses solely on getting back to your brothers and sisters. And instead, it’s like they just totally forgot. You have engaged yourself in a totally meaningless, unworthy sacrifice.
Ari: Yes! It got too wrapped up in human drama for a game about a cat. Do you think B-12 is really the last living human? And more importantly, did you think that he would suddenly turn tail (sorry sorry I can’t help it) and decide within minutes that all traces of humanity aren’t worth moving on?
John: Well, he’s a human consciousness trapped in a machine. This is a small borough and for all we know millions of people could live happily elsewhere in China, Sweden, Bangladesh or Australia. And none of that explains the reasons for his apparent “sacrifice.” Obviously he’s uploading his consciousness to the computer, so there’s no sacrifice anyway, but beyond that, what was his purpose? To release a cat, a creature interested in nothing but itself, back outside, what’s the point? What is the goal? If it were the end of mankind, as the game is implying, did he do it so he could… let the cat out?
Ari: Oh man, no way, the cat has definitely evolved beyond pure self-interest! (My own cats should pay attention.) For example, in the prison scene, he escapes with Clementine, and then he says, “Meow, meow, meow, meow,” which I think translates to “We can’t leave yet.” We have to perform a risky operation and save my friend B12 who is trapped in this cage guarded by lasers and laser-shooting robots.”
John: I was very confused the entire time as to whether I should believe the cat what B-12 was saying or like my own cats, just stare at where the sound is coming from and then hope that food is on the way. I played it as a game where a disinterested cat keeps accidentally flipping the right switches or hitting the right person.
But all that aside, I would have forgiven any amount of horribly indulgent victim nonsense if my cat had emerged into the bright sunshine at the end to hear a surprised, close-camera “meow?!” That’s it. That’s all I needed. I didn’t need to see a reunion to see them falling on each other. I just needed to know it was going to happen.
Ari: Exactly! And I kind of understand what they wanted by leaving an open-ended finale so as not to neatly shorten the story for the audience. But all it took was the slightest hint that a happy ending might happen — and a little off-screen meow would have done just that.
John: What’s even weirder is that they did such a “maybe!” End. Except it was about the damn human! We turned on the computer light, which I can assume indicates B-12 is still alive.
Ari: What does this mean for the sequel? All robot shooting parts, no cute cat stuff?
John: I sure hope they don’t do a sequel. They’re a talented bunch, though Stray revealed that they had absolutely no idea what to do with the idea they had. I either want to see their next fresh idea or just focus on making the cat sim everyone really wanted. God, those microscopic observations that showed them right at the start. And the joyful moment when the cat puts on the ridiculous saddle for the first time. We had to put one of our kittens in a protective sock after neutering and she did exactly the same thing, just collapsing like there was a building overhead. It was a pleasure to see these details realized so neatly. Which makes an ending about a boring robo-guy who might not have killed himself for the dumbest reason ever somewhat of a disappointment.
Ari: Poor kitty! Please tell me you have photos of it.
Ari: Awww. But yes, Stray absolutely conveys the feeling of being a cat, to the point of waltzing across a keyboard and people’s chess games failing and so on. And I think it carries that feeling mostly to the end. (Even the shooting segmentswhich just flew by in my head – I actually wish I had an extra chapter or two.) But unlike a real cat, the game didn’t land on all four legs.
John: Before we wrap up and you’re still a bit wrong about the shootouts, let me tell you how the ending resonated with us at home: Toby, my 7 year old, had some friends over when I finished the game on the TV in the living room. Toby had completely lost interest in the game when he stopped being a cat, but he wanted to be part of the reunion. When it was clear that the game would let me out, I said to him, “Toby, what do you think is going to happen?” He sat up, “The kittens!” And so we all waited for the inevitable, glorious moment… And there was just nothing. And we looked at each other in shock. It was just so blatantly awful. And Toby lamented that oversight for days afterward. And when a seven-year-old criticizes your story structure, you know something is wrong.