Of What Remains of Edith Finch at The Artful Escape through the essential Kentucky Route ZeroAnnapurna Interactive has imposed itself in a few years as one of the most exciting publishers in the video game world. Beyond knowing how to support extremely varied projects, there is in the company’s policy the sincere desire to approach independent gaming as a testing ground. The end result can just as easily be a wet firecracker as it is a pure masterpiece; the important thing is to try.
Nevertheless, with her experience, Annapurna now knows how to choose her foals better than anyone, especially when they have an easily marketable high-concept. To tell the truth, it’s a bit what could be scary with stray. If its atmosphere and its artistic direction left no doubt about the quality of the work of the Montpellier residents of BlueTwelve Studio, the fact remains that the title could have been only a hype, even cynical object. By adding the most popular animal on the Internet and a world of science fiction, the equation could only convince.
Forfeit knockout: masterpiece
Fortunately, stray is much more than this algorithmic aggregate. Better, he proves very quickly that he wants to tell us something through his unusual choice of protagonist. While video games have reached a technological know-how that allows us to embody increasingly overpowered characters, stuffed with mind-blowing powers and movement abilities, the new generation of consoles (and creators) seems to feel the need for simplicity. Paradoxically, now that the video game can do everything, it is essential to return to the base of the medium.
However, from its intriguing introduction, stray do not go there by four paths. The little red cat that serves as our avatar can just do what we expect of him: meow, move, and jump with some agility. In short, the gameplay of the game is reduced to a handful of buttons, if not for a few alternative activities (such as the possibility of scratching the claws on the adapted surfaces) of which we are constantly reminded of the futility.
A game that is beautiful
Feline for the other
However, it does not take more to win membership. Beyond its very detailed recreation of the behavior of our furry friends, BlueTwelve makes its adorable cat a character all the more precious because it occupies only a small part of the screen. The scale of the title only seems more imposing, especially when our poor little animal misses a jump, and falls into a deep underground. So here we are in a strange ghost town populated by robotswhose many mysteries must be solved in order to hope to escape.
From there, stray takes the form of an exploration game tinged with platforms and puzzles, carried by the grandiosity of its level-design enveloping. Some might regret the title’s overall lack of difficulty, but that’s not the point. On the contrary, BlueTwelve bases its entire experience on its fluidity, which forces the player to pay attention to the smallest details of its cyberpunk universe, which is overflowing with life while, paradoxically, it is only populated by synthetic beings.
Stray Outta Compton
After all, stray does not make us embody a human character, but rather an animal devoid of speech. By sticking to this idea, the developers generate a fascinating interaction between the player and his avatar. Like an inevitable chemical reaction, the game provokes a fascinating anthropomorphismas we project our thoughts and emotions onto the cat’s body.
However, the robots that populate this desolate world respond to the same problem. As the adventure progresses, we see them take over purely human actions, even though they don’t need them a priori (eating, going to the toilet, etc.). It’s there that stray truly unfolds, becoming a spellbinding game in search of a remaining trace of humanity.
“And for the lady… a glass of milk”
Meow, Death & Robots
The innocent eyes of our furball encapsulate the melancholy of this entirely manufactured world, so much so that the level-design has a sublime meta dimension. What remains of our creations after our disappearance? What do they mean without those who gave them meaning? Beyond the staggering beauty of a neon reflection in a puddle of water (the lighting effects are particularly successful on PS5), or the tender nostalgia of postcards hanging on the walls, stray leads its hero to embrace this universe as a new nature, because there is no other alternative. This is the legacy left by our species to those who have survived: having forever ruined the landscape to compensate for our lack of consideration for the environment.
The ecological purpose of the title thus strikes in the heart, precisely because its story always conveys it through its visuals and its gameplay. Little by little, the exploration of stray even takes an unexpected horror twist, while a parasite (the Zurks, again created inadvertently by humans) threatens the physical integrity of our four-legged friend. The occasion, moreover, to specify that dying in stray hurts way more than any Soulsborne. We spend our time fearing the rare phases of action, and wanting to protect our little cat at all costs.
There can only be one super cute character here
This level of player commitment then agrees with a certain fatality of the game. Faced with the difficulty of surviving in this hostile universe founded by humans, the title forces the species to evolve. In stray, it goes through B-12, a small drone that accompanies our character to translate the language of the surrounding robots and give him some help in hacking. Of course, this addition is a golden possibility to renew the gameplay over the course of the adventure, collected over six hours that we would have liked even longer.
But this transhumanism (or this transchatmanism?) has something tragic about it, in the sense that we see in it a humanity, or at least an extension of humanity, trying to survive, to impose itself on another species, unable to let go. BlueTwelve also has the intelligence to play on the rare collectibles of the title, which are for the most part memories of a bygone era, while B-12 tries to save an imprint of Man.
Forget the simple cat simulator. stray is an experience like no other on emptiness and absence, which cleverly uses its irresistible character as a gateway to a video game universe of poetic beauty. By its very insane world-building alone, we have one of the most unique and exciting proposals of the year.
Stray is available since July 19, 2022 on PS5, PS4 and PC