Stray, a post-apocalyptic adventure game about a cat, is mostly excellent. Two of us at kotaku recently powered by its puzzlesdevouring it dense, mysteriously post-apocalyptic environments and generally enjoying living out the power-fantasy of role-playing a cat. Then we hit the credits. Obviously, we had to talk.
Ari Notis: John, we've both finished Stray. Tell me: Did the ending land for you? Or did it...stray from what made the rest of the game so great?
John Walker: I knew we were but a whisker away from a pun. No, I would say my experience of Stray was a straight diagonal line, starting high, and then getting lower and lower until its absolutely terrible ending.
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 ending is awful. I actually had to warn people IRL: It's so freakin' sad!
John: And yet, I've had so many people so furiously tell me off for suggesting the ending entirely forgets THE ENTIRE REASON I WAS PLAYING THE GAME. But I do think a lot of this is an unwillingness to admit that the pretty cat sim had already long become yet another gray third-person robot game, so defenses versus reality are already very high.
Spoilers follow for Stray.
Ari: Ah, yeah, that blog kinda rubbed some people's for backwards, didn't it? But yeah, the whole reason to play Stray is pretty straightforward: You want to reunite the cat with his friends. And you go through all this adventuring—including those robot shooty sections, whose merits we disagree on but in a way that I totally respect your opinion for—only to not even get an inkling that he sees 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're siblings who love each other. They're an abandoned litter of kittens, survivors of an apocalypse, and then one of their number falls. That sets up a game that is, of course, uniquely focused on returning to your brothers and sisters. And instead it's like they just totally forgot. They tangled themselves up in some completely meaningless ignoble sacrifice.
Ari: Yep! For a game about a cat, it got too caught up in the drama around a human. Do you buy that B-12 is really the last living human? And more importantly, did you buy that he'd suddenly turn tail (sorry, sorry, I can't help it) and decide, in the span of a few minutes, that all trace of humanity isn't worth continuing?
John: Well, he's a human consciousness trapped in a machine. This is one small city district, so for all we know there might be millions of humans living happily elsewhere in China, or in Sweden, or Bangladesh, or Australia. And none of this explains the rationale behind his apparent "sacrifice." He obviously uploads his consciousness to the computer, so there's no sacrifice anyway, but beyond that, what was his purpose? To release a cat, a creature that has no interest in anything other than itself, back outside, for what? What's the goal? If it were the end of humanity, as the game wants to imply, he did that so he could...let the cat out?
Ari: Aw, man, no way, the cat definitely has evolved past pure self-interest! (My own cats should take note.) In the prison scene, for instance, he's escaping with Clementine, and then he's like, “Meow, meow meow meow, meow,” which translates, I believe, to, “We can't leave yet. We have to stage a risky operation and rescue my friend B12, who is trapped in this cage guarded by lasers and laser-shooting robots.”
John: I was very confused throughout by whether I was supposed to buy into the cat understanding what B-12 was saying, or as with my own cats, just staring at where the noise comes from, and then hoping there's food on the way. I played it as a game in which an uninterested cat accidentally keeps happening to flip the right switches, or bump into the right person.
But all this aside, I'd have forgiven any amount of dreadful indulgent faux-sacrifice nonsense if, at the end, my cat had emerged into the bright sunshine to hear, from just off camera, a surprised, “Mew?!” That's it. That's all I needed. I didn't need to see a reunion, to watch them tumble over one another. I just needed to know it was about to happen.
Ari: Exactly! And I kinda get what they were going for, leaving an open-ended finale so as to not neatly tie up the story for the audience. But it just needed the tiniest suggestion that a happy ending could happen—which is what a little “meow” off-screen would've accomplished.
John: What's even weirder is that they DID do such a "Maybe!" end. Except it was about the bloody human! We got that computer light switching on, which I can only assume was suggesting B-12 was still alive.
Ari: So what's that mean for the sequel? All robot-shooty parts, no cute cat stuff?
John: I obviously hope they don't make a sequel. They're a talented bunch, but Stray revealed they had absolutely no idea what to do with the idea they'd had. I either want to see their next fresh idea, or just focus on making the cat sim everyone really wanted in the first place. God, those microscopic observations they showed near the start. And the joyful moment when the cat first puts on the ridiculous saddle. We had to put one of our kittens in a protective sock after she was spayed, and she did exactly the same, just collapsing like a building was on top of her. To see those details realized so neatly, it was joyful. Which makes an ending about some boring robo-bloke maybe not having killed himself for the stupidest reason ever something of a disappointment.
Ari: Poor kitty! Please tell me you have photos of that.
Ari: Awww. but yeah Stray absolutely nails the feeling of being a cat, right down to waltzing over a keyboard and fucking up people's chess games and such. And I do think it carries that feeling mostly through to the end. (Even the shooting segmentswhich went by in a flash in my mind—I actually found myself wishing for an extra chapter or two.) But unlike a real cat, the game did not land on all four legs.
John: Before we wrap up, and you're wrong about the shooting sections some more, let me tell you how the ending went down in our house: Toby, my 7-year-old, had some friends over, as I was finishing the game on the living room TV. Toby had totally lost interest in the game once it stopped being about being a cat, but wanted to be there for the reunion. As it was clear the game was about to let me outside, I said to him, "Toby, what do you think's about to happen?" He sat up, "The kittens!" And so we all watched for the inevitable, glorious moment... And there was just nothing. And we looked at each other in shock. It was just so flagrantly awful. And Toby continued to lament this oversight for days after. And when a 7-year-old is critiquing your story structure, you know something's wrong.