Why Did ‘Stray,’ a Video Game About a Cat, Become This Year’s Surprise Hit?
Video games are slow right now, but that’s not enough to explain why Stray, a game where you play as a cat exploring a post-apocalyptic city where humans no longer exist, has become not just an unexpected hit but a phenomenon. It’s a game that’s finding interest far beyond the typical video game fan, drawing in people who, normally, don’t even play games.
“Stray seems to have hit it out of the park,” said Simon Carless, co-founder of the game discovery consultation firm GameDiscoverCo, “because it created a category—’3D cat exploration adventure’—that players really want, but didn’t know they wanted.”
Florence Smith Nicholls, a PhD student in games AI, knows games well. Their 64-year-old father, however, has not played a game in nearly 20 years. And yet, Nicholls’ father, like many people in recent weeks, has found himself unexpectedly drawn to this new one.
“I’ve showed him many games in person,” said Nicholls, “but this is the first time in the last decade or more he’s gotten really excited about one.”
Their father discovered the game after its trailer—many of which have millions of views on YouTube—in a family WhatsApp group and started doing some research. He downloaded a slightly sketchy-looking eBook that promises “all the information you require on the game,” and subsequently noted the frequency of Stray memes that started populating on Facebook.
Not shockingly, Nicholls’ father does not own a PlayStation, let alone a PC capable of running Stray. Instead, he’s looking into buying a second-hand PlayStation 4 on the cheap.
“My father-in-law, who I don’t believe has ever played a video game,” said Rogue One: A Star Wars Story screenwriter Gary Whitta, “asked me if his PC would run it. He really likes cats.”
Whitta’s father-in-law found it via the CNN segment, itself evidence of how Stray has caught the attention of people who probably know of video games but don’t engage with them regularly. In some ways, it’s an indictment of the medium’s most forward-facing creations, which largely fall into buckets of action or shooter games that can often seem alienating.
“I really don’t think you can overstate the cat thing tbh,” said Whitta. “That’s not to take anything away from the game, which I think is fantastic. But the whole cat aspect is absolutely why it’s breaking out.”
It’s not just older people who may have once played games. Tom Scherschel’s kids are 10, 8, and 6 years old, and the vast majority of their game time is spent inside the sandbox that is Roblox. (I can relate to this experience, as someone with a Roblox-pilled 5-year-old.)
“They asked me to get it and then played it for more than a day without losing interest,” said Scherschel, who noted his kids found out about the game from YouTube creator DanTDM.
“I feel like the simplest answer is probably the right one: People bloody love animals,” said Mike Rose, founder of video game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Yes Your Grace). “I feel like every time a game uses an animal as its main character or key art, it ends up doing gangbusters. I should probably get in on that action.”
This phenomenon is not new to video games, though. 2019’s Untitled Goose Game, about players controlling an obnoxious goose whose goal in life is to be an annoyance, similarly broke containment and became an online sensation beyond the usual interested parties.
“Trying to figure out what exactly leads to something becoming viral like that seems totally futile, and a bit nightmarish—trying to engineer it even moreso,” said Untitled Goose Game designer Stuart Gillespie-Cook. “Obviously we had hoped that people would enjoy the goose game, but we were absolutely shocked by the scale of its initial reception.”
You know a video game has reached a level of notoriety when Vox is writing an explainer, and celebrities like Chrissy Teigan are tweeting about it. But one difference between Stray and Untitled Goose Game is tone. Untitled Goose Game is a puzzle game meant to generate laughs. While Stray isn’t without funny moments, it’s a world where all humans are dead and their robot servants are trying to imagine a new life. Stray is still very cute, though.
“I think there is something to be said for it boiling down to such a clear pitch (‘it’s a game where you play as an actual goose/cat’) that lends itself more to being shared between people,” said Gillespie-Cook. “Any nuance can come later—if you’re into the idea of running around as a goose/cat, you’re probably already on board. It’s very on its face about what its most basic element is. You know that no matter what the higher level goals of the design are, at the end of the day you’ll still get to be a funny little beast.”
The logic that “people love animals” extends beyond ones you might smile and gawk at (a goose) or have in a home (a cat) to creatures a lot of people are actively scared of (a shark).
“There’s no doubt that the general concept for an open-world game featuring a shark played a big role in the success of Maneater,” said Maneater game director Sean McBride. “Tripwire Interactive initially started out as the publisher for Maneater, and its focus on the protagonist bull shark is what drew us in. During the process of showing off the game, the bull shark captured everyone’s attention immediately so we knew that we had something really special on our hands. The reception didn’t particularly take us by surprise, but we are constantly impressed and humbled by the amount of passion the shark community holds.”
McBride’s been following Stray since it was revealed, and “knew it would likely be successful in some way, but the way it captured so many people’s hearts was hard to predict.”
“The fantasy of playing a cat is so easy to understand and get on board with and that does some of the heavy lifting of capturing an audience,” said McBride. “However, they also absolutely delivered on that fantasy in heartwarming ways. All of the cute attention to detail, such as scratching on random things, opportunities to lay and fall asleep in funny places, and rubbing up on people is all so endearing. All of your interactions with characters really reinforce those concepts as well.”
An important detail that’s easy to overlook: Stray is really good! An appealing trailer might rack up views on YouTube, but it doesn’t translate into the best reviewed game on Steam.
“They built up a lot of expectation with quality visuals and interesting teaser videos, but also delivered on that expectation,” said Carless. “The game is pretty good, and that exponentially aids word of mouth.”
You can draw a throughline between many of the games that are popular today and games that were popular decades ago. Sure, a lot has changed, but the kinds of genres that people show up for are, in many ways, better and shinier versions of what’s come before. Even though a game like Stray is fundamentally a pretty basic adventure game with light puzzle elements, its central character—a cat—is so striking that it comes across as something new.
“I haven’t played a video game in years, and even then it was probably Tetris,” said Board.org senior membership director Andrew Dobbs. “The clips I have seen from Stray have struck some sort of chord with me, though. Maybe it’s because I’m jealous of my own orange tabby cat and his lifestyle, but I’m struck by its beauty and for whatever reason it feels more accessible than other game worlds. I haven’t tried it yet—I honestly don’t even know how to get a game onto my computer or whatever—but I bet I give it at least a shot.”
The long and short of it is that Stray is a big hit in a year where, outside of Elden Ring captivating the world, has been defined by anticipated video game releases being delayed. It’s been a real bummer year for all sorts of reasons, too. Stray is good—and comforting.
“I really hope we see more games based on animals telling their own unique stories in the future,” said McBride.