We played Stray, the most popular new cat video game of all time.  It’s Purrfection

We played Stray, the most popular new cat video game of all time. It’s Purrfection

We had to know: was it really the cat’s meow? So we gave it a try ourselves and paid $30 to download for a PlayStation 5. It quickly became clear why “Stray” appealed to gamers (who like cats), people who just like cats, and real cats. It’s beautifully animated and offers a break from video games, which are often loud and action-packed. Playing as a cat is also unusual and amusing. You could even call it a meow zing.

Although the game’s dystopia – which mostly takes place in a city falling apart – can have a sad, lonely feel, the adventure (and choice of main character) served as a welcome distraction from some of the dystopian headlines that we have in our own world: While we played, wildfires and heatwaves raged across multiple continents, but for a while we were just a red cat wandering through a strange town.

The game begins in a beautiful, peaceful, green space that looks like the remains of the city’s infrastructure. You control the main character who is quickly separated from her cat family and falls far below in what appears to be a deserted town.

From there, “Stray” gets a bit confusing. It’s clear that some kind of major disruptive event has taken place in this city, and the game focuses on solving the mystery of what happened and returning home. As you soon discover, the town isn’t entirely deserted: there are no humans, but there is a small drone robot called the B-12 that will help you read signs and figure out what’s going on in your new environment; humanoid robots with heads shaped like old-school desktop computers; and tick-like creatures called “Zurks” who will occasionally attack and try to kill you.

While the bulk of the game is spent wandering and exploring, you'll occasionally need to advance

Aside from a periodic rush of excitement, you spend most of your time exploring like a cat: figuring out what surfaces you can jump on, what objects you can pick up or knock over, and what types of feline behavior you can engage in. There is, of course, one dedicated “meow” button.

What struck us about the game is the balance between having specific quests or objectives and allowing users to explore freely. One of us doesn’t play video games at all while the other is a bit more familiar, but “Stray” suited both our interests and abilities. Overall, it was fun to figure out, although it took some time to perfect our gameplay.

“The intent was to keep it minimal, but to ensure that everything necessary was there to ensure the game was still accessible,” BlueTwelve producer Swann-Martin Raget said in an interview with CNN Business. “You understand naturally, without thinking too much, and without necessarily being part of a… quest or a list of challenges.”

Laine Nooney, an assistant professor at New York University who studies media and video games, attributes Stray’s sudden popularity to several qualities: it has a loveable story, it’s well crafted, it’s enjoyable to play, and it features the “unofficial mascot.”

“Playing as an animal allows us to ‘quiet’ our human brain in a way,” Nooney said. “Though we’re trying to get this cat through a spooky world, the stakes are small and manageable – a welcome relief from an increasingly chaotic news cycle.”

Luckily, we actually felt a little more relaxed while playing the game. In part, that’s due to its pace, which is only as fast as a cat can weave through a desolate city, stopping occasionally to lick some water or take a nap. It was also the result of small, thoughtful details in the game: just repeatedly pressing the “meow” button on the handheld controller, scratching tree bark, or cuddling other kittens was reassuring.

The real cat behind “Stray”

Why should the main protagonist of the game be a cat? According to Raget, the decision was determined by several factors.

The first was the nature of the universe in which the game takes place. The dystopian city in Stray is inspired by the Kowloon Walled City, a Hong Kong settlement that was believed to be the most densely populated place on earth before it was demolished over two decades ago.

But while Kowloon Walled City was being inhabited by humans, the co-founders of BlueTwelve, both artists, “began to realize that it really was the perfect playground for cats – the many little passages, the fresh perspectives it offered them on the world built,” said Raget.

Perhaps more importantly, the BlueTwelve team is obsessed with cats. The studio’s southern France office has two full-time in-house cat managers (“Sometimes they turn off our computers when we want to save our work,” Raget said) and most of the studio’s staff own and love cats.

In fact, Stray’s protagonist is largely based on Murtaugh, a stray cat that the BlueTwelve co-founders found and adopted a few years ago.

Murtaugh, the inspiration behind the 'Stray' protagonist, seen here (we think) bossing his humans around.

Humans aren’t the only fans

BlueTwelve’s passion for cats is confirmed by consumers who have embraced ‘Stray’ like catnip. It’s among the most popular games on Steam, one of two platforms it’s available on – nearly 50,000 people played it on Thursday, just two days after launch, leaving behind over 21,000 of those who bought the game on Steam “overwhelmingly positive” reviews.

“If you want to be a cat, playing Stray is the next best thing,” reads one review.

Sony’s PlayStation, the other platform where Stray is available (and the one we bought and played it on), didn’t respond to a question about how many copies of the game have been sold to date, and BlueTwelve declined to provide sales dates to share . (Asked about sales through its platform, Steam told CNN Business to contact the game’s publisher, Annapurna Interactive; Annapurna Interactive declined to comment.)

Even though the game has one mission, there's always time to stop and say hello to the robots.

BlueTwelve, which was founded just over five years ago with the express aim of making this game, hasn’t thought about what its next project might be.

Right now, Raget says they’re “overwhelmed” by the response to “Stray.”

Humans aren’t the only fans of the game. Ever since Stray launched earlier this week, social media has been awash with house cats intrigued by their on-screen orange counterpart. (No word yet on whether either of them pressed the paw button.)

BlueTwelve realized early on that “Stray” could have that effect thanks to its resident cats, Miko and Jun.

“Once the cats in the office started reacting to what was happening on our screens, I think we felt like we were going in a good direction,” Raget said.

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