It's hard to think of anyone who's spent more time with their cats in the past few years than producer Swann Martin-Raget and his team at France-based video game studio BlueTwelve. Level artist Clara Perrissol with her feline Jun, animator Miko and his pet Oscar, studio cofounders Koola and Viv and their "child" Murtaugh, and Martin-Raget with his own Tao and Lici spent untold hours logging the precise movements of their cat counterparts — even if that included cat naps.
"Eighty-percent of the team are cat owners," Martin-Raget says. "We really are very close to our cats and know them very well."
The results of this labor of love is Stray, a new buzzed-about game to be published by Annapurna Interactive this July 19. EW joined a group of reporters in May to preview new gameplay (shown in the video above) and learn more about pop culture's latest feline hero of the summer.
Annapurna Interactive A 'Stray' cat explores a futuristic city in the new video game from Annapurna Interactive.
The premise is a bit of a mystery and solving it is part of the experience. Players take the role of a nameless wayward cat who finds himself in a strange cyber-city filled with robots, and he's on a mission to find his way out to rejoin his family. It's a stylized neon-lit world with parts overrun by nature. Your goal is to solve these mysteries with the help of a small robo-companion named B12, who comes along a bit later in the story, but the real joy is just being a cat.
"You can be as annoying as you want to be," Martin-Raget tells press. He's not joking. His team have incorporated everything they've learned from their months of surveilling their own felines into the game. You can make this cat purr at any given time, knock objects off of ledges (sometimes that's a must for progressing through levels), scratch at a door or rug for attention, and hide in certain objects, like boxes.
Annapurna Interactive The cat of 'Stray' stretches while exploring the mysteries of a strange city.
You can even, as Martin-Raget puts it, ask other characters "for cuddles." Living room sets with TVs are sprinkled through the city, allowing the cat to curl up on the couch for a rest. You can even leap into a robot's lap for a nap. They may be surprised, but they'll be so charmed by your cuteness they'll relent. If desired, "You can basically sleep all day," Martin-Raget says.
Martin-Raget explains the process of making the game with a cat protagonist was "quite challenging." He notes, "The classic constraint of video games are harder to manage with a cat. Objects that used to be decoration are now platforms. You can really move anywhere, including small places. It was a series of really technical and artistic challenges for this specific game."
Annapurna Interactive A cat communicates with a robot with the help of his A.I. helper B12 in 'Stray.'
A hands-off demo for Stray shows the cat crossing a pool of water to gain access to the roof of a building. A flashing neon sign with some of the letters burnt out spells "HELP," which evokes, intentionally or not, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman scene from Batman Returns. The cat jumps from floating object to floating object before finding a path along small crevasses on the wall.
Stray is a game that rewards exploration. If you decide to stick with your main quest all the way through, Martin-Raget estimates it'll take about 7-8 hours to complete. But if you decide to take in all the city has to offer, there's more like 9-10 hours of gameplay to experience.
Annapurna Interactive A cat flees from creatures called zurks in 'Stray.'
It's not all puzzles and cat naps. Stray becomes progressively more difficult. There are street-dwelling blob-like creatures called zurks that will attack the cat, but there's no real defense you can use (at least not in the beginning), so you must rely on your animal reflexes to escape. "There are other types of foes in the game, depending on where you are in the story," Martin-Raget teases, careful not to spoil any part of the story. But no matter how many new skills the cat gains, you want to return to the basics. In other words, letting your inner cat come out.