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Stray rewards you for mashing the meow button, which more games should do

It’s a real meow-icle of game design

A cat walking across a pole in a sepia-toned, dystopian environment Image: BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive

When I saw the announcement for Straya game where you play as a stray cat in a dystopian world — I was immediately sucked in. I love cats. I also can’t ever own a cat (unless I want to get hives and possibly stop breathing, which isn’t ideal for taking care of a cat). I’ve lived the vicarious cat-loving life by liking TikToks, glimpsing my co-workers’ cats via Zoom, and also meowing really loudly with my mouth at the cat that lives in the alley behind my apartment.

Playing Stray, I noticed the game really accurately* nails an important element of being a cat. It was the part where the cat meows. Vaulting through Stray’s beautifully dystopian world prompts chitters, chirps, and mews. Often, you’re meowing in response to stimuli, but sometimes it’s at the game’s humanoid robots, who are very confused about it because they think the outside world doesn’t exist and have never seen a feline. The obvious solution is to school these robots by meowing as much as humanly— erm, catly possible. The game makes it easy: You can hit Circle and meow anytime. This is how I earned the “A Little Chatty” trophy (on Steam, it’s an achievement) for meowing 100 times. I got the trophy within 20 minutes.

A cat sitting next to a robot in a dystopian setting. Image: BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive

I was in the top percentile of meowers, and that only stoked the fire. This is a good amount of meowing, I thought to myself as I solved the game’s environmental puzzles. Let’s meow some more.

Here’s the thing: It’s not just one meow, it’s a whole array of them. There are long attention-seeking meows, playful little chirps, and sometimes even a gruff little snarl. I have no idea how many different types there are, because I was too busy cycling through them over and over again. But I can confirm the answer to this boiling question: Are the meows good? Yes, the meows are very good.

Beyond just being adorable, this feature is also a useful wayfinding tool. Meowing will often trigger environmental cues, like turning on a sequence of string lights that direct the player where to go. It can also lure Zurks (those creepy rat-looking enemies) away from important objectives in a kind of bait-and-switch. It’s a genuinely delightful way of taking something players almost certainly will love — being a cute little cat and meowing whenever you want — and making it a core part of gameplay. It’s a real meow-icle of game design.

*Not to be that guy, but this may be technically inaccurate for a society without humans? A study in 2020 noted that “meowing is a common and mainly human-directed vocalization,” though “adult humans show a limited capacity to extract specific information from cats’ meows.” In other words, cats meow at us but we have no heavenly idea what it means, and scientists, at one point, studied it. (I don’t know what was in the water in 2020, but a study about humans blinking at cats was published in the same year.) Cat-human interaction studies are good, and we should have more of them. Also, Stray is a good game.

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