It’s probably fair to say that the video game industry has more ‘dog people’ than ‘cat people’.
You only need to look at the likes of Okami, Wolf Link, KK Slider, Dogmeat from Fallout, even PaRappa the Rapper to see how dog-friendly the industry is. There’s even a Twitter profile dedicated to finding out whether you can pet the dog in a variety of games.
This clearly wasn’t something that bothered Koola and Viv, the mysterious former Ubisoft artists who left the company and started work on a feline-focused game back in 2015.
Some seven years later that game, now known as Stray, is due for release on July 19, and after recently witnessing a lengthy gameplay demo we’ve got high hopes that it’ll finally give ‘cat people’ the quality game they deserve.
Being the enigmatic types, Viv and Koola – who don’t even like to share their surnames – prefer to keep themselves to themselves, but thankfully producer Swann Martin-Raget was more than happy to talk to us about the game’s development.
Stray preview | VGC
Surprisingly, in the very early stages the game wasn’t about a cat at all. It was actually the futuristic city that Viv and Koola came up with first.
“They were artists before and they were fascinated by this place called Kowloon, the Walled City, that no longer exists today,” Martin-Raget told us.
“It was this very unique place with a very high density of people, a lot of details and compact environments.
“As artists they were really inspired by this place, so they started to do some purely graphical tests of the buildings and environments, and in doing so they realised that it was really the perfect playground for a cat.
“And then, being cat owners and cat lovers since forever, they really started to have a clear idea of the project at that point.”
Stray has you playing as this nameless cat as it explores the city. Although it’s your typical 3D platformer, there’s obviously a bit more verticality than you would usually see in the genre, due to the cat’s jumping ability.
“Although it’s your typical 3D platformer, there’s obviously a bit more verticality than you would usually see in the genre, due to the cat’s jumping ability.”
To avoid frustration, the game brings up little prompts which can be used to auto-jump to certain ledges. While we weren’t able to try this for ourselves it looks like an intuitive enough system.
Although the cat is the star of the show here, it isn’t the sole protagonist. It’s joined by B12 (a nod to the studio’s name, BlueTwelve), a robot who accompanies the cat on its adventure.
B12 has the ability to talk to the other robots that inhabit the city and can translate what they’re saying. It’s a useful way of adding a narrative to the game without having to compromise the cat’s character.
“That’s definitely one of the reasons,” Martin-Raget agreed, but he was quick to point out that B12’s usefulness goes beyond simply adding lore.
“With B12 you can also give a set of skills that are complementary to the cat’s natural skills. We all know that cats are not really amazing when it comes to interacting with technology, and there were some puzzles that we wanted to add in the game that B12 can actually do.
“And obviously, him being able to talk in a way that is integrated in the universe was a great way for us to develop a bit of the lore, and the background to characters and everything that’s going on in the game.
“There are definitely several stories going on at the same time in the game. The cat’s point of view is one, but there’s also B12, there’s the city itself, that’s sort of a character in this world, so it was really important to have B12 set up skills to develop that.”
If it wasn’t already clear by the game’s trailers or the footage in this preview that Stray has plenty of potential, the fact it’s being published by Annapurna Interactive – the King Midas of indie – should drive that point home.
However, the publishing deal was actually made before Annapurna had released a single game, meaning at the time it may not have seemed like the golden ticket it clearly is these days.
“If it wasn’t already clear by the game’s trailers or the footage in this preview that Stray has plenty of potential, the fact it’s being published by Annapurna Interactive – the King Midas of indie – should drive that point home.”
We asked Martin-Raget how the team had reacted to Annapurna’s rise to the status it now enjoys as one of the most critically acclaimed indie publishers.
Over the years had they become increasingly happier that they had signed up a publisher with such an abnormally huge success rate, or did it just pile on the pressure to deliver a quality title?
“It’s really both,” he replied. “They have been involved with us since very early in the project.
“We were developing the company and building a team, and their help has been tremendous from the very beginning to today in all the very important parts of the project – the conception, the pre-production, giving a lot of feedback throughout the way.
“But yeah, it is a seal of quality that we need to live up to, and we are really proud to be able to work with them and release this game.”
When asked how hands-on Annapurna was, he replied: “They really leave creative freedom to the creators.
“The only place where they give feedback is when something is really important, or there’s not the full picture that we cannot really see.
“But it’s definitely the game we wanted to make, and there were no hard discussions whatsoever, it was always very helpful.”
Next month will tell whether the relationship has paid off, but from our brief glimpse at the game in action it looks likely that Annapurna will have yet another critically acclaimed title in its repertoire.
You never know – if it’s good enough it might just turn the tide and lead to a new dawn for pro-cat video games, a theory we put to Martin-Raget.
“It’s really touchy for me to answer this because I actually own two cats and two dogs, so I’m in both teams, and I really have to respect both sides,” he answered diplomatically.
“It’s true that it seems there are more examples of, you know, interactive virtual dogs than cats, and it was interesting because, indeed, we didn’t have a lot of reference to work with when it came to developing the interactivity and all the things that you can do.
“We do have a very high percentage of the team that are cat owners and cat lovers, for sure, and who would love to shift the balance a bit, and so here we are.”
And in case you were wondering if the cat would have nine lives, that won’t be the case – it’ll have infinite lives. However, Martin-Raget did hint that there may be a trophy/achievement based on that very concept.