Stray tutorial review

Stray is not the game for me. And despite there being a Twitter account dedicated to cats being enrapured by it, it’s not for my cat, either.

The game has some immediate problems that just boil down to poor design across the board. No, I didn’t finish the tutorial, and no, I’m probably not going to. As much as everyone else enjoys it, here are the problems I encountered straight out the gate.

My experience

First off, ignoring that all the marketing material makes a big deal of the protagonist being separated from his family, I thought it would be, like, a human family, not a family of strays. There’s nothing wrong with that; strays do congregate into communities. I just thought the impetus was going to be, like, the image of a crying little girl to make it feel urgent that you get home.

The problem with this is that the game starts you off in what looks like "home" with rain outside and, lacking anything else to do, you have to interact with the other 3 cats. Fair enough; I was playing as a cat, so I was thinking like a cat. The rain was not something to explore. I interacted with the other cats and we all went to sleep. Then the next morning came and that’s where the problems started. Ignoring that the other 3 cats had various hard-wired triggers, like if you stopped to drink from a puddle, so did they, the game was more or less okay on the behavior with at least one leading you down various paths, without you necessarily being the last in line. But then it became clear that the level design didn’t make it easy to go back "home." That rang some alarm bells, because, thinking like a cat, this should have been my territory. I shouldn’t be leaving behind perfectly good shelter in a way that made it impossible to get back. Stray cat colonies take shelter within their established territory. This was not adding up. On top of that, it became unclear what we were all doing, because if it was hunting, then there should have been some form of food accessible to us all that didn’t involve trekking through a stream – something cats would normally avoid, and which one of the other cats just did even with perfectly good dry land off to the side, which I myself stuck to, because I’m not some cat weirdo. The game forcing me into the stream to continue felt unnatural.

To make matters worse, one of them scratched a mossy tree – an obvious territory marking behavior – and when a prompt invited me to do the same, I was presented with L2 and R2 button prompts. Yes, you basically have to alternate mashing them to pedal your little paws to scratch at things, apparently, and you get some distracting vibration out of it for your efforts, which felt like punsishment, so I stopped. I’m sure that’s intended to feel great on the PS5 triggers, but without the nuance, it was uncomfortable and dissuaded me from doing it.

Of course when they all went conga line on an unstable pipe, the real game began in a cutscene of my player cat slipping as the pipe gave way, sending him trying to claw his way back up and falling basically forever in cat height as the other 3 cats looked down in horror. My cat found himself somewhere dark and damp and he was limping, so, naturally, my gamer instinct kicked in and I realized I needed to find a way to restore my HP, but the puddles in this area were not drinkable. Unable to figure out what to do, I just kept walking the way the camera pointed until my cat blacked out and I figured I’d failed something. But no, that just kicked off a cutscene where a door took 10x as long to open as was necessary and a couple cyclops headcrabs ran through. My cat woke up miraculously fine and I realized I just needed to push forward, despite knowing those are the enemies in this game and feeling like it was a bad idea, but not seeing any alternative.

So here we are with me thinking like a gamer, much more affected by the fact my own cat was acting like I’d abandoned her with her eyes squeezed shut facing away from the game full of cats I’d chosen over her than at the heavy-handed emotional manipulation the game had thrown into my face like a wet towel and apparently a kitty Wolverine as a protagonist complete with claws and a healing factor. After going through a door, I was greeted with various messages in English that indicated I had a mysterious benefactor who was going to lead me around by lighting up various TVs and decrepit signs with arrows on them and began to realize that this game treats red, or at least neon scarlet not dissimilar from our ginger protagonist, as the "good" color. Or at least one of them since all the messages are in white, but running toward red always seemed like a good idea since nothing white was actually bright enough to lead me from afar. Red from the camera lights, red from various neon signage, all of that seemed to lead me forward just enough for some TV to turn on with white text.

The problem of course became apparent in the fan room because there I was with a couple buckets and no idea what my course of action was supposed to be. There were sources of dripping water, so, thinking like a gamer, I decided I needed to fill one to maybe weight something down, but all of my attempts failed because I simply wasn’t accurate enough to place the buckets in the stream. I finally managed to find my way up and saw the fan and decided I needed to short it with the water, so I went down hoping I had maybe filled my bucket up at least a little and brought my (empty) bucket back up to throw into the convenient funnel to the fan, which broke it and brought me to the worst room of the tutorial up until the chase. Knocking paint cans down was one thing and they seemed to all be blue paint, so I knocked one down close to the gap to see if I could maybe clear a way to jump across because it looked for all the world like an artifical wall, but nothing became apparent. Having no other recourse, I ended up knocking all of them down hoping one of them would hit something important, but none of them did, so I started looking at all the various pipes that looked like they might help cross the gap and none of them had any interaction to them. So out of frustration I just started trying to find anything left to interact with and lo and behold, the obvious platform with 4 paint cans blocking it DID have a jump I could use, but I found it completely by accident because I noticed the prompt blip and had to fight with it to get it to register. This room took me the longest of anything in the tutorial to figure out because of how fiddly that prompt was, but once I was over the gap, figuring out the can of blue paint in the giant blue splash over the skylight was going to break the skylight was the easiest puzzle of anything up to that point and ending up in a home felt like an immediate victory! Surely the robots who lived there were going to be upset, what with it looking lived-in with working electronics and a drip pan I could drink out of! Only no, apparently it was abandoned. But hey, blue was good. Starting to see a problem here? You will in a minute.

So after avoiding scratching a carpet to save myself from the displeasure of being ruffled for it by the rumble and giving myself a congratulatory drink from the drip pan, I realized I was supposed to leave the relative safety of this house and almost immediately came across a damaged robot with no limbs left but one good arm who activated and scared my cat out of my control, reaching for me before dying for good. Unable to determine if there was anything I could do to help or activate him, because any semblance of thinking like a cat was long gone, I continued forward, getting a bit nervous at how the horror aspects of the game were ramping up.

Then the chase happened. A bunch of cyclops headcrabs lit up red and I was instructed to outrun them, being guided by various arrow signs. One of them jumped on me and I was prompted to meow them off myself with the Circle button, but in my haste, I was presented with an arrow that I thought meant "forward." Oops. No, apparently an "up" arrow actually means "up," which was only ambiguously established earlier in the tutorial, and I got cornered and eaten in a blue room, because I thought blue was a "good" color, because "neon" certainly had been redefined as a bad one at the beginning of this segment and my screen going red when I took damage decidedly didn’t help that. Blue felt like the safe color and it wasn’t.

It’s at this point I rage quit, because it wasn’t worth it to me to retry the segment when my real cat was upset at me for choosing this interloper over her and frankly so was I.

In summary, the game, despite being billed as a game for cat lovers, does not allow you to think like a cat. I know as someone on the autism spectrum that my ability to think like a cat is probably significantly better than most, but the game has you quickly thinking like a gamer limited by a cat body and all the feline reactions are pure lip service. Cats in this world are humans pretending to be cats, from the way they all jump to do cat things when you do to reacting like humans when one of their own takes a plunge. The whole segment with your cat family is play acting with people who don’t actually fully understand cats even at a basic level, like, you know, not liking getting wet.

The game also just plain has technical problems and even when it doesn’t, it has confused visual messaging and is just too heavy-handed in everything it does. It’s heavy-handed in trying to scrape for your sympathy, it’s heavy-handed in talking to you directly as the player when something more whimsical would have worked better that didn’t immediately show its hand that you had a specific benefactor and could’ve left more question to it, and it’s heavy-handed in the way it expects you to use cat behaviors to solve human puzzles.

Most of all, it just feels like I’m being punished for playing it. Being a cat should be easy, not something I have to rapidly mash the triggers to do only for the controller to play spray bottle in my hands for my efforts.

How do we fix this?

Let me put on my game designer hat for a hot minute and explain where the game fails worst: color messaging.

Let’s be clear, blue is normally the most trustworthy color at your disposal. Blue is calming. Yes, your protagonist is a redhead, but that should be incidental because rules of contrast apply just as well as anything else. Break out your color wheel and let the protagonist stand out. Using blue paint to establish blue as a "good" color quickly came to bite me in the butt when I needed it most.

Red is normally your most obvious "bad" color. In this case it’s used for both good and bad things and that made the messaging in a hectic segment immediately confusing. You cannot expect me to choose a red staircase over a blue room when I’m being chased by enemies with red glowing eyes who are filling my screen with red damage.

White is also normally a "good" color, though here it’s a cold white, which can be a little harsh and off-putting. If it had at least been consistent, though, it would have been SOMETHING.

Green is one that’s a toss-up depending how it’s used, because green light is hard to come by in nature and immediately sets off alarm bells, but your little kitty haven is a beautiful green space. Your zombie robot, unfortunately, presents a green face when it’s scaring you, so once again mixed messaging is in play.

So how do we fix this?

Make green your "good" color.

I know what I said about green light, but if you want to lead the player back to their verdant home, leading with green is a good idea. In the bleak atmosphere you fell into, green would stand out as well as anything else even if it wouldn’t be colorblindness friendly. There’s plenty of opportunity for green neon signage (it exists) and green paint and whathaveyou. If the goal is to get back to my green home, green camera LEDs, green TV messages, and even green-faced robots all would be within messaging that they’re pointing me back to that goal of finding my way home.

In absence of that, just keep the "good" colors to blue and white. For crying out loud, it’s not like white isn’t the next most common neon signage after red neon itself (white, and all the color filters over it that make up any other "neon" signage, are actually argon). Keep your benefactor’s contributions a consistent color. Put white LEDs on the security cameras. Or even blue ones. Blue and white would be an easy contrast to both your feline protagonist and all the red-eyed enemies all over the place. Blue LEDs on the cameras would have also made them less creepy to have looking at you off the bat.

Keep red as your bad color. Your enemies emit it; damage emits it; don’t spend a whole tutorial telling me red is a good thing and then throw me in a situation where it’s both a good and bad thing. It CANNOT be both. When the first red LED on a security camera turned to look at me, I was immediately afraid of what that type of surveillance would result in and had to be taught to trust it for several minutes, only to be utterly betrayed in the end.

Color messaging is a core pillar of any kind of art design and the fact it’s failed so spectacularly here doesn’t give me much interest in the rest of the game, level design issues aside.

What else? Make being a cat easy. I shouldn’t have to furiously trigger both halves of the controller to do a cat thing. Let me interact with a respectful animation that doesn’t base its speed on my ability to coordinate firing twin pistols. And don’t punish me with unpleasant force feedback when I succeed at it. If I’m going to roleplay as a cat, I don’t want to be punished for it. Save the force feedback for the PS5; on PS4 rumble is not a positive tactile experience; it’s usually one that says you’re taking damage. It’s just more mixed messaging.

For that matter, MAKE IT CLEAR WHEN I’M TAKING DAMAGE! Oh, my GOD that’s a basic one! Having to wait until I assume the end of the tutorial to learn that all my limping around was just cutscene BS and that I could expect red on my screen with regenerating health like a cover-based shooter was one of the most aggravating realizations because I spent most of the tutorial unable to tell what a failure state looked like or what I could do to fix it! One would THINK that drinking water would have some gameplay purpose, but apparently no, it’s just "catting." Having to wonder exactly how much survival would be involved and assuming I’d have to drink water or else find a mouse to heal myself or keep myself from starving was, I think, a fairly reasonable concern going into this effectively blind.

Most of all, I was left wondering at what point I was going to get the floating robot companion and at no point did I have any indication it was leading up to that.

And as a final point, which feels minor in relation to everything else, giving the action prompts a little more leeway would have gone a long way to stepping out of the way to let the player solve the puzzles, because the puzzles themselves aren’t actually all that difficult. If you’re not going to have people thinking like a cat, at least let the gamer do the gamer thing without hassle.

The way the game leads the player forward with following the things we all know from the marketing material are the enemies and trying to jumpscare us with the robot allies is just the cherry on top of all the mixed messaging the game does.

The one and only thing the game gets right is that it looks fantastic. The cats move realistically and the verdant area is gorgeous. The world below is bleak, but in a realistic way. Even if the way the world is designed makes zero sense, it’s nice to look at.

Wrapping this up

I know everyone is fawning over this game right now, but as someone who was promised I’d be playing as a cat, I’m walking away disappointed. As a writer I’m walking away disappointed. And as a gamer, I am walking away disappointed. This game has so many problems right out the gate that while I might give it another chance when I’m feeling more charitable if only because I’m not getting that $30 back from PSN, it’s going to be despite its various core design flaws rather than it delivering on what I felt I was promised.

Unless and until I feel that charitable, I have a real cat with a broken heart I need to attend to. Daddy’s girl comes first.