Stray has been in the headlines for a lot of very good reasons over the last week, but having just finished the game, the one thing I can’t get out of my head is not the cat, or the robots, or the platforming, but how much I loved each one of its little worlds.
As bookish as this sounds, the main reason I have always played video games is as a fictional escape. I can rarely be bothered with fast-paced action or thumb-destroying combos; if given the chance I’ll always opt for sitting back in my chair, relaxing with a cup of tea and slowly picking my way through a world born entirely from someone else’s vision.
So as I worked my way through Stray, I barely registered its platforming puzzles, thoughtlessly completed its fetch quests and begrudgingly sprinted my way through its weakest elements, which were any and every moment the Zurks were on the screen.
Instead, what I found I loved most about the game, and what I think is its greatest achievement, were each of the captivating little worlds it built for us. Not the entire world—as a game split into levels Stray doesn’t have the continuous grandeur of, say, Breath of the Wild’s seemingly limitless landscape—but the walled-in settlements you spend time in at certain points throughout the game.
(Note that I’m going to speaking here about the game’s design itself, not any real-world inspiration it has drawn from).
When I was a kid my grandparents owned a jewellery store in a small country town, and I used to hang out there a lot when I was younger, sometimes helping them, most of the time just getting in their way. My grandfather was a master watch repairman, and I could spend hours watching him delicately adjust cogs and pins that were so small I couldn’t believe anyone had ever been able to make them, while my Nanna had a reverence for the work—they sold some pretty expensive stuff!—that could convince you she was selling religious artefacts.
My favourite thing about going there, though, was checking out their stock of these tiny little miniature English villages they would sell. They were like little worlds unto themselves, defined not just by their constraints but by whole they felt within them. I could hold them in my hand, turn them around and see them from every angle, knowing exactly how small and limited they were but also getting to know every inch of them more intimately than I could ever hope to know an actual space.
Looking back on the games I played the most growing up, and which have left the biggest impact on my tastes, it turns out my appreciation for those little villages was being played out on TV screens and monitors as well. I was raised by Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games, and could spend hours playing them not even bothering to solve puzzles, instead just wandering through the streets of Monkey Island or Quest for Glory meeting people, admiring the design work, relishing how despite the technological limitations of the time each of those game’s worlds felt whole, realised to the fullest extent.
Maybe those limitations encouraged better world design, though, because as technology has advanced, I feel like the art of crafting these perfect little worlds has slowly been lost. Whether it has been open worlds tearing down the walls or quick-action menus streamlining a player’s actions, that feeling of getting to know every brick in a small street has been hitting me less and less as the years have worn on.
That’s not to say there haven’t been exceptions! Wind Waker’s Windfall Island, a rocky outcrop set amidst a vast open sea, feels more like one of my tiny little English villages than maybe anywhere else in video games, its handful of buildings and streets repeating in on themselves within its confines like an ouroboros of urban planning. Deus Ex’s Prague is somewhere that feels truly lived in. The Witcher 3 may be vast, but its townships still feel just small enough. And I think people’s fond memories of older GTA games like GTA III and Vice City have as much to do with their smaller scale, allowing the player to get to know every backstreet and alley, as their soundtracks or setting.
Which brings me back to Stray. While you visit a number of places during the game, from sewers to prisons, you end up spending most of your time in three different robot settlements, each of them part of a the same larger, domed city but encountered as distinct locations. The first, where you truly begin your adventure, is called the Slums, and as befitting the name they’re a haggard little collection of flats and improvised shopfronts.
The second, Antvillage, comes as a respite from your dangerous travels through the monster-infested sewer system, and is as much a treehouse as it is a settlement. You don’t need to spend much time there, but I ended up doing it anyway just so I could chat with everyone and see the sights. The third, Midtown, comes towards the end of the game, and is a much larger and more developed location, looking and feeling like an actual, functional city.
Yes, I know each of the three are in various ways serving here as hubs, in the way a village in an RPG has for decades, a place to rest, shop, stroll around and meet characters. In functional terms there’s nothing revolutionary about Stray’s settlements at all.
The joy here comes in their craft, in their design. While all three are part of a single world—one that is itself walled-in, and which we glimpse at the game’s conclusion in a wonderful “I can see my house from here” moment—they’re presented to us in a way that makes them feel whole unto themselves. Like we’re wandering around a collection of snowglobes. Run through Stray’s streets and you’ll usually circle back around to where you started, making you forget all about the walls keeping you trapped in this area until you’re done, convincing us that this is a realised, liveable space because we’re only ever shown what is in this world, not what’s being kept from us.
It helps that these worlds are so beautiful, and so compelling to want to spend time in in the first place. The Slums are a wonderful introduction to Stray’s universe, with its improvisation and resilience. Antvillage is an unexpected diversion, a hippy retreat whose architecture tells as much of a story as its inhabitants. And Midtown is now one of my favourite all-time video game places.
The lighting throughout the game, but in these settings in particular, is so good it’s almost tangible, and Stray’s robotic residents, while not having that much to say, are still a fascinating roster of characters to seek out and meet, if only so you can see the amount of personality the developers were able to pack into each of their lines, designs and costumes.
I loved Stray. I loved the cat, I loved B-12’s journey, I loved its architecture, I loved its character design. But what I’ll remember most about the game is its perfect realisation of three very small worlds, which drew me in and kept me wandering their little streets hours longer than I think I was supposed to have been, and enjoying every minute I spent doing it.