My method for gauging a game’s popularity doesn’t hinge on parsing sales figures from NPD or concurrent player lists from SteamDB. Nope, my tell is pass-fail: whether or not my mom has texted me about it. Over the past week or so, my mother has asked me more about “the cat game” than any other game I’ve ever covered. Apparently, it’s all over her social media. That’s right, people: Stray has officially crossed over into the Normie Realm.
Stray, an adventure game released last week for PlayStation and PC, is the debut from French developer BlueTwelve Studio, and the latest portfolio success for publisher Annapurna Interactive (known for its role as a purveyor of offbeat indie megahits like Outer Wilds). You play as an orange tabby, and spend your time exploring—or, if you’re me, getting lost—in a cyberpunk city populated by robots. Part of Stray’s meteoric buzz is because the game is novel, and genuinely very good, and word of mouth is a powerful tool. But it’s been aided by a publicity campaign that doesn’t fit into the mold of typical video game marketing.
You’d expect trailers and hype-speak at popular industry events, maybe even a promotion with a snack or soda brand. You’re less likely to see a tie-in campaign with nonprofits like the Nebraska Humane Society (NHS). Earlier this month, NHS organized a charity drive tied to the launch of Stray: Donate $5 and you could win a copy of the game. It resulted in some real-world good, too, tallying more than $7,000. A rep for NHS told Polygon that most of the donations came from first-time donors.
The adoption events exist IRL, too. Over the weekend, Annapurna organized a pop-up at Meow Parlour, a cat café in New York City’s trendy Lower East Side neighborhood. It’s a savvy marketing move. Meow Parlour is generally pretty slammed (admission is reservation-only), so Stray got a nice full day of publicity, potentially reaching folks who were only there to hang out with kittens. In exchange, Meow Parlour got a guaranteed stream of potential new pet parents for the dozen-odd kittens currently up for adoption. (Two were adopted by the time I left.)
The cats, who ranged from eight weeks to two years old, crawled over attendees and chased after toy mice. People sipped cold brew and lined up to play Stray on a PS5 in the back. The cats wanted in, too:
There was even one of those Stray-branded backpacks from Travel Cat—itself a logical product tie-in for the game. (The backpack comes with a cat harness resembling the vest worn by Stray’s protagonist in the game.) I didn’t ask about trying it on, though, because of this little guy:
To a certain degree, in hindsight, Stray’s buzz was a slam dunk. It’s a video game about a cat. People fucking love cats. It has also no doubt benefited somewhat from launching as the first day-one exclusive game on Sony’s revamped PS Plus service, which now offers a Netflix-style library of on-demand games. This is a potent concoction. But there’s a secret sauce to this game that’s given it seriously widespread appeal.
You don’t often see posts about video games go semi-viral on non-gaming subreddits, but you needn’t scroll far down the uber-popular r/cats sub to find images of cats obsessing over Stray. Right now, as VGC points out, Stray—not a hyper-violent first-person shooter, not a nail-bitingly difficult action platformer, not sales behemoth Elden Ring—is the highest user-rated game on Steam. Gamers are clearly craving a low-key antithesis to the brutality that so often serves as the backbone for mass-market games, and it shows. Some players just so happened to learn about Stray because the publisher liberally used the one thing the internet has never been able to look away from: kittens.
Anyway, mom, I hope that answers your question.