Content Type: Gaming News
Date: November 16, 2022
2022 was a great year for games. New open-world titans Elden Ring and the oft-neglected Horizon: Forbidden West were released, both to critical acclaim, with the former setting a new gold standard for action RPGs. Emotional, narrative juggernauts like Plague Tale: Requiem and God of War Ragnarök left gamers with satisfying, emotional continuations for the much-beloved stories of their protagonists. And even the least popular entry amongst the Game Awards nominees for Game of the Year, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, is a complex, intricate game that has already made waves in Japanese game development, with reviewers the world around touting both its narrative and mechanical advancements.
Where then, does that leave Stray, the surprise indie darling that ended up becoming Steam’s most-wishlisted game just before its release? Often referred to as “Cat Game,” Stray immediately resonated with audiences because of its unlikely, adorable protagonist: a cat (Meow). The game followed this cat after it was separated from its equally adorable cat companions, and had to make its way through a mysterious, gorgeous underground city inhabited by robots (both monstrous and otherwise). The game, a debut title from BlueTwelve Studios, was an immediate hit, and achieved both critical and commercial success, relative to its size.
But still, when it was announced as one of the six nominees to be the Game Award’s “Game of the Year,” it was met with some skepticism. What was the Cat Game doing in the big leagues? Surely it didn’t stand a chance, with its simpler mechanics and broad appeal, compared to the hardcore, deep experiences offered by the other five titles?
Well, I’m here to tell you why that’s nonsense, and why Stray not only deserves its place on the list of Game of the Year nominees, but might even be a contender to take home the big prize itself. As absurd as that might sound for such a stacked tournament, here are 9 reasons it has an edge.
1. A Likable, Relatable Protagonist
Let’s face it: cats, as devious as they are, are instantly likable. They are adorable and mischievous, and their familiar status in so many family homes (and on so many personal screens) means that cats are instantly lovable. Just look no further than the Game Award’s voting page, where the cover images for each game depict one or more main characters posing. Of all those, which is the most immediately appealing? If you knew nothing else, which character would you gravitate towards immediately?
That’s right. The one with the adorable kitty on it. Pretend all you want that Angry Muscle Dad or Stoic French Siblings are as immediately lovable as the cat, but we all know the truth.
And this doesn’t stop at the surface; the cat really is a more immediately relatable, likable character. Kratos and Aloy might have depth. They are compelling and charming characters, and their struggles have engrossed audiences across the world. But they aren’t relatable in the same way an ordinary cat is. They are stoic, occupied positions and holding titles beyond our wildest dreams, disconnecting them from us. Compare this to a cat, whose mundanity and familiarity make it immediately sympathetic (we are, after all, also normal creatures, trying to make do in an increasingly chaotic world). Among the contestants, only Plague Tale: Requiem’s Amicia and Hugo are anywhere close to average folk, and even they seem superhuman in abilities and circumstances.
Amongst tales of gods, undead warriors, and robot-dinosaur-controlling chosen ones, would it really be so surprisingly that the familiar, comfortable form of an average feline would be the most relatable?
2. Broad, General Appeal
The Game Awards, for better or worse, are a popularity contest. By letting internet denizens vote on which game they think should win in each category, including Game of the Year, it means that a game that has broad appeal is going to have an inherent advantage: it has a larger pool of potential voters to appeal to.
And Stray is absolutely the nominee with the broadest appeal. It is a simpler game than the other titles, which makes it accessible and fun to more than just dedicated “gamers,” and I can attest to the fact that Stray’s adorable protagonist got a lot of people who never play games interested in playing this one. Despite this, the game still drew in crowds of lifelong gamers, who were fascinated by the premise or world (or the cat). The game, after all, was Steam’s most-wishlisted right before its release, and that is just on one platform: it also released on PlayStation to tremendous success.
And that’s not all: Stray is also the only nominee with an ESRB rating of “E ,” with both of the top dogs in the competition carrying an “M” rating. While games certainly aren’t like movies, where an R-rating can tank performance, this still does reveal something crucial. Stray is the only game on this list that is family-friendly and can be played and enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age or skill level. Especially as more and more gamers are introducing games to their kids, and more and more parents are buying games for their kids, the impact of this can’t be understated.
And there is precedent for a game’s family-friendly appeal being the key to victory here: just last year, It Takes Two , the family-friendly co-op puzzle-platformer, took home the top prize, beating out the more “hardcore” Resident Evil Village and Deathloop. A few years earlier, in 2017, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was Game of the Year, with second place being Super Mario Odyssey, leaving Horizon: Zero Dawn and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in the dust.
Stray’s sales so far seem about on-par with It Take Two, and it certainly has the same mass appeal that game did. Maybe we will see a repeat.
3. Stray’s City is Breathtaking and Fresh
The games on display this year are all visually breathtaking. Whether it be Elden Ring‘s decaying, somber vistas, God of War Ragnarök‘s fantastical, somber vistas, or Plague Tale: Requiem’s gothic, somber vistas, 2022 is an amazing year for beautifully-rendered, somber vistas. Truly, all of the games on the list look stunning, each taking their predecessors’ aesthetics and amping up the artistry and graphical fidelity to tremendous effect. But the truth remains the same: all of these games just look like graphical upgrades from their predecessors, and their sweeping landscapes might stand out in the pantheon of games, but they don’t stand out amongst each other. Once you’ve seen one fantastical, dark-fantasy landscape, you’ve seen them all.
Enter Stray. Its visuals are striking and completely different from anything else that came out this year. The city is not sweeping and empty, it is claustrophobic and dense, full of life and mystery. The neon-and-concrete underground metropolis is not just beautiful, it’s fascinating, demanding that your eyes try to catch every glowing detail. It is, in short, unique, in all the best ways, and demands to be seen. Stray’s neo-noir-meets-cyberpunk-meets-post-apocalypse aesthetic is bombastic.
To phrase it another way: every game on the list, aside from perhaps Xenoblade Chronicles 3, has a world that looks like it could be part of a painting. Elden Ring and God of War Ragnarök‘s paintings, then, would be stunning, but derivative of their standard style. Masterful but inoffensive, like a Thomas Kincaid landscape. Stray, on the other hand, would be a painting that was bombastic, exciting, and demanding. It would be dense and rich with color, demanding attention.
And, while there is plenty of merit to both, I know which I find more interesting, and what most people would.
4. Clever and Fun Puzzles
For as fantastic a year 2022 has been for gaming, it hasn’t been as kind to puzzles. At least not amongst the nominees. For some of the titles, that’s fine: nobody expected puzzles from Xenoblade Chronicles 3, for example. But puzzles do make up at least some part of the gameplay for the other titles and, honestly, pretty much all of them drop the ball here. Aside from Stray, God of War Ragnarök has the largest focus on its “puzzles, and almost all of them just end up being Metroidvania-style “come back with the right power” tasks, with even the most difficult color-coordinated puzzle being doable by a fourth-grader with aspirations of being a magical lumberjack. And even that is miles beyond Elden Ring’s dungeon puzzles that usually amount to little more than “go up the down elevator and hit a wall.”
As much as I love those games, it would be inaccurate to claim their puzzles were clever, and that is to say nothing of the fact that it makes little-to-no sense in-universe why the various factions who left those challenges did so. After all, if I was in charge of protecting the ever-important Temple of Light, I would probably not let my bouncy purple rocks face directly at my door-creating blue crystals.
But Stray does not have these problems. Because it is designed around solving its puzzles, they are actually well-thought-out and fun, with several of them taking some real thought and out-of-the-box thinking to solve. I’m not going to suggest that any of Stray’s puzzles take a genius to figure out, but they require some cleverness and tact. The average puzzle in Stray certainly took me longer to figure out than any of Elden Ring’s dungeon puzzles (even counting the deaths).
And, what’s more, the way the puzzles are set up in Stray makes sense in the world. You are roaming a decaying place as a creature that the world was not designed around, and things have been reasonably misplaced and poorly designed in such a way as is believable in-universe. It doesn’t feel manufactured. Want to know another game that did this? The Last of Us Part II, 2020’s Game of the Year.
With puzzles being such a core and classic aspect of gaming, Stray has a clear and obvious advantage over its fellow nominees.
5. Fascinating, Cryptic World
One of the main reasons why Elden Ring intrigues players, and one of the reasons that it is one of the two “games to beat” at this year’s Awards, is its world and lore. The Lands Between, Elden Ring’s world, is fascinating, full of arcane and seemingly undecipherable tidbits of lore, told to the player out-of-order by the world itself, rather than spelled out by any character or group. The seemingly-sparse world is actually dense with secret knowledge and hints at previously unknown, possibly-dark truths. Every stunningly-detailed level has myriad aspects that reveal that much more to the player, so that, by putting it all together, they can come to a fuller and more complete understanding of not just the backstory, but their own involvement in the world’s dark, ever-evolving history.
Oh, wait. Did I say Elden Ring? I meant Stray, whose city is full of the exact same hallmarks of interesting worldbuilding and cryptic storytelling as Elden Ring. And, unlike Elden Ring, it doesn’t rely on opening narration, exposition dumps, or item descriptions to fill in its details: instead, everything must be inferred through the cat’s eyes. While Elden Ring might have a greater depth of lore, Stray‘s history honestly intrigues me more, begging questions that I’m more immediately curious about.
It might be fun to learn about the ancient history of a once-fallen empire that the current rulers built atop, but it is certainly more relevant to my character (and more interesting to me, the player) if the questions I’m asking directly impact my immediate environment and self. Fascinating as it may be, it doesn’t really matter, for the Tarnished or me, what the Crucible Knights once swore loyalty to in Elden Ring. But it does matter, to Stray’s cat, how its robot-filled city became so lost to time, who made it, and what has been happening to its robotic denizens since.
6. Breaking New Ground
It’s an old joke. “I’m so glad they are finally making something new,” the gamer says as they load up the third installment in the spin-off of a rebooted franchise, itself conceived as a spiritual successor to the fourth game of a series originally devised as a pastiche of films. And, on the surface, it’s a cynical joke. After all, there is nothing stopping sequels, reboots, and successors from being incredible, and games have a long history of franchise improvement.
Still, the joke isn’t without merit, and gaming right now seems especially dominated by nostalgia, with tons of old franchises being brought back to life for the sake of capitalizing on that nostalgia. And what isn’t made for the sake of nostalgia is made safely, by following established formulas created by its predecessors, and making only what improvements are necessary to feel like a step forward. And all that is… fine. It progressively moves the gaming landscape forward, and it’s clearly something fans enjoy. Hence why all five games that are going against Stray are sequels, reboots, or spiritual successors, with franchise origins for some of them going back nearly twenty years. Of those five, only Elden Ring isn’t a direct sequel, and even it has been rightfully compared to its progenitor-series Dark Souls since its announcement trailer.
But that doesn’t exactly make for the most exciting or original products, does it?
No. But you know what does? A debut indie title in a new IP with a never-done-before premise that isn’t a spin-off or spiritual successor to anything that came before. That’s Stray. In a world so dominated by the old, something fresh and inspired is guaranteed to garner more attention, its novelty helping it not only gain an audience but to be remembered by it.
While all the games on the list have innovated on what came before, only Stray truly stands out as an original, experimental, and novel experience. Simply put, there is nothing like Stray, and you’d be surprised how far novelty can get you on the internet. Which brings us to our final point…
7. Meme Potential
Let’s face it: the Game Awards are a popularity contest. Giving people a reason to vote is as important, if not more so than the actual quality of the games at hand. And, while some of the other games might have loyal fanbases and incredible commercial and critical acclaim, Stray has one thing that they don’t: Stray is the Cat Game. And the internet. Loves. Cats.
Wouldn’t it just make perfect sense, then, for some Reddit-spawned internet campaign to come in and ensure the “Cat Game” wins, if only for the fact that it would be the funniest outcome? Give people on the internet the right to decide something, and expect the most ridiculous option to win. It’s a tradition as old as Boaty McBoatface.
Believe it or not, this — the meme potential — is the main path Stray has to become Game of the Year. The internet is a strange place, one that loves novelty and hilarity. It is a place for absurdist campaigns to storm Area 51, and one where the most powerful people in the world sometimes reply to each other with reaction gifs and, yes, cat memes. And, considering that this competition will be decided by the internet, you should ask yourself: what is the funniest, most absurd possible outcome of the Game Awards?
That’s right: that outcome would be if the indie “Cat Game” came up from behind to overtake the two biggest, most influential games of the past few years. Can’t you imagine it, the memes of Stray‘s furry feline overpowering the literal gods that each of those games depict? I can, and it’s glorious.
So, What’s the Verdict?
So, given all this evidence — all these things Stray does right, in a unique way from its competition — does this mean that we think Stray is going to win Game of the Year at this year’s Game Awards? Will it be the dark horse (or black cat) candidate in the competition?
Well… No. Probably not. The other games up for nomination tout massive worlds, complex game systems, fantastic stories and more. This year’s competition is stiff, especially with Elden Ring and God of War Ragnarök in the ring. And, for all Stray does right, and for as unique an experience as it is, the truth is that its simpler systems and ideas probably aren’t a match for some of the other games on this list. Not only that, but the Game Awards are decided by popular vote of people on the internet, and while Stray might’ve sold well and been popular, both Elden Ring and God of War Ragnarök have gigantic fanbases and boast incredible sales numbers, with Ragnarök, in particular, having released very recently and with a huge marketing push to win these awards.
At the end of the day, though there are compelling arguments for Stray‘s nomination, and things that it genuinely does do even better than its competitors, this year is simply too full of amazing games for it to stand much of a chance. That said, the event is not called “The Game Award”, but rather “The Game Awards,” because there are dozens of categories, and Stray has a very good shot to win in categories like Best Indie Game, Best Art Direction, and Best Action/Adventure Game.
And, particularly considering the strange and comical nature of the internet, I wouldn’t count Stray out entirely. After all, cats are so popular on the internet that the phenomenon of their connection to it has its own Wikipedia page. I suppose we will see, come December 8th when the Game Awards stream.
What do you think? Is Stray an unexpected contender for this year’s top spot in gaming, or does it simply stand no chance against the twin titans of God of War Ragnarök and Elden Ring? Leave a comment to let us know.
This is my biggest problem with the modern game industry as a whole. Violence, franchised games, unoriginal rehashes of the same garbage year after year. If it’s not GoW then it’s CoD. They’re all junk just based on shock factor. Yet when something truly original comes along by a development house far smaller than the other guys, the industry plays it off as if it’s not really an achievement. Game of the Year for Stray would be a nice middle finger to all the other development houses out there. Games should be more than just run-n-gun/button mashing action games.