Why Did ‘Stray,’ a Video Game About a Cat, Become This Year’s Surprise Hit?

Video games are slow right now, but that’s not enough to explain why Stray, a game where you play as a cat exploring a post-apocalyptic city where humans no longer exist, has become not just an unexpected hit but a phenomenon. It’s a game that’s finding interest far beyond the typical video game fan, drawing in people who, normally, don’t even play games.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/wxnngq/why-did-stray-a-video-game-about-a-cat-become-this-years-surprise-hit

I’m less curious why Stray blew up (because why wouldn’t it? people love cats and the game looks great and is an easy adventure model that anybody can play) versus why Skatebird didn’t. There’s plenty of surprise animal game successes: Untitled Goose Game, Maneater, Goat Simulator, turns out people really like animals.

But Skatebird? Came and went. Maybe poor timing, maybe not great reviews, poor marketing, I don’t know. I didn’t even realize it had released at all. Maybe people don’t like birds.

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A lot of people hate birds, it’s a whole thing.

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I just checked the platforms that Skatebird launched on and noticed that it was everywhere except Playstation, and I’m wondering if that’s the reason why. PC and Xbox just don’t get mainstream coverage like Sony, and while the Switch is plenty mainstream I don’t believe that Nintendo did any co-marketing with Skatebird and it got buried in the eShop deluge. Contrast that with Sony putting their weight behind Stray as their big summer game, and Stray being playable on your normie friend’s PS4, and it makes sense why it’s blowing up as big as it is.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that Stray looks gorgeous and Skatebird carries a janky, out-of-the-depths-of-Steam look. Not saying Skatebird looks bad, it just doesn’t look as good in trailers as Stray.

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Yeah, Stray had Sony marketing behind it, I feel like that’s the biggest difference. Skatebird was a Kickstarter game with zero marketing budget, and then the word of mouth after release was fairly meh.

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I remember seeing a trailer for Skatebird and thought “Well that looks rad; I should check that out.” The next time I heard about it, it was from the review coverage that gave it a resounding “blah,” so I skipped it.

Stray had Sony’s ubiquitous marketing muscle behind it and I happen to follow Lindsay Thompson (cat enthusiast and one of the black magic practitioners Insomniac Games refers to as an “animator”) on Twitter who was tweeting about the game nonstop about a month before its release

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I really don’t think this is a big mystery. It’s not surprising that a graphically prestigious looking game featuring a cat that is very simple, polished and well marketed by both Annapurna and Sony would do well.

It was very smart of them to lean into the cat aspect with the marketing, people, me and the internet included, love cats, and for whatever reason there’s not a ton of animal based games in the more visible game space outside of kids games, so there’s certainly something novel about it too.

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I did try skatebird for a little bit on gamepass and it wasn’t that great feeling, which is pretty important for skateboarding game. on top of that, i didnt really get the most stable framerates on it and it gave me a headache with all the movements you have to do.

Everyone has pointed out the Sony stimulus package that Stray got, which I’m sure was instrumental, but what I think has been uniquely identified in this thread is the high risk, high return strategy of the animal-based meme game.

Browse any of the major digital stores and you’ll see a generic ‘Gun Cat’ or ‘Violent Crimes Chicken’ game at a similar frequency to a straight rip of an popular game like Fortnite or Minecraft. People love animals, game developers especially love whimsy, but most “cute” and “cosy” game on these storefront about animals doing something either cute or ironically disturbing go absolutely nowhere.

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I distinctly remember seeing Stray the first time I looked through the PS Store when I got my PS5. There were a bunch of upcoming original standalone non-first-party PS5 games Sony had pushed to the top of the storefront without even release dates at that point (just “coming soon”), probably so that people looking for something to play on their shiny new consoles besides Astro’s Playroom would get excited and wishlist them. Returnal was another, and there’s one called Pragmata that afaik still doesn’t have a release date. All very sci-fi-ish too. Stray is a great game and if it were not I don’t think this would have had the same effect, but someone at Sony definitely saw a cyberpunk cat game, thought, “oh this will get people interested a year in advance and make us a lot of money,” and boosted it.

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To me it’s a few things:

  • Visually impressive
  • Cyberpunk theme during a time when more people are interested in the genre
  • Cat that looks and sounds like a cat
  • Good environment design that draws you in
  • Is not a meme game
  • The story is not complicated. The average person doesn’t care for deep writing, they just want something that feels like it is to them. While for most people here the story is maybe shallow and one they’ve heard before there is definitely going to be a subset of people who play this game as a young adult and think it’s “deep”
  • It’s on Playstation and Sony is marketing it
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