Zazu doesn't want me to play Stray. The adoptable kitten with an impossibly cute mustache climbs into my lap and falls asleep the moment I sit down at Meow Parlour, a cat cafe in NYC's Lower East Side. For this past weekend only, Annapurna Interactive and Meow Parlour let people sign up to play Stray in a cat cafe filled with adoptable kittens. Yes, it's as chaotic and adorable as you'd expect, but it was also a reminder of just how incredibly realistic Stray's protagonist is.
Stray with strays
Meow Parlour always has a rotating cast of adoptable adult cats and kittens, but we've been blessed with an influx of the latter for this event – and they don't care that I'm there to play Stray for the first time, following the game's release on July 19 for PS5 and PC. After Zazu falls asleep in my lap, another cat cafe patron shakes a jingly toy and he wakes up with a start, bolting away before I even get a chance to say goodbye. An Annapurna rep hands me a DualSense controller, but I don't even get a chance to press start before another kitten quickly clambers my lap, dangling his back legs so far off of me I have to cup his little feet in one of my hands to keep him from falling off. This is Charlie, and he loves to sleep, falling into a REM cycle faster than Zazu did.
All of these kittens clearly want attention. If both of my hands are occupied with a controller then they aren't getting pets, so they're quick to frustratingly meow or rub on me whenever I try to focus on Stray. Realizing I want to pet more cats, I hand the controller to another person at the cafe, hoping they'll be better at paying attention to the game and I can play via osmosis. I help them with some of the puzzles, absentmindedly rocking Charlie in my arms before I realize that this is the perfect opportunity to get a Cats Watching Stray moment. I ask the person playing to press the circle on the DualSense controller (which makes the Stray cat meow as much as you'd like), hoping the kittens would react. But apparently, when your every day is filled with meows, hisses, and jingly toys, you're a bit desensitized to cat sounds, because not a single one of them even blinks at the meowing ginger cat.
They are, however, incredibly interested in the dangling DualSense USB cord that I unplugged from the controller and erroneously left hanging off the side of the counter. When I get a chance to play again, I'm in the middle of the Dead City level trying to run away from Zurks when I notice the kittens batting about the USB cord with gusto, and worry that they're going to yank the PS5 off of the rather high counter. The Zurks overwhelm me quickly, and I'm forced to restart the section.
This may very well be the best way possible to play Stray. After all, it's a fairly short and compact game that you could easily blow through in a day if you aren't looking to go completionist and get all the Stray Badges or every one of the Stray Memories. But when you're surrounded by over a dozen cats and kittens purring, jumping, sleeping, or otherwise being adorable, it's hard to make any headway. This just means that you can enjoy it for longer and you can enjoy it while basically buried in a pile of kittens.
If I'm being honest, I can't even make it to the third level, The Flat, during my Stray playthrough. I am just so damn distracted by the kittens. There are two black cats who I discover halfway through my session actually have very faint stripes on them - something I've never seen before on a black cat. There's a momma cat who won't stop angrily meowing at the person closest to a door, which the Meow Parlour employee tells me houses her food. There's an older ginger kitten that I don't even notice until I get ready to leave, as it was sleeping inside one of the end tables that doubles as a cat bed the entire time. At one point, Bella the black cat manages to get her paws on a Stray pin that Annapurna was offering to attendees for free. This quickly became her favorite toy, as she batted it around the space with glee, clearly transfixed by the plastic-y rattle it made while skittering along the floor. Soon, several of the other kittens were chasing the pin around with her, but their joy was cut short by an eagle-eyed employee who realized a pin probably isn't a good toy for kittens.
But when I or other attendees actually get some playtime in, it's clear just how much work developer Blue Twelve Studio has put into the cat animations in Stray. The subtle ear flick when a butterfly lands on a sleeping cat's ear is a dead ringer for Zazu's reaction to me gently stroking his ear hair with my nail. The way the cats in the opening scene nuzzle up against each other looks just like how two of the more friendly kittens interact in the cat cafe. And the cat sounds in Stray could just be background noise at Meow Parlor, from the inquisitive, questionable meows to the angry hiss that escapes the protagonist's mouth when a robot scares it.
When the team at Meow Parlor says my time is up, I audibly groan in discontent. I have Stray and three rescue cats at home, but playing it in a small space filled with kittens is so magical I don't want to leave. As I gather up my belongings, I'm startled by a kitten's head popping up out of an egg-shaped bed on the counter next to the Stray setup. The little tabby was asleep in there the entire time, and I had no idea. I give it a little chin scritch and let loose a string of nonsensical cooing sounds before reluctantly leaving. I'm not sure any other gaming experience can top Stray in a cat cafe, and I'm equally unsure if I've ever seen such a realistic portrayal of an animal in video games yet. Stray is a love letter to cat lovers, and Stray in a cat cafe is how I nearly obtained nirvana.
Where does Stray fall on our list of best cat games?