Numerous video games allow you to discover futuristic cyberpunk dystopias. The game is almost always played as a human. In a video game Stray the player takes control of a small cat that needs to escape from the modern city. This promises an idiosyncratic and fascinating view of the future world that has a legendary role model.
By Michael Foertsch
Twinkling neon lights reflect in puddles, streets covered with dirt and trash, and a multitude of strange devices hanging from buildings. Scenes like this have become one of the biggest clichés in science fiction. Because this is what the prototype cyberpunk metropolis looks like, as it was in the 1980s with the cult author William Gibson in his neuromancer -Saga, by Ridley Scott in blade runner and Mike Pondsmith with the Table Top RPG series cyberpunk was conceived and directed. So a world ruled by powerful corporations, futuristic high-tech devices are everywhere, and many people live in absolute poverty, left behind by society and progress. Time and time again such cyberpunk worlds have been developed in recent years. In Changed coal, dumb, Alita: Angel of Battle, Blade Runner 2049, Cyberpunk 2077 or Ascension.
No matter how different the stories are, as detailed and succinct as the differences in the scenarios, the perspective of the cities and what happens within them is always comparable: it is always a more or less human hero character. In Stray such a city should finally be able to be explored from a different perspective. Namely from the animal. In a video game by the small studio BlueTwelve from Montpellier, France, the center of the action is the cat. More precisely: a homeless man who in a tragic accident is separated from his family and falls into the city canyons of a futuristic metropolis, which, however, is not as banal as it seems. Because it grows out of reality – just like the shuffling hero.
“Little cat has no name,” says BlueTwelve’s Swann Martin-Raget of the humble hero of the story. “[Aber] is based on a real homeless person, Murtaugh, one of the cats of our two founders“. They picked up the cat near Montpellier seven years ago – and since then it has been part of their family as well as part of the studio. In fact, the cat is even a founding member of the French gaming producer. Because development Stray started in 2015. At that time, the video game still had its sinister name HK_Projekt.
For the studio’s two founders, the art duo Koola and Viv, a video game was initially just that: a project with no really certain result. While they’ve already worked on some video games from the publisher Ubisoft, they have been amateurs when it comes to development. So they understood HK_Projekt primarily as a digression on the Unreal Engine video game graphics engine that should allow them to discover and animate one of their great obsessions. And a place as terrifying as it is attractive that was destroyed 30 years ago: Kowloon Walled City, the city of darkness.
this Kowloon Walled City is a settlement built on the site of a former military base near Hong Kong, which until 1997 was under British supervision. First of all, numerous Chinese refugees and criminals started building on less than 0.03 square kilometers. Within a few years, a giant of interconnected buildings with a height of up to 15 floors grew there. Apartments, shops, factories, brothels, and craft stores were packed tightly together. None of this has been approved. All building, fire and hygiene regulations were ignored.
The cables ran in unprotected strands across the floors and ceilings. A maze of narrow corridors ran through the city, some of them no more than shoulder width apart and lit only by dim neon lights and old bulbs. Sewage flowed through old hoses, leaking pipes, and exposed gutters in front of the door. There was no intervention. Because the legal situation of the city was unclear for a long time. Hong Kong authorities did not feel responsible for the settlement, which at its peak had between 30,000 and 50,000 inhabitants, and hundreds of cats tasked with keeping rats and mice at bay.
Police also avoided Kowloon Wallet City. Crimes were prosecuted there only in exceptional cases. Taxes not collected. A compact settlement had its own rules and laws – as did a partially self-sufficient ecosystem. The “human anthill”, as the city was called, became a myth, inspiring authors such as science fiction writer William Gibson, and the setting for films such as Bloody sports served. However, in the 1980s, a decision was finally made to leave and demolish the unregulated settlement due to disastrous living conditions and the increasing number of accidents. Dismantling then began in March 1993 and lasted over a year.
Playground for cats
Where there was once the walled city of Kowloon there is a small park where a metal reconstruction on a pedestal commemorates the former settlement. “As artists, they’ve always been fascinated by this place that no longer exists,” says Swann Martin-Raget of BlueTwelve founders. “Every time they looked at the testimonials from this point, they caught and inspired each other in this unique environment where the structures seem almost organic due to the high concentration of detail and subtlety.” That’s why they have individual alleys and recreated views from the photos – and ultimately decided to let the city reborn. Or at least their unique atmosphere – namely as a dystopian high-tech metropolis.
When the art duo started, they realized that this scenery is unique in a completely different way. “They realized that all these narrow aisles, narrow aisles and shelves would be the perfect playground for the cat,” says Martin-Rage. “That’s when the design really started taking shape in their minds.” A video game in which a cat is led through a seemingly endless and bizarre world made by humans but is still a character in and of itself should be HK_Projekt will be. That was the plan.
The first concepts and environments appeared within a few weeks. Again and again the original duo, and then the team, which has now grown to 18 people, shared individual photos and short video clips of a project that also changed a bit over the years. “Since we are a small team, we had to choose which fight we were going to fight,” says the producer. “I think one of the biggest changes, but also the most rewarding, has been the move from an open world game Metroid -Vania towards a more linear structure. “
And this structure is designed less to tell a traditional story and more to portray experience. Because after the little kitten got up from the fall and received help for her injured paw, she starts surreal with a player on the controller cybercity explore to find your way back. The underground world with narrow streets, nested parts of buildings and smoldering neon lights definitely shows the model. And the cat playground, which the creators saw in it.
The cat wanders around garbage cans, air conditioning systems and pipes. Narrow railings lead from one building complex to another. Toxic sewage pits are crisscrossed by elegant barrel-to-barrel jumps. Or the fan is stopped by throwing the bucket into the propeller. It is said that many paths are predetermined. But at times the player should also be free to deal with situations. And of course it should completely from time to time to be a cat to be able to. You should be able to push empty bottles off balconies and remotes off tables. A cat can scratch a leather sofa with taste and take a nap on an old pillow.
The cat is not alone for long in its mission. Early in the game, he unlocks a little helper robot, the B-12, which lives in a small backpack on the back of a cat when it is not flying through the air. It turns on the light when you pass through the city’s gloomy, fibrous gut, and protects against aggressive ticks, which aren’t very kind to a small cat, from UV rays. “But most of all, it can translate the language of the robots that inhabit the city,” says Martin-Raget. “And it will be a key help in understanding what this place is and what happened.”
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The dirty metropolis is inhabited not by humans, but by humanoid robots whose heads resemble the first Macintosh computer. The robots as numbers were originally caused by “a constraint on our development opportunities,” says Martin-Raget of the development studio. Designing a lot of different people would be too much effort. Therefore, the team decided to simply use the same robots in their basic functions and thus take care of the scenarios. Over time, this has become an essential part of the story and atmosphere Stray result. The fluffy and feisty cat and the metal and angular robots “create an interesting contrast,” says Martin-Rage.
But above all, the question arises: where did all the people go? “This is one of the biggest puzzles to be solved,” says the producer. Lots of tips for this should be found in the area. At the beginning of the game, you may notice a graffiti with the words “RIP Humans” and a heart behind it. Large LED advertising signboard advertises cybercity as “the safest city in the world”. In some corners and at the ends you can see words such as “run” and “run” painted with quick brush strokes. And there are remnants of what appears to be a former human population scattered throughout the city. But these are questions and clues that the cat is unlikely to move, as Martin-Raget assures. He just wants to go home. For a little boy, the city is an adventurous labyrinth from which you have to escape.
Stray will be available on July 19 for PC, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.
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