Dec 11th, 2023, 10:00 AM

Cats: Nature's Finest Protagonists

By Anna Karenina
Yasmine S. Lawrence - Midjourney (AI generated), personal use
A love letter to all felines, inspired by the video game, "Stray"

There is something about cats that both seduces and repulses us. Independent, mysterious, possessing a spirit of untamed wildness despite their willingness to live with humans, we are continually fascinated by these tiny creatures. The 2022 adventure video game, Stray, is a love-letter to the spirit and beauty of the cat, showing the resilience, ingenuity and loveable nature of these whiskered kitties in the figure of an unnamed stray orange tabby cat. Long anticipated, the game had initially been announced in 2015 but had disappeared from the gaming radar for some time, leading many to believe that it had gone into development hell and perhaps had been shelved. 

Stray sees its nameless, four-legged protagonist flung into a mysterious, decaying, post-apocalyptic world set in a distant future in which humans have disappeared and what is left of society is on the brink of collapse. Instead, all that remains are anthropomorphic robots who communicate with one another through a strange and unidentified language. Along the way, the story of a mysterious robot scientist who wishes to reunite with his friends unfurls, with the cat being the center figure who brings everyone together and reveals himself to be a crafty hero who manages to escape from any and every situation. As he faces off against numerous dangers, from environmental degradation to the cute but deadly and flesh-and-metal-eating Zurks, the story of Stray is surprisingly emotional in its scope and touches upon the bonds we create with animals and how they both help and heal us.

Stray Gameplay Trailer | Sony State of Play June 2022

The most interesting question to ask after playing Stray is what makes cats such compelling protagonists. Why not a dog, or even a horse? Both of these animals have, at some point in history, played a part in the development of civilization. Video games like Clover Studio's critically acclaimed Ōkami is but one example, focused around the Shintō goddess, Amaterasu, who has taken on the shape of a white wolf.

It is undeniable that cats are polarizing—you either love them or hate them, though few remain relatively neutral about them. Where dogs are deeply (and sometimes to their own detriment) loyal to humans, sacrificing their will to serve us, cats still retain some individuality which one can argue baffles those of us who perceive animals as being lesser than humans. Cats still have the faculty to make their own decisions; they have a mind of their own and are not afraid to show it when tested. For the more controlling types who see obedience as the end-all-be-all of human/animal bonds, this sort of freedom is often seen as a negative and frowned upon. And cats, sadly, are often stereotyped as being mean, when in reality, their perceived meanness is a form of self-preservation and boundary-setting qualities which are actually positives more than negatives.

Why Humans Are Obsessed with Cats | Annals of Obsession | The New Yorker

Cats, like introverts, do not reveal their inner motivations, not that they really need to. They do not have a master and are not obligated to answer to anyone. It is much easier to imagine your feline friend going on an adventure when they disappear for a few days after sneaking out of the house than a dog in comparison. Cats, even when they have spent a remarkable length of time away from humans, straddle the boundary between complete wildness and domesticity. They have an uncanny ability to know who to trust and who they should fear and are dedicated to those they love with a kind of intensity rarely seen even in humans. There are remarkable tales of cats disappearing for months, if not years, risking their lives to find their families again.

Most of all, cats are not as self-important as they appear or as many people love to believe. They can be goofy, silly and childlike in their daily lives when their guards are lowered around those they trust. Their gracefulness, flexibility and nimble movements make them amusing and unintentional slapstick comedians, especially in instances where it seems they were never expecting to make us laugh but ended up doing so. And in moments of desperation, cats have a way of healing and uplifting the human spirit through their delicate and sensitive awareness.

Cats are complex and mysterious creatures. Unfortunately, Western culture, which idolizes extroversion over introspection, has maligned cats as “bad” for all their wonderful qualities. Much of this has a historical origin: during the Middle Ages, cats were perceived as "evil" by the Church, with many being killed due to their stigmatization and association with witchcraft, demons and Satan. Much of this superstition centered particularly on the figure of the black cat. Plus, popular media typically portrays them as being rude, callous and selfish murder machines who expect others to worship at their feet, while placing canines on a pedestal as the better of the lot. In reality, Stray is the perfect example of how cats can be heroic and selfless, helping and healing those around them, while maintaining their own sense of self and freedom of will in the process.

How the video game ‘Stray’ is helping rescue real-life cats