As candidates for the protagonist of a post-apocalyptic power fantasy, wild cats (redheads, no less) are an unlikely choice. Without opposable thumbs, aiming a gun will prove a challenge, and what feline could hope to outrun, say, a bunch of madmaxstyle villains racing junk muscle cars? Wander, however, presents a different take on the end of the world, a slum abandoned by humans and inhabited instead by their bipedal robot minions, who dutifully sweep the streets, weed and water the flowerbeds. In this context, the wandering cat proves to be a powerful cipher. In the dense, maze-like underground slums, maneuverability and the ability to slip easily through rusty railings are far more valuable assets than brute animal strength and military-grade weaponry (albeit a bit of power inevitably ends up coming your way).
Stray’s world rests imperiously on Kowloon Walled Citythe claustrophobic and densely populated Chinese enclave of Hong Kong which became, before its dismantling, a notorious hotbed of human vice. Stray’s The city is seemingly run-down, but with its Instagrammable strings of amber lanterns and geek-chic neon-lit bars, it’s a more sanitized, Pixar-esque take on slum poverty. There’s no prostitution or gambling here, just laundromats, walking robots, and backyard electronics repairmen. The humans left and took the sin with them, apparently. What remains is a place of abandonment, not exploitation, where citizen robots have been left to rust and decay among the paraphernalia of human desertion.
Casting the player as a cat brings more value to Wander mere marketing weight (cats remain ripe for memification, even at this late stage in the development of the Internet – or its decline). Every threshold, shelf, bed frame, and railing is a potential launch and landing point, allowing you to glide and leap across the world with pleasant haste. You can snuggle the legs of robots you shine on, claw soft carpets, and even curl up into a ball and take a nap if you find an old mattress on a roof. The substance of your feline life, however, is the mission of escaping the slums by helping these enterprising robots who dream of following their creators out of the shadows. That means running errands, searching abandoned apartments for useful items, and solving spatial reasoning puzzles while avoiding the occasional strip of faces you encounter in a dark alley.
The wonder of the game is in the intricate details: knocking over stacks of books; tinkle your way along the keys of an old piano. It’s elegantly crafted and well-told, and by choosing to build a compact world dense with detail and intrigue rather than one that sprawls loosely, Wander looks like a high production proposition despite its modestly sized production team. Most enduring, it’s a game where playing as a cat isn’t just a gimmick but intrinsic to the experience, proving that survivors aren’t always the strongest, but the ones that fit their best. environment.