Stray’s 1990s Retrofuturism Makes Me Feel Old

Stray’s walled city is inspired by Kowloon City, a fortress in Hong Kong that was inhabited by over 30,000 people. At its peak, the city was known as ‘The City of Darkness’ in Cantonese because of its anarchic self-rule and its narrow, twisting alleyways that were in perpetual darkness, no matter the time of day. Kowloon City was eventually demolished in 1994, the same year I was born. It makes perfect sense, then, that Stray’s spaces are full of references to 1990s culture and fashion. The underground city is stuck in the past—the past that was my childhood.

Retrofuturism is an idea I tie to 1950s spaceships and hypersonic trains on rails covering the distance between London and New York in less than an hour. To me, it’s an idea of sleek greys and silvers, atomic power, and atompunk. Stray is a cyberpunk game, but that cyberpunk is not ‘50s holograms and flying cars, nor even ‘80s corporatism—it’s ‘90s bucket hats, lava lamps, and boomboxes. A retro-future. A space that is perpetually stuck in the stasis of CRT monitors and floppy discs. It inspires nostalgia, but it’s also a weird feeling. Big blocky monitors were once considered the peak of technology. I played my first game on one. Oh god.

The fashionable denizens of The Slums and the Antvillage also look like a mix of Liam Gallagher gig attendees (bucket hats, a few wacky-looking parkas), 1950s bartenders (brown suits, braces), and French resistance fighters (berets, red sashes.) There are also cowboy hats, conical East Asian hats, puffer jackets, robes, hoodies, and a menagerie of other styles clearly drawn from popular culture. These items are sometimes mismatched—they are worn by sentient robots, after all, robots that have never experienced human culture as it was intended.

Stray’s interior spaces are cosy and full of faux-nostalgia, they remind you of a time that you might never even have experienced. Take the interior of Clementine’s flat as an example. The main room is decorated with hanging fairy lights and lava lamps, bookshelves, and CRT monitors. Houseplants cover every surface. Huge drapes hang from the ceiling. There’s even a Luxo lamp in one corner, a style of lamp that has been around since the 1930s but rose to prominence in 1995 thanks to the iconic Pixar Studios intro. The freestanding radiator, the candles, the lamp with the dated shade. Is this a robot’s dystopian living space or a 21st-century hipster’s flat? Check out the gallery below.

Upstairs, there’s an enclosed tent-like space adorned with Persian rugs and a traffic cone with a light inside—I did that exact same thing when I was at university. It’s uncanny. A gramophone shines copper-bright in the background. The robots don’t know how to use it, but even they clearly appreciate its aesthetic. More plants, more hanging lanterns, and drooping beads from the ceiling. It’s a space I could happily spend time in, and because you’re a cat, Stray lets you do just that.

In the bathroom, the room is again full of plants, and the light that cascades through the window is gorgeous (Stray does lighting extremely well), but there’s also a mannequin standing in one corner with a cone over its head. This is a recurring theme in the game, and it symbolizes just how little the robots know about humans. You will find these robots have a fascination with human culture that goes beyond fashion. There are inexplicably pictures of cows on every corkboard and workspace in the game, sometimes tucked behind posters adorned in the robot’s alphabet. Splashes of blue and green paint are favoured by the Antvillage’s artists, but they don’t know why they have an obsession with these colours. Something about that outside human world they have never known. And yet, it is clear that the robots have evolved into their own version of humanity.

Road signs have a big robot and a baby robot walking hand-in-hand. They can ride bicycles, use vending machines, and admire the artificial stars in the sky. Some robots use drugs (huffing petrol in a busy bar), and try to install aimbot hacks into their systems to be better at playing pool—we call that the Magic Three Pints where I’m from. They eat noodles made of scrap metal and petrol, care for their plants, and dance.

And they’ve got plenty to dance to. One of my favourite parts of exploring is the emergent soundtrack that follows the feline’s traversal of the neon-soaked city. There are boomboxes galore, and cassette tapes of course. It’s a mix of tunes that sound oddly familiar but completely distorted. Heavy techno, industrial, and glitch dominate. Glitch in particular stands out, as it is a genre that originated in the 1990s and is described as having an “aesthetic of failure”, which just about perfectly summarises the worn streets of Stray’s slums and towns.

Stray might be a game about being a cat, but it’s also an exploration of the cyberpunk theme. Its focus on a world caught in a 1990s stasis is cosy – like watching The X-Files on a rainy day – and illuminating. It’s a window into modern society’s obsession with the past.

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