If you read my (initial?) Stray review, you know that I am still in the middle of playing it. Yet I found the game compelling enough in it’s first few hours to still review it while I’m still chugging along through it. I really do think it is a great game. I was attracted to the game obviously because you get to play as a very cute cat, as would anyone else in the world, and if you disagree come fight me.
Anyways, I found that as I played the game one idea came to mind constantly: A protagonist can be anything or anyone, if it means the story still comes together. Stray in my mind proves that. This is an original story where you play as a cat, and it works somehow. You can argue that this was already apparent with games like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Donkey Kong, etc. But, I think there’s something to be said about a story where you play a realistic version of an animal over a fantasy creature.
All the same, it is clear to me from playing Stray, that the point of single-player narratives, are not always who is on the center stage, but instead how the narrative plays out in front of them.
So, if we know that games featuring anyone and anything can be good, that means folks on the internet who get upset that there is a Latina protagonist in a game are even sillier than I imagined.
Yet, for as much as I appreciate the reinforced idea that it really doesn’t matter who is at the center of the story (most of the time), I found another point nagging in the back of my mind.
There are moments in Stray where the cat you play as gets really badly hurt. Dropped from amazing heights, flung from objects, chomped on by enemies, and shot at. I found myself almost at the point of tears sometimes watching a cat’s body get thrown around this way during its adventure. It made me realize how desensitized I was to seeing this kind of violence and worst done to human bodies.
Perhaps “it isn’t that deep” or “its just a game”, but I think you have to recognize when some pieces of media trigger something and ask “why?” Furthermore, I think you have to ask, in this case, if I feel this way about a cat, how will I feel about Black and Brown bodies?
Bear with me because I get that it might be kind of a stretch, but I find this happening more and more in media lately. To help make my point, I actually want to move away from Stray.
Instead, I want to look at Ms. Marvel and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, instead. One piece of media, Ms. Marvel, has just recently concluded. The other, Wakanda Forever, has put out a trailer and announced a release date for this November. Yet both feature putting Black and Brown bodies in front of guns. Particularly guns held by officers or some form of authority. Something that, as of the past decade, has been at the front of mind for Black folks.
Every time I see this in our stories, especially lately, I grimace and feel my chest tighten.
Now back to the cat. I hope you’ve kept up with me.
If I can barely stomach to see Black and Brown folks in front of guns, and barely stand to see my poor virtual cat flung around like a Garry’s Mod ragdoll, how can I justify asking developers to use more Black and Brown people in their video games knowing that I’ll get upset seeing them in danger?
Ultimately, the answer I came up with is that seeing them as the hero, seeing them persevere is what we’re really here to see.
Heroism, as foreign and misplaced as that word can feel sometimes, is ultimately what makes this media rather bearable at times. Knowing that in the end, the Black or Brown person, or the cat with a robot on it’s back, goes through these trials and comes out on top seems to make it worth it somehow.
It hurts to see the cat get thrown around, but it gets up and keeps surviving. It keeps working to make their world better.
It hurts to see people who look like me in front of the guns of law enforcement, but in that moment it is clear who the “bad guy” is, and with any hope, those bodies are not harmed. Because the hero comes to save the day, or something. And they go on to work to make the world better.
It isn’t a perfect answer to an already imperfect question, because ultimately more representation, and proper representation, is something we should strive for. And it doesn’t fit every situation.
I cannot see how having a Black protagonist in Resident Evil changes Resident Evil (although I still want it to happen).
But we have seen how having a Black protagonist can effect the narrative of games like Grand Theft Auto, Mafia, and Watch Dogs.
Yet perhaps it is because I feel a reaction to seeing people (and cats) in danger, even fictional danger, that proves that we should in some way continue adding Black and Brown folks to our adventures. Or our horror. Or whatever game genre. Not to feel comfortable with the violence, but to reinforce that it is upsetting to see bodies–any bodies (this is the part where I include White folks now)–go through that kind of trauma.
So. Stray proves that it really doesn’t matter who the protagonist is. And for the most part, yes, it is a good thing.
We can still tell our stories and teach our lessons through the use of protagonists and heroes that do not fit the norms.