WARNING: lots and lots of spoilers for Stray.
I’ve never been one to obsess over robots and technology. Growing up I wasn’t terribly interested in Star franchises, Wars or Trek. I considered myself a mud child, more likely to attempt to sculpt a golem or breathe life into dinosaur bones than take apart an alarm clock or dream of building my own R2-D2. I loved video games and positively squealed at the sight of my first iPod, but my technological interests stopped short of space ships and phasers. I like to think that I was drawn to the warm earth more than cool metal, but this may just be an invented post-script. Either way, the word “clay” smells like coffee while terms like “futuristic” leave the taste of pennies in my mouth.
This history sets the stage for why I was both incredibly excited to begin playing Stray–a third-person video game where the player controls an unnamed cat–and why I was quickly annoyed with the story’s progression. Having read nothing about the game’s setting (except that the main character is an adorable orange kitty!) I was expecting a story of feline survival in a modern city; instead, the story is set in an unspecified year in the future. The main character is busy romping around the green outskirts of a city with our kitty friends when a jumpy goes awry, and kitty and player alike fall down into the depths of a dark, underground city. The streets look familiar, but the sky looks unnervingly alien: instead of familiar (or even unfamiliar!) constellations in the darkness, the kitty and player stare up into equally-bright star-like points of light arranged in concentric circles.
After some roaming around and a mad dash to get away from hungry tick-like creatures that apparently have cat on the menu, the player stumbles upon an abandoned lab. Here, the player and cat wake up a small flying drone (called B-12) with a corrupted memory system who joins us in our adventure. Eventually, B-12 will remember that it was in fact a human scientist, once; the scientist was forced to upload their conscience into the little drone by the same event that caused all the other humans in the walled city to die out. Together, B-12, the cat, and the player all make their way to a different part of the city: a refuge from the ravenous bugs. This part (referred to in-game as the Slums) feels more alive through the presence of a dozen or so robots. These robots aren’t like B-12; they are unmistakably android in appearance, and have screens instead of heads which display their faces. B-12 explains to the cat that these are called Companions; robots that were initially built by humans within this underground city with basic AI to help with menial tasks: cleaning, stocking shelves, etc. In the long absence of humans, B-12 hypothesizes that they continued mimicking their original builders, developing their individual AIs until they began exhibiting distinct personalities, developed a language and alphabet, and even started making music and inventions of their own.
For someone who was so incredibly grumpy to learn my shiny new cat-game featured futuristic robots and post-apocalyptic themes, I was immediately taken with the Companions. This was, of course, because they are more than anthropomorphic: they are, in almost every way that matters, human. They have feelings and internal monologues and a desire to make music and decorate apartments; when they don’t know what to do with the bathrooms, they put a potted plant in the tub; when the cat nuzzles their metallic limbs, their faces display a heart. At one point, B-12 even talks to a robot looking up at the lights in the sky, coming up with suitable names for the concentric constellations. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about human relationships to the sky, this interaction made me feel particularly, unreasonably emotional. Through all of the beautiful touches and moments carefully woven in by the creators of this game, one persistent phrase kept knocking about my head: can robots evolve into machines of loving grace?
I take credit neither for the question nor its phrasing: I first came across it in the so-named WIRED essay by Meghan O’Gieblyn. The essay is taken from O’Gieblyn book: God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning; the name of the article is derived from Richard Brautigan’s poem and collection of the same name, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Since finishing Stray, I have been exorcizing the resonance of this persistent phrase in my brain by giving into it and reading O’Gieblyn book. About halfway through, it is clear to me that O’Gieblyn and I have at least one question in common: what lies in the gap between a human and an imaginary machine with sophisticated artificial general intelligence?
A former Christian, O’Gieblyn particularly fleshes out the parallels to the concept of the soul. I think my question is perhaps more prosaic: if it looks (somewhat) like a human and names stars like a human, what is holding it back from being human? The clear difference is in the lack of human cells and organs and DNA to make up the companions; but in the absence of living humans in the city, they look and move more anthropomorphically than B-12, who at least once was human. More than their looks, Stray’s Companions have very human urges–to make music, and to be with others like them, and to escape the walled city and emerge into the outside word–and these urges, this yearning is such a fundamental and load-bearing facet of humanity in my mind. So if human and machine have bridged the gap of yearning, what is left to lie in the chasm between?
At the end of Stray, B-12 manages to open the hatch of the walled city and short circuits in the process. The last “human” intelligence is forever extinguished, and the concentric constellations give way to a blue sky full of sunshine. The ravenous bugs are defeated in the light, the cat escapes, and the Companions are once again able to move around freely, even able to go outside and enjoy their own cybernetic meadow. Before sacrificing themself to this noble cause, B-12 notes that the time of humans has passed, and the Companions are ready to go forth into the world and, essentially, take it from here. But is this a break, or a continuation? Having been built and raised in the image of humans, and in the absence of the last “living” human intelligence, there is nothing to compare the Companions to. They are free. They are robots. But are(n’t) they human?