Stray: Guidance Beyond the Vale
Stray is a story about a cat that remains as the last gleam of guidance for civilization. Human beings had - literally and metaphorically - outdone themselves, whence nothing is left of their accomplishments save broken machines that, ironically, realize and lament the value of human life more than our species.
Yet, this is hardly a new motif in contemporary art. Quoted in previous posts, Sarah Connor beautifully captures this tension between the humanity of machines and machinations of our race in the ending scene of James Cameron's masterpiece Terminator 2 - Judgment Day:
The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.
However, what makes Stray unique is that the protagonist is one of the weakest - yet most overpowering - creatures known to man: a cat. You maneuver around the slums of a lost world, carrying a small machine, B-12, that helps you communicate with the other robots that now live in the remnants of human civilization.
The Arab proverb: "He [God] puts His Secret in the weakest of His Creation" comes to the forefront in this story, and one finds the metaphysical significance of Stray beautifully explained, some 900 years ago by the Muslim mystic Ibn al-ʿArabī. Yet, as we have highlighted elsewhere, his entire vision is itself deeply scriptural and rooted in the Holy Qurʾan.
To begin, the language of the Islamic scripture problematizes any attempt to denigrate animals since the common Arabic term for animal: hayawan, is used in the Qur'an as a praise for the afterlife:
Indeed, the last abode is the hayawan [eternal life], if they [people] only knew
Holy Qurʾan (29:64)
Starting from this scriptural premise, Ibn al-ʿArabī explores another Arabic term for animals: bahāʾim, which translates - really roughly - to 'dumb beasts'. However, as is usually the case for this Muslim saint, he creatively tethers this word's etymology to another mystically laden adjective: mubham, which means obscure, ambiguous and enigmatic.
Here we find another motif common in Ibn al-ʿArabī's writings: the strength and power of certain creatures stems precisely from their apparent weakness and ability to speak a language that no one can understand.
ʿAbdul ʿAziz al-Dabbagh, another Muslim saint, discusses this as regards infants and their ability to speak the language of spirits, which adult humans find both amusing and adorable. Yet, as al-Dabbagh states, it is because infants are recent arrivals from the unseen that they are made to speak this mubham tongue which those of us who have been mired in the material world cannot understand: we are no longer prepared to understand the secrets of the spiritual abode.
Ibn al-ʿArabī also talks about the power of children, but specifically in terms of their strength and overwhelming ability to subject adults to take care of them. Excavating this marvelous truth from the story of Moses, who had already conquered the heart of Pharaoh as an infant in a basket, the Muslim saint tells of an infant's ability to transform an adult parent or guardian, not only into a caretaker, but another pretend-infant who tries to speak their language or even pretend to be an animal for their child to ride and conquer.
The protagonist in Stray emerges as a synthesis of both hayawan, mubham and the 'strength in weakness' of which Muslim saints like Ibn al-ʿArabī and al-Dabbagh speak. This nameless cat, which emerges as the last lost memory of organic life in this video game's world, needs B-12, a companion robot, to understand the other machines living in the slums of civilization, but that is only to remind them collectively of their origins and lost glory: beyond the material and from the spiritual.
Long before al-Dabbagh and Ibn al-ʿArabī, ancient Egyptians regarded cats as magical beings that allow for communication with the afterlife. Stray, a video game of the modern world, capitalizes on this tradition and breaks 'the fourth wall' of technology - so to say - by brilliantly using a modern medium of expression to teach us about the ancient ways and the ways of the ancients. It informs, and let's us taste a story in pixels, where metaphysics, scripture and mysticism come to life.