'Black Mirror’ creator’s Netflix video game 'Cat Burglar’ cleverly skips the obvious choice

A still from the Netflix cartoon

There's always a wall. The only thing that changes is how your thieving cat gets past it.

Circumventing the brick barrier that surrounds a fancy art museum is the first of several challenges that get thrown your way as Netflix's interactive cartoon Cat Burglar unfolds. The premise is simple: A sly feline is trying to steal a priceless, unseen work of art from a museum, but a lovable-yet-slow-witted guard dog is on duty. The success or failure of the heist is in the hands of the viewer, based entirely on your performance in a series of timed challenges.

In your typical video game — and Cat Burglar is definitely a kind of video game, make no mistake — challenge comes from thematically and narratively appropriate gameplay. You're a marauding, vengeance-seeking demigod in God of War, so fighting monsters of myth is your main interactive hurdle. Call of Duty games cast you as a soldier on the battlefield, so shooting enemy forces with your guns is the order of the day. Nothing mysterious about any of this.

That's not how Cat Burglar works, however. When our cat reaches the next phase of his heist, whether it's circumventing the museum's outer wall, cutting video camera feeds, or stealing the dog's vault key, that's when the gameplay takes over. It comes in the form of an either/or exercise in which you're given a simple idea, such as "suitable chore for a kid" or "real Netflix show," and asked to pick the best answer out of two choices.

It's a pass/fail kind of challenge. Answer correctly three times and the cat successfully navigates whatever hazard he was facing. Get even one of the choices wrong, however, and the cat is killed in the sort of horrible-yet-funny way of Looney Tunes shorts. Failures cost you one life, out of three total for each run through the heist. Losing them all isn't a huge setback, though. The cartoon is short, and dynamic editing automatically skips scenes which never change.

The more 'Cat Burglar' you play, the more wild cartoon antics you get to see.

That's the other defining feature of Cat Burglar: The specifics of the heist change from one attempt to the next. Yes, that wall is always there barring our cat's entry to the museum, but his strategy for circumventing it is pulled at random from a pool of possibilities with each new viewing (yes, including after a death).

On my first heist, the cat used nearby power lines as a tightrope, only to encounter an obstacle in the form of a sleeping, surprisingly muscular and sharp-toothed songbird. That attempt ended in failure, prompting the now-ghostly cat to scold me before the scene reset. The next attempt started with the cat rummaging through a bottomless cartoon bag and pulling out an enormous vaulting pole.

In this way, Cat Burglar delivers twin thrills that work in tandem without ever directly connecting. On the one hand you've got this branching story where each step of the heist is effectively a narrative dice roll. Will the final room throw up a laser wall? Alligator death pit? Mine field? Some other awful, so-far-unseen thing?

The entertainment value is in the details here; not just the "what's going to happen next?" randomness, but also the particulars that spring to life in the writing. This is still a cartoon with a story and tension built between two central (and fairly goofball) characters. So every branch you get to see is another moment in their fictional lives together.

We've seen Coyote try and fail to kill Road Runner countless times. We don't keep coming back because the wild canine might one day succeed; we do it for the death traps and the unintended mayhem they create. That's the allure of Cat Burglar's branching story: The more you play, the more wild cartoon antics you get to see.

A concerned-looking cat dressed in black and a grinning dog wearing a guard's uniform stand facing each other in a museum hallway. There are three signs; one pointing to the cat reads
Credit: Netflix

There's also that gameplay layer, though. Think of Cat Burglar more as something you'd play on your Xbox with a controller in hand, as opposed to something you'd watch on TV, probably while fiddling with your smartphone. Multitasking isn't going to work here. The timer on each either/or challenge is just too short for anything less than focused attention.

The challenges themselves are a source of entertainment as well. They're basically knowledge checks that test your vocabulary and pop culture knowledge, but the writing behind them is cute and frequently cheeky. I don't want to spoil much because discovery is part of the fun here, but just to call out one example: The third either/or pairing during a challenge that asked me to pick which items were "expected in a battle" left me with the choices "Lance" and "Bruce." It's dad humor, sure, but I, a dad, for sure chuckled.

The heist is what ties everything together. Without giving any ending specifics, when the cat successfully makes off with the priceless work of art — which you do eventually get to see, and it's always some cat-themed riff on a very famous painting — the story isn't technically over. The stolen art gets hung on a wall where there are multiple open spaces for more frames. You're meant to keep doing the heist until you can fill up that wall, by which time you'll likely have seen most of Cat Burglar's story branches.

It should come as no surprise for those who have paid attention that Black Mirror's Charlie Brooker is the credited creator of Cat Burglar. He gave Netflix its first interactive experience, 2018's Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. That one played more like a visual novel, with viewers guiding the story by choosing how the main character would react or behave in various situations.

Cat Burglar more confidently embraces the video game elements that are a natural fit for this young and still-evolving genre of entertainment. That's most evident in the inclusion of "lives" and narratively coherent reasons to replay the heist. But even the seeming disconnect between the story and the playable challenges that shape it serves a purpose. By unhooking one from the other, Brooker is effectively putting a spotlight on the fact that this is something you have to actively play.

Cat Burglar isn't what I expected at all. If you're looking at this and thinking it's a Looney Tunes-inspired evolution of Don Bluth arcade classics like Dragon's Lair and Space Ace, that's not quite it. We're building on the foundation laid by those earlier games, sure, but by disconnecting story and gameplay, Cat Burglar is also teaching Netflix viewers — more competently than Bandersnatch ever did — that there are some things you watch and some things you play.

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