David Gaider says making mythological musical Stray Gods was "a little bit more complicated" than expected
A chat with Summerfall Studios' co-founder and a hands-on with the Greek tragedy-drama-romance-mystery
What can I say? I love games that have a bit of a sing-song. I've enjoyed the pop platforming of Sayonara Wild Hearts, the DIY DJ-ing in Fuser, the grungy game-meets-album Teenage Blob, and the recently released fist-pumping robot-thrashing Hi-Fi Rush just to name some from the top of my noggin'.
Music is a definitely big part of these games, but Stray Gods: A Roleplaying Musical has set itself on a different kind of musical path, in that it’s actually a musical. I'm talking like a full-on ballad-belter, curtain-caller, exit-stage-left-er musical. And get this: it’s also a modern retelling of the mythos behind the Greek Gods. It feels like my inner theatre kid has chugged ten Red Bulls and is waiting for her cue to burst out.
Stray Gods follows Grace, a college dropout trying to make it big with her band, but after she gets caught up in some godly drama and obtains the power of a Muse, she gets accused of murder and must find a way to prove her innocence. The broad strokes of the story are about hope, self-discovery, and trying to figure your shit out - and it's all told through the power of song.
Creating a musical entirely in game form is an idea that David Gaider, Liam Esler, and Elie Young didn’t hesitate jumping on when the three founded Australia-based Summerfall Studios together. Gaider is known for his impressive work as lead writer on the Dragon Age series, and although writing about the Greek Gods isn’t a stone’s throw away from his previous fantasy work, writing a musical is a whole different arena.
“When Liam and I got together, we were talking about if we were to start a studio, what would we do that would be both different, but something that we both really wanted to do,” Gaider tells me. “I was like, let's do a musical, I've always wanted to try, and we thought that would be easy but turns out it's a little bit more complicated.”
It definitely sounds complicated. Gaider tells me that Stray Gods will have a total of 4-5 hours of musical content with each playthrough letting you hear around an hour and a bit of that. The reason why you’ll only hear around a quarter of the music, though, is because Stray Gods is a choice-driven adventure and each decision you make dramatically changes the lyrics and music you hear.
After playing the demo for Stray God at last week's LudoNarraCon, I got to see this system in action. The song looked to be near the start of the game - potentially even the opening number - and Grace and the mythological Muse Calliope sing a melancholy duet in an empty auditorium. As the song progresses, I get to choose what lyrics Grace sings, deciding how closed off or open she is with Calliope about her feelings of being lost and alone. It’s something I’ve only seen done before in Kentucky Route Zero’s incredible ‘Too Late to Love You’ performance, and it has the exact same mesmerising effect. I met Grace less than 5 minutes ago I already feel for her. My heartstings feel like they've been well and truly pulled, and that's down to the game's (seemingly very manipulative) OST.
“As a writer, I guess arguably, I have a way of accessing players’ emotions. That’s always what I want to do, and you do that over hours and hours of gameplay," Gaider says. "But it feels like when you're in a song, it's like a shortcut to someone's emotions. In the space of one song, you can make someone fall in love, whereas in games I've written previously, we would’ve needed hours and hours to get that kind of investment from someone.”
I'll admit it, I'm definitely prone to being a little weepy during musicals so, between directly choosing Grace’s emotional state through lyrics and Stray God’s stellar orchestral accompaniment, I’m going to be a mess. But it’s not all about those power ballads. There are a number of different musical styles in Stray Gods, and you can actually dictate them through Grace’s lyrical choices. You can choose between being Kickass, Charming, or Clever and each attitude has different musical traits. Kickass gives you a punk-rock accompaniment with thrashing guitars, Charming's vibe is suave and smooth, and Clever is much more understated than the previous two, taking a more reflective mood with a string accompaniment.
The power to change the direction and style of music is one part of Grace's new powers; the other is that by shifting the tune she can get others to confess anything from their darkest secrets to whether they wanna hook up with her.
It’s almost like you’re the conductor of Stray Gods’ story, able to dictate the highs and lows of the drama along with the soundtrack. The music and lyrics feel equally important to the story - heck, they basically are the story - and so who else to help Summerfall out with a punchy, hearth-throbbing OST than the musical game maestro himself Austin Wintory. Gaider tells me that both Wintory and Summerfall had the same musical vision.
“In some games, the songs are important, and the music is important, but it's always background, it’s not the purpose of the game,” says Gaider. “Like, how do we make it the purpose of the game and make the branching actually meaningful? So, the fact that suddenly we were thinking of this branching musical, somebody that Liam knew said ‘Well, maybe you should talk with Austin Wintory’. He had his own ideas and now we're finally starting to see the full breadth of what he'd imagined.”
And the musical talent doesn’t end with Wintory. Voice actors who'll be exercising their their vocal cords include Ashley Johnson, Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, Felicia Day, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Merle Dandridge, and Anthony Rapp - not to mention the wonderfully rich accompaniment from Australia's Orchestra Victoria. You can check out the full cast over on the game's official website.
Each song also has its own musical genre and style, from angsty rock anthems to Disney-inspired songs. Musical influences include Wicked, Hadestown, Dear Evan Hansen, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer's musical episode Once More, With Feeling. There’s a song in the demo that feels very Hamilton, where Grace is stuck between wanting to learn more about her powers from the mysterious Pan or not trusting him and sticking with her friend Freddie. It’s a three-way musical debate where Grace is torn between Pan and Freddie's arguments, with the player ultimately deciding who she should listen to. In the demo, I chose to go with Pan, wanting to know more about Grace’s newly acquired Muse power, but I felt like it was a detriment to her relationship with Freddie, who Grace seems to have a delicate history with. The drama!
It's an intense song, full of angst and flair. David says that there will be upbeat moments, but that Stray Gods is not a goofy game. It’s first and foremost a Greek tragedy, with dashes of drama and romance, and a murder mystery cherry on top.
“It has a very serious tone that deals with issues of trauma because the gods are all lost in a way. That's why it's called Stray Gods.” David explains. “They all have come so far and have brought so much baggage with them that they don't know how to put it down anymore. And sometimes it takes somebody new to come in and point out to them, this is what you're doing with your lives. So, a big part of the ending is what Grace brings to the idols and how they change.”
Thankfully we won't have to wait long to join the chorus, as Stray Gods releases on August 3rd on Steam.