What can I say? I like games that have some sort of singing. I liked the pop platformer Sayonara Wild Heartshomemade DJ in FuserTeenage Blob game and the recently released Robot Hi-Fi Rush just to name some of the top of my vision.
Music is definitely a big part of these games, but Stray Gods: Role Playing Musical took a different musical path, since it is actually a musical. I’m talking like a full-fledged musical that is ballading, calling for the curtain, leaving the stage. And understand: this is also a modern retelling of the myths about the Greek gods. It feels like my inner theater child has drunk ten Red Bulls and is waiting to explode.
Wandering Gods follows Grace, a college dropout who tries to make it big with her band, but after she gets caught up in some divine drama and gains the power of the Muse, she is framed for murder and must find a way to prove her innocence. The main stories are about hope, self-discovery and trying to deal with your own shit – all told through the power of song.
Creating a musical entirely in game form is an idea that David Hyder and Liam Esler didn’t hesitate to embrace when they co-founded Australia’s Summerfall Studios. Hyder is known for his impressive work as the lead writer on the Dragon Age series, and while writing about Greek gods is a step away from his previous fantasy work, writing a musical is a whole different realm.
“When Liam and I got together, we talked about if we started a studio, what would we do that would be different, but something that we both really wanted to do,” Hyder says. “I thought let’s do a musical, I’ve always wanted to try and we thought it would be easy but it turned out to be small a little more difficult.”
That sure sounds complicated. Hyder told me that Stray Gods will have a total of 4-5 hours of musical content, with each playthrough allowing you to hear about an hour of light content. However, the reason you’ll only hear a quarter of the music is because Stray Gods is a choice-driven adventure, and every decision you make drastically changes the text and music you hear.
After playing the demo for Stray God at LudoNarraCon last week, I got to see this system in action. The song seemed to be at the beginning of the game—potentially even the opening number—and Grace and the mythological Muse Calliope sang a melancholy duet to an empty auditorium. As the song progresses, I choose which song Grace sings, deciding how closed or open she is to Calliope about her feelings of loss and loneliness. It’s something I’ve only seen before in Kentucky Route Zero’s incredible rendition of “Too Late to Love You,” and it has exactly the same mesmerizing effect. I met Grace less than 5 minutes ago, I already feel for her. I feel like they’ve been well and truly dragged out, and it’s down to the game’s OST (seemingly very manipulative).
“As a writer, I guess I have a way of accessing the players’ emotions. “It’s something I always want to do, and you do it for hours and hours of playing,” says Hyder. – But there is a feeling that when you are in a song, it is like a fast way to someone’s emotions. You can make someone fall in love with one song, whereas in games I’ve written before, it would take us hours and hours to get that kind of investment from someone.”
I’ll admit it, I definitely tend to be a little weepy during musicals, so between the direct selection of Grace’s emotional state through the lyrics and Stray God’s stellar orchestral accompaniment, I’m going to be a mess. But it’s not all about power ballads. Stray Gods has many different musical styles and you can dictate them with 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 backing track with soaring guitars, Charming is soft and smooth and Clever is much more subdued than the previous two, creating a more reflective mood with string accompaniment.
The power to change the direction and style of the music is part of Grace’s new capabilities; the other is that by changing her tune, she can get others to confess anything from their darkest secrets to whether they want to bond with her.
It’s almost as if you’re the conductor of the Stray Gods story, able to dictate the highs and lows of the drama along with the soundtrack. The music and lyrics seem equally important to the story – hell, they mostly are is story – and so who else to help Summerfall with a powerful, dizzying OST than the maestro of the music game himself, Austin Wintory. Hyder tells me that both Wintory and Summerfall had the same musical vision.
“In some games, songs and music are important, but it’s always background, it’s not the goal of the game,” Hyder says. “Like, how do you make that the goal of the game and make the branching really meaningful? So the fact that we suddenly thought of this sprawling musical, someone Liam knew said, “Well, maybe you should talk to Austin Wintory.” He had his own ideas, and now we’re finally starting to see the full breadth of what he envisioned.”
And musical talent does not stop at Wintor. Among the voice actors who will be training their vocal cords are Ashley Johnson, Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, Felicia Day, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Merle Dandridge and Anthony Rapp, not to mention the amazing backing of the Australian Orchestra Victoria. You can view the full cast in-game official website.
Each song also has its own musical genre and style, from raging rock to Disney-inspired songs. Musical influences include Wicked, Hadestown, Dear Evan Hansen and the musical episode “Once More, With Feeling” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 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 distrusting him and sticking with her friend Freddy. It’s a three-way musical debate where Grace is torn between Pan and Freddy’s arguments, and the player ultimately decides who she listens to. In the demo, I decided to go with Pan, wanting to learn more about Grace’s newly acquired Muse power, but I felt it hurt her relationship with Freddy, who Grace seems to have a thin history with. Drama!
It’s a rich song full of angst and flair. David says there will be lighthearted moments, but Stray Gods is not a dumb game. It is primarily a Greek tragedy with touches of drama and romance, as well as a mysterious murder.
“He has a very serious tone that deals with issues of trauma, because all the gods are lost in a sense. That’s why it’s called Wandering Gods. David explains. “They’ve all come so far and brought so much baggage with them that they don’t know how to put it down. And sometimes it takes someone new to come along and show them that this is what you’re doing with your life. So a big part of the ending is what Grace brings to the idols and how they change.”
Luckily, we won’t have to wait long to join the chorus, as Stray Gods drops August 3rd on steam.