The divine power of the player-driven musical, Stray Gods

By Alicia Haddick, Contributor
Why do classic stories endure? It can’t be for the mystery of it all. No one watches Romeo and Juliet because they’re excited to find out what happens to the star-crossed lovers from opposing houses. Yet the story intrigues us all the same—if not in a direct retelling then in how the archetypes of the story permeate into narratives across mediums, a blueprint for romances everywhere. Perhaps this is how stories of Greek gods have endured and undergone a recent renaissance, whether that be on Broadway (Hadestown), through video games (Hades), or even further afield.

Stray Gods similarly uses the pantheon of Greek mythology as a base, expanding upon it to commentate on the very human feeling of losing purpose and direction in a modern world. And it accomplishes this through the power of song.

What makes this game intriguing isn’t just its modern take on the gods—transposing their lives onto modern-day America, with the gods declining in power and living among us—but how it executes those ideas. It's a secret that protagonist Grace stumbles upon after adopting Calliope’s power in a murder she's accused of committing. It’s mechanically unique, an attempt to tell a story that handles these issues and the wandering isolation of modern life through the form of a musical that the player can control.

According to director David Gaider, the roots of Stray Gods come from his experience working on the Dragon Age franchise. “When I worked at BioWare, I actually had this idea of making a musical DLC for Dragon Age,” Gaider explains. “The team was interested, but it didn't satisfy the corporate powers that be. I accepted that, but I had it in the back of my mind as this bucket list thing I hadn't done.”

It became an idea he wished to return to at the newly-founded Summerfall Studios, and after connecting with the award-winning composer Austin Wintory in an airport cafe after GDC, the project was on. The next few years required much experimentation to turn Stray Gods into something playable and real. Without a blueprint from similar titles, this process inevitably required intense trial and error.

“What you're asking is basically the reason why it took five years to make,” Austin Wintory confirms when I ask about the challenges of making musical fundamentals interactive. “How do we make sure that the songs are firmly in the domain of narratively consequential story moments, not just an interstitial reward after some other kind of gameplay? If you look back, one of the only games that had a strong musical component to it was Warren Spector’s Epic Mickey 2, but it involved platforming and things like that, then you get a musical number as a cutscene for 'winning’ a level. And I said that's the opposite of what I think this game should be, the musical numbers are the gameplay.”
The Power Of The Player Driven Musical Stray Gods Tower
To write a musical game like Stray Gods requires a stark departure from the typical style of writing video game story and music individually. For Gaider, his writing experience on Dragon Age required some adjustments when it came to writing lyrics for music, guided by Wintory and in collaboration with Australian music comedy trio Tripod and singer Montaigne.

“Anyone who has played a BioWare game would reach the dialogue and think it feels familiar, and that’s intentional. Initially, we thought the music would be like that, branching dialogue with music to it," Gaider says. "Quickly, we learned that would not be the case. For one, we needed to add a timer in the songs so that when an option comes up, there's a little countdown, because we need to maintain the flow of the song. You can't just stop the song when you don't want to choose. By the time we brought on some lyricists, I was in charge of the branching paths for the songs, but it's not just this that’s important. If you play any of the songs, one of your initial choices will typically establish the lyrical through line, a motif you hear come up again and again.”

This becomes clear when listening to examples from the soundtrack. At the start of the game, you pick between options that define the personality of your Grace. While this won’t railroad you into particular decisions, it may define some direction for how your Grace will act, your choice options, and ultimately aspects of the music in your playthrough. A more individualistic, angrier Grace may be backed with hip-hop, while a more methodical one will infuse jazz, and a more emotional and empathetic path will sound more "traditionally" musical.

“There's a difference between when I'm working on a game like Journey and I say that when the player is going to come up to the top of this hill and see the mountain, I'm going to add cello to the mix,” explains Wintory. “Or if they happen to connect to another player, at that moment, I'm going to add a flute to the mix. That's pretty simple. When you're saying the story is being conveyed through the music, the lyrics are the vehicle through which the player will know what is going on in this game. So there has to be very clear storytelling, but it's also under their control.”

You can see this in the scene when Persephone sings to her Underworld, with the recurrent motif of “I’ve heard it a thousand times before” permeating through her song if you’re on a more emotional path, while “you’re lost, little girl” shines through on the more independent path. If you’re more thoughtful, Persephone’s motif shifts to “maybe you don’t know who I am." Key instruments shift as you move through the paths, too, yet each still sounds distinct—replaying a song sounds like a new experience every time. These touches help ensure it sounds like a coherent piece, not just a connected amalgamation of dialogue with a backing track.
The Power Of The Player Driven Musical Stray Gods Song
“[For Persephone in the Underworld], David told us this initial setting: you're in a club, there's a crowd of onlookers, then Persephone comes out swinging and she does not like you, and you do not know why,” explains Wintory. “That gave us a real clear sense of what these three traits would look like. You fight fire with fire, she gets in your face, you get in her face right back. That's the red path, versus the charming path, which is immediately saying, okay, I’m not here to start a fight, trying to find a way to emotionally connect with her and figure out why she's so angry. Then the clever path was one where Grace realizes there's a crowd of onlookers, and Persephone is used to being the center of attention, but if I could turn the crowd to my side, she might be kind of forced to assist. Then it becomes a question of how we communicate this, and so we’d come up with an idea musically.

“The real interesting challenge that I was excited about from the very start of the project is that it’s not just that the player chooses a path and then lets the whole song play out, and there's three versions of the song. Every few seconds, you're being asked to reevaluate your tone based on the information you just got. If I choose red, then I choose green, how do I go from something that's kind of aggressive and rap battle in nature into something that's more intellectual or more charming? Because that's now the story, one that started as an aggressive, angry one and then became something more compassionate. Which is a different story than if you did the flip and went from compassionate to angry.”

The results are crescendos unlike that found in many other story-driven games. Over the course of the game's runtime, the regular lyrical confrontations strike a balance between Broadway hits like Next to Normal, Hadestown, and Sondheim’s Into the Woods in how they drive narrative through song, all while remaining accessible to those who aren't traditional musical fans. The team were admirers of Hadestown from its off-Broadway run, although Wintory admits that he hadn’t heard of the musical until halfway through production. While it may not musically match, Hamilton’s constant weaving of tone and storytelling through song became another torchbearer of influence, alongside the Bernstein classics like West Side Story.

Even if you’re just here for the Greek gods, there’s a genuinely unique angle on their (at-times contradictory) mythology that’s rarely seen elsewhere.

Gaider ends our conversation with a question to you, the reader: “Are you willing to entertain like a couple of evenings with a game that asks you to put yourself in the shoes of these characters and be swept away by some songs and to be part of this world?”

If so, these lost souls—both godlike in stature and yet human in many ways—may have an answer for you.

Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical is available on the Epic Games Store.