Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical Review
Spend even a little amount of time studying Greek and Roman mythology — or, for that matter, the religions or mythology of virtually any culture — and you’ll notice something. The pantheon of gods like Zeus, Athena, and Apollo are just like us. They’re subject to the same emotions and bad behavior we are. Immortality doesn’t make them immune to anger, jealousy, spitefulness, lust, dishonesty, or depression. In fact, those emotions define their roles. Stray Gods, the new interactive musical video game, suggests that’s one of the reasons the gods can exist among us, hidden in plain sight.
A True Collaboration and a Game Years in the Making
Written by David Gaider and composer Austin Wintory, with lyrics by Tripod and Montaigne, Stray Gods is subtitled as “The Roleplaying Musical.” I think the description is a little misleading. There aren’t really RPG elements and you can’t exactly craft a unique character, though you can certainly shape the leading character’s experience. Instead, I’d describe it as a visual novel with original and compelling musical elements. Potato/potahto.
Told through static illustrations, fully voiced dialogue, and music, Stray Gods is the story of Grace, a woman in her early 20s who is feeling directionless. College was a bust and her commitment to her rock band is a bit halfhearted. One night after band auditions, a mysterious stranger shows up and she and Grace sing a powerful duet, seemingly out of nowhere. The stranger disappears into the night, only to turn up at Grace’s apartment the next day, bleeding out from an attack. Before she dies, the woman, named Calliope, imbues Grace with the mysterious power of making people burst out in song.
Before she knows it, Grace receives an unexpected visitor with ram’s horns and an attitude. He calls himself Pan and suggests that the dead woman was the last Muse and that Calliope has passed along her power to Grace. Skeptical, Grace now has several tasks. She has to solve Calliope’s murder and clear her name with the other gods. And she needs to understand her new powers — if they’re actually real — and negotiate the interpersonal minefields and petty squabbles that the gods are prone to. To describe much more of the story would spoil it. Suffice it to say that Grace goes on a journey of self-discovery as she solves the mystery of Calliope’s death.
If Stephen Sondheim and Buffy had a child (not likely)
The idea of gods living among us — whether they’re from Greek mythology or the Marvel Cinematic Universe — isn’t a new concept. What Gaider and Wintory bring to the table is a fresh way of bringing a videogame story and characters to life through song the same way as it would in a musical. Call it genius, David Blaine-like magic, or simply amazing craftsmanship, Wintory, and company are breaking new ground — at least for a video game.
Wintory has noted that Stray Gods takes partial inspiration from the Season 6 musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More With Feeling.” Although their musical styles are quite different, the contemporary, ironic, clever, and often emotional lyrics have a similar vibe. Wintory is an accomplished composer. It’s no surprise that the music trades Whedon’s simple pop hooks for more substantial and sophisticated melody and harmony.
Tale as Old as Time
The idea of bringing drama and music together is as old as entertainment. The hook in Stray Gods is that the player can guide the unfolding of the songs in real time. Many games have dialogue choices — as does Stray Gods — impacting the story direction and character development. In Stray Gods, the songs are like miniature “choose your own adventure” games. Players are prompted to choose the narrative or emotional direction to guide the lyrics and music at specific places. The song then flows seamlessly along that path until the next fork in the road. Lyric choices are color-coded, which allowed Wintory to create a different texture for each color.
Responding to player choice is what videogame music always does. But it’s one thing to have an instrumental cue morph from exploration to battle music, and quite another to let the player create cogent songs on the fly. Between the various permutations of player choice in dialogue, narrative, and songs, no two players will likely have the same exact experience or ending. Stray Gods ups the ante on replayability.
Wintory, who has written for countless games, films, and television, has extraordinary range as a composer. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s able to do a good job of adapting his style to a theatre music aesthetic. Listen to the backing tracks and you’ll rarely hear a simple guitar/bass/drums combo. While some of the songs are rooted in a verse-chorus pattern, most have a free-form structure that responds to the changing, player-directed emotional beats. The orchestration changes for each lyrical and emotional turn.
The large cast — made up of heavy hitters like Troy Baker — who directed the actors — Laura Bailey and Felicia Day — is uniformly excellent. A few line readings seem both sonically and emotionally detached or oddly balanced. Gaider’s writing is good, with an occasional misstep finding the voice of characters younger than the writers.
The narrative hits some fairly bleak emotional beats, though it’s not also without humor, hope, and redemption. The sometimes repetitive static art and long stretches of dialogue without song can make the story drag when it should have the momentum of a rock opera. However, the player-driven lyric choices work well as a mechanic and never feel like just a gimmick. The shifting musical styles resulting from player choices are a perfect reflection of changing emotional states.
The Start of a New Franchise?
Part murder mystery, part visual novel, Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical is an audacious experiment. Happily, it pays off in a unique video game experience. There aren’t many games that use songs in a theatrical way. Being able to direct the flow of the music in real time is exciting and engaging. Pacing issues aside, it’s a concept that’s definitely worthy of continued development. I hope Wintory and Gaider continue to iterate on this new IP.
***PS5 code provided by the publisher for review***
- Clever and original music mechanics
- Interesting characters and story
- Immensely replayable
- Varied and effective music
- Some audio balance issues
- Long stretches without music can drag
- Static art grows a bit repetitive