An incredible production orchestrated by Melbourne's Summerfall Studios may have finally warmed my heart to musicals
I’ve never been a theatre kid.
Disliking musicals has been the mountain that I’ll forever be willing to die on. “I have a ‘no musical theatre’ policy”, I’d tell friends. Sorry, I can’t handle that acclaimed episode of your favourite tv show where everyone bursts out into song. I do not like it. I do not care for it. Keep the fosse jazz hands far far away from me.
I get why they exist though. Emotions can run high and nothing underlines the importance of a moment like the swelling of an orchestra and everyone busting out into song. Musicals provide a portal into the rich interiority of their characters. When someone’s deepest desires, fears or goals are suddenly projected through song - everything takes on a heightened meaning.
I’ve just never really felt the appeal - until now, maybe.
Join the Chorus line
Stray Gods: The roleplaying musical is the debut release from Summerfall Studios, a small Australian indie games company, helmed by ex-BioWare narrative juggernaut David Gaider.
You may know Gaider for his work on Baldur’s Gate 1 & 2, or being the person behind many beloved BioWare characters including Dragon Age’s sly witch Morrigan, good boy grey warden Alistair and Tevinter mage Dorian Pavus.
Their mission statement - ‘characters are at the heart of any good game narrative’, and what better way to explore a rich narrative world than letting you take control as your character bursts into song and turns the world around them into a living musical.
Stray God’s conceit is a rather cool one. The ancient gods of the Greek pantheon are real - and what’s more, they’re alive and walking amongst us mere mortals in the modern world. While immortal, their powers have somewhat diminished and they hide in society - fearful of what the knowledge of their existence would bring to the world.
You play Grace, a young 20-something musician in a struggling band. After a chance encounter with a mysterious woman named Calliope, Grace inherits the power of a Muse - able to bring the world to life around her with song, forcing the people around her to do what musicals do best - express themselves (for better or worse) loudly and publicly in song.
Unfortunately, her powers come with price - Grace has been framed with murder and has only a few days to clear her name or face the wrath of Athena and the rest of the Greek pantheon. You’ll bounce from location to location, interrogating people and piecing together clues, occasionally busting into song and maybe romancing and wooing a few characters along the way.
Finding your muse
This is very much a traditional visual novel experience but with exceptionally high production values. The dialogue wheel that BioWare made an industry standard with Mass Effect returns here - allowing you to pick multiple options throughout the game’s branching dialogues and story moments.
Very early on, you’ll pick Grace’s key trait, one of three personality types that unlock special dialogue and music options throughout the game - a charmer, a more direct headstrong trait or the tricksy/intellectual type. Your trait will unlock special dialogue options throughout the game, but it doesn’t lock you into a certain playstyle - you’ll still be allowed to bounce through quite a few options belonging to the various traits without everything being locked off to you.
Tension is upped during the game’s expansive musical sequences, each dialogue choice now locked to a short timer (you better quick your choices quickly!) - with each choice shifting not only the lyrics and direction of the song but the actual musicality of the track too. In one particular musical battle, I started off appealing to a character’s reason and the music flared around with me with a jazzy bounce. I decided to up the ante and immediately the song transformed into an uptempo rap battle, Grace spitting out bars in an attempt to one-up her adversary.
These are the moments where Stray Gods truly springs to life - I found myself grinning with joy as I nudged story moments in unexpected directions through song. Tonally, some of these moments can be quirky and comedic, others can be deep, personal moments about life, death and trauma where the stakes feel incredibly high.
It’s all helped by the incredibly high production values that Stray Gods has.
Every line in Stray Gods’ branching storyline is voiced out and the talent involved are world-class. Laura Bailey (The Last of Us, Critical Role), takes on the starring role of Grace and infuses her with empathy and charisma. Other industry vets including Troy Baker as the downcast and eternally shirtless Apollo, Anjali Bhimani in a standout role as Medusa and Khary Payton as the sly and mysterious Pan bring this weirdo world of ancient gods and slacker 20-somethings to life.
The tone of Stray Gods is firmly in the snarky zone - which could grate some people. For me though, it felt natural for these particular characters. Grace has a sense of wit about her and her situations and circumstances feel, at times, ridiculous.
A game can justify its tone with good characterization and here, I think it works. Stray Gods’ characters may be quippy and whipping out one-liners, but they’re also aware that they’re in a fantasy setting and respect the camp that comes with it. Forspoken’s blithe quippy back-and-forth with cuff, this is not.
It’s all tied together by composer Austin Wintory’s ambitious score - one which needs to shift genre, style and tone depending on Grace’s choices. The fact that it works - and you can shift seamlessly from balladry to a rap-battle in the span of a dialogue wheel choice is a wild technical achievement.
So the question then becomes, in a game where narrative is everything (and the only thing) - does the game succeed? Is this a story worth embodying? Are the conclusions satisfying?
I think for me, the answer is yes.
A copy of STRAY GODS: THE ROLEPLAYING MUSICAL on PC was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.