At PAX West 2022, we had the opportunity to see a very early look at Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, as well as talk with Creative Director David Gaider and Liam Esler about the game. We learned how the game came about, just how hard (and how much work) it was to allow for meaningful player choice in the middle of a musical number, and the game's biggest inspirations.
Stray Gods sees you take on the role of Grace, a college dropout who now has the powers of a Muse, thanks to the death of the previous Muse. This is a world where the Greek Gods still live, and they aren't quite buying that Grace just stumbled into her newfound abilities. You'll have a couple of weeks to prove your innocence, speaking and allying with various Greek Gods and other characters.
The story toys with the idea that we know the myths of the Greek Gods but their story didn't end there. They've been living for thousands of years, often grappling with how they're perceived based on the various myths and legends about them. Those Gods and other characters in Stray Gods will be portrayed by an amazing cast, including Laura Bailey and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, with more to be announced. The stellar talent is also being led by Troy Baker as the voice director for the game.
Gaider said that the idea of mashing together a musical and game is one he's had for years back before he left BioWare in 2016. He joked that he would threaten to write in a musical in one of the games to some of the higher ups' horrors, as they all knew how difficult it would be to design and implement in a game.
In terms of musicals, Stray Gods takes its biggest inspirations from more modern musicals like Hadestown, Wicked, and the musical Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Once More, with Feeling." For games, Stray Gods is a narrative adventure with an emphasis on player choice, taking inspiration from games like Life is Strange and the Dragon Age series.
Once the design process began, Stray Gods kept expanding in scope and team size, beginning with fewer than a dozen and reaching upwards of 40 employees working on it at one time. As it turns out, designing an interactive musical takes a lot more work than you'd think. Part of that comes due to it being a game and just how much player choice can affect what happens both narratively and musically.
For example, you'll get to choose the personality of Grace you want to play as at the beginning of the game, either kickass, charming, or clever. Each alters her behavior slightly and offers some different dialogue choices, but more importantly, those three choices of personality serve as the broader categories you'll have to choose from in the broader game as well. Musically, kickass has more rock in it, charming is melodic, and clever is more jazzy.
So when you get to a big musical number, you'll have choices that correspond to kickass, charming, or clever. The choice you make alters the dialogue and the actual music itself. Just like branching dialogue, the number of musical responses needed for any given song grows incredibly quick the more choices you make. If the song had you make three choices, for example, that means there are nine different sections of music that need to be created, which also have to sound as though they naturally flow together no matter the variation.
Fortunately, Stray Gods has a lot of musical talent working on the game. Austin Wintory, musical trio Tripod, and Montaigne are all working on the game's staggering amount of music, about four and a half hours worth. To put the amount of "extra" music to be made into context because of the different player choices, Gaider said that your average playthrough would only hear about one and a half hours of the music they're making.
To up the complexity of that musical challenge a little more, beyond just flowing the music and lyrics together, they have to think of certain motifs, callback words or phrases, and other theming that can show up in future songs as well. Gaider said that certain choices and refrains from some songs will appear later depending on player choice, so choices from a previous song can and will have effects on future songs as well.
Often, musicals end with big songs that will have plenty of callbacks musically and lyrically to big moments in the story, and Gaider promised that was being given special consideration with Stray Gods. All the different choices players make should culminate in an epic musical number that should be quite different from playthrough to playthrough.
What we saw of Stray Gods was a very early build, so it's going to be a while before we see the game. Gaider mentioned that the instrumentals of the music were finishing up recording now, so it seems the music is more or less complete. Making everything sound like it naturally fits together is no small undertaking, but if the team at Summerfall Studios pulls it off, Stray Gods could see a long run of performances.