Make It a Musical!

Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical Brings Broadway to Video Games

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Every now and then, a piece of media comes along that has you asking, How has no one ever done this before? In Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, musical theater finally makes its debut on the video game stage, combining the best of both worlds in interactive song. It’s a bold idea, one that draws on a star-studded cast to record hundreds of soundtrack variations, and in most ways, the game makes good on its promising concept.

Stray Gods follows Grace (Laura Bailey), a college dropout struggling to keep a band together with her friends. During tryouts, she falls into a musical reverie about feeling lost, and she is joined in harmony by a mysterious stranger named Calliope (Ashley Johnson). Later that same day, Calliope shows up at Grace’s apartment on the brink of death and reveals that she is a Greek god—the last of the muses. Upon her death, Calliope transfers her powers to Grace.

Before Grace can process what has just happened, she is summoned to appear before the chorus of gods—Athena (Felicia Day), Persephone (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn), Apollo (Troy Baker), and Aphrodite (Merle Dandridge). With very little deliberation—and a jazzy musical number—they blame Grace for Calliope’s murder and sentence her to death. In order to avoid this fate, Grace must uncover the true identity of the murderer before the clock runs out.

From the very beginning, Stray Gods revels in the blending of genres. Its ancient pantheon of gods is transported to modern urban settings where they encounter modern problems. The classic murder mystery plot harkens back to classic detective games like Ace Attorney, while the interpersonal relationships and adult themes call to mind bittersweet indie titles like Spiritfarer. Even its still-frame illustrated art style is part visual novel and part motion comic.

For the most part, the gameplay involves traditional branching narrative mechanics, where you make dialogue choices in conversation with other characters. The twist is that players use their powers as a muse to compel suspects to sing out their inner monologue (a clear nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling”). In between main story sections, players can get to know and even romance various characters (and yes, you can be queer in-game.)

During musical numbers, player choices affect the lyrics and direction of the song, leading to several potential variations. In a developer interview last year, composer Austin Wintory said, “I’m pretty sure it’s the most music I’ve ever written for a game now. Usually producers don’t like to spend time and resources on things that maybe 5% of players are going to find, but this game is loaded with that kind of content. I’ve written so much that honestly … the odds of [most players] ever finding it is low, but I kind of love that.” The end result is something close to the mythic hydra of musical theater.

One of the most appealing aspects of the game is its character design. As in other myth-based titles like Hades, players get to look forward to new interpretations of ancient Greek gods ( though unlike Hades, these gods are somehow even more queer). Although the gods are meant to manifest specific qualities, their personalities are full of surprises. Apollo might be a blonde surfer sun god with a perpetually unbuttoned shirt, but he is also somber and uncertain. Aphrodite might be a hedonistic goddess of love, but she is drawn more to kindness than pleasure.

Along these same lines, there’s much more than a murder mystery to the plot in Stray Gods. Each character’s story invariably touches on mental health, and there are interesting ways in which the game uses supernatural elements to explore those topics through a different lens. The game asks, what does recovery from trauma look like when your memory is eternal? What is the point of a god that can’t improve the world? It’s all in the title—these gods might seem like powerful beings, but they’re just as messy and lost as the rest of us.

In Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, musical theater finally makes its debut on the video game stage, combining the best of both worlds in interactive song

Stray Gods has a lot going for it conceptually, so how does it deliver on all that potential? The overall presentation is effective narratively, but watching still images sing can feel awkward and lacking in stage magic. The story, with its pagan gods transplanted to city apartments and nightclubs, has an air of the ridiculous which is naturally played for laughs. The levity becomes a salve for the more serious story beats, but it can also make them hard to take seriously.

As for the songs themselves, they tend to go for subdued over theatrical—often, they’re downright conversational. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the game does fall short of making you feel like you’re front row at the West End as a result. While the songs lack the show-stopping quality of many memorable Broadway hits, they are beautifully performed and will likely find their way onto many a musical-lovers’ playlist.

An interactive musical is an irresistible video game experiment that feels like a long time in coming. But largely because of its cross-genre premise, Stray Gods feels like a mashup of gimmicks as opposed to something truly groundbreaking. But along the way, the game does have a lot of fun channeling the best aspects of each genre it pulls from. It’s enough to make you hope that Stray Gods might just be the beginning of a whole cast of musical theater video games to come.♦

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