Stray Gods - Bless My Soul, Grace is on a Role
Roleplaying AND Musical Theatre? If there’s two Player2 team members for whom this combo sings, it’s Jess and Stephen. Melbourne’s Summerfall Studios debut, Stray Gods (formerly titled Chorus: A Musical Adventure) came to life via crowdfunding in October of 2019. Since then a crowdfunding buyout and a global pandemic saw a name change and protracted development cycle for Stray Gods. Now close to four years after its initial teaser trailer, Jess and Stephen discuss how successful Summerfall Studios have been in creating the first “interactive digital musical”.
In the interests of full disclosure, Stephen backed the original Chorus: A Musical Adventure crowdfunding campaign when it launched on Fig in 2019.
Stephen: Musicals Jess. I love them. Stage or screen, it doesn’t bother me – from the work of film pioneers like Busby Berkely through to modern productions like Hamilton and Waitress, I’m keen. So when the offer for Stray Gods came through, it seemed like a no-brainer. Never before have video games and musical theatre met in such capacity, so I wanted to be front and centre to see how this one played out. Stray Gods tells the story of Grace (Laura Bailey), a human caught up in a murder mystery amongst the Greek Pantheon with only a few days to prove her innocence. Having completed the game though, a little part of me thinks it might have needed some more time in the workshop stage…
Jess: I’m right there with you. There are very few musicals in the world that I don’t like – and I’m even including the musical episodes of TV shows that many consider to be terrible. I love them all. So since its announcement, my excitement (and perhaps expectations – which may be to its detriment) has been off the charts. But now that I’ve played through the game a few times, my feelings on the game that Summerfall Studios has ended up creating are… complex, to say the least. I truly love what they’ve tried to do here, and can appreciate that it must have been a mammoth task to get something like this released at all, but some choices that they’ve made with the direction of the game have me wondering if maybe this marriage of forms and genres is achievable in quite the way they’ve imagined. There’s a lot of power in the narrative, and there are elements of the story and its characters that I appreciate, but it just doesn’t quite… hit the way that musicals usually do?
Stephen: I think we both have some complex feelings about Stray Gods and perhaps the largest for me is that I didn’t particularly enjoy parts of it whilst also admiring the efforts by the team involved to try something new and push the medium of gaming in a different direction. It isn’t easy to tread a new path. Musicals are also hugely subjective which makes aspects of my criticism negligible for some of the audience anyway. Firstly, the musical aspect of Stray Gods failed to elicit the emotional response I’ve had from many other musicals. I have both cheered and wept during live performances and films alike, and yet the distinct and lavish art style aside, the limited animation in Stray Gods could never hope to reach such heights. Compare the most heartfelt performances in this, and I mean no disrespect to the voice actors involved who really do a fantastic job on the whole, but against something like Emma Stone in La La Land or Phillipa Soo in Hamilton…the human element, it often feels absent given how absolutely the animation in Stray Gods fails to capture the vulnerability of a performer in the moment or the artistry of hand animated Disney musicals in their heyday. Many of the cast have affected me significantly in other performances from their oeuvre, and I can’t help but wonder the impact of remote recording and lack of real world interaction between the cast on the end results. That’s not to disparage the visual style however – the art itself is vivid and compelling in terms of lines and colour with great, distinctive character designs, but still frames or slight movements don’t quite match the bombast some of these moments are going for, perhaps a budgetary restraint around lip syncing given the breadth of content they’d need to align to this. Compounding this issue for me is the gameplay, which I would classify as essentially a visual novel, not even at the level of other modern adventure games like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. In some ways, I think the interactive elements made for a worse experience, if that makes any sense? In trying to accommodate for a variety of approaches or versions of Grace, I felt some cohesion was lost in particular performances where a song shifted awkwardly to another style, or a la Mass Effect, the shorthand text option for a line or sequence didn’t quite match up with where it went.
Jess: I think it makes a lot of sense, and I agree that there’s something lacking in the way the emotion is expressed in the musical numbers in particular. This is a cast of extremely talented voice actors, but many of them don’t come from a musical theatre background. They’re good singers, but a good singing voice doesn’t always allow for the range of expression needed to sound good and express that nuanced emotion – skill in musical theatre is, to me at least, a very different thing to skill in acting or singing alone, or even a combination of the two. Some of the cast do come from that broadway background – including standout performers Anthony Rapp and Merle Dandridge (both of whom have starred in productions of Rent among many others) and it shows, but it also unfortunately highlights that those whose influences are heard the most (including renowned composer Austin Wintory and extremely talented voice actress Laura Bailey) do not. They’re incredibly skilled at their crafts, but also just a little outside the realm of the experience needed to make this the groundbreaking broadway big-hitter that I wanted it to be. Their job is also made harder by – as you said – the limited animation, which while gorgeous in its still frames, struggles to convey the subtle emotions expected from a production like this.
I’d also agree that visual novel is the best description for the game’s genre, given it’s essentially a string of (sometimes musical) conversations, with almost no gameplay elements in between. Sometimes you’ll click a location on a map to go from one place to another, or be presented with a still image of a room and given the choice to examine its contents by selecting them off a list, but otherwise you’re just making dialogue choices. The closest the game gets to being a ‘roleplaying’ game is the fact that you can give Grace one of three traits – charming, clever, or kickass – each of which will occasionally open up a unique dialogue choice in conversation, but beyond that don’t have much of an effect on the gameplay. During songs, selecting options that pertain to each of these traits will affect the musical style of the song’s progression, but the ability to make these lyrical choices is largely unrelated to the choice you made for Grace’s character at the beginning. By giving so much choice for how she can react to situations, it’s hard to give her a consistent character in a meaningful way without affecting the story in ways that feel unfair. I feel like the same is true for the songs themselves – even when trying to maintain a core character personality and only choosing ‘charming’ options, for example, it feels like the song is made up of a bunch of somewhat disconnected bits. In accommodating three different possible styles, they don’t feel as cohesive as they should. While it isn’t uncommon for a musical to switch up styles or genres between songs, there’s usually some consistency that was lacking here, which made it hard to connect to many of the numbers – and yet somehow, also hard to distinguish them.
Stephen: I’m with you there that I don’t feel like any of the songs themselves stood out – Anthony Rapp as Orpheus, Merle Dandridge as Aphrodite and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as Persephone all gave exceptional performances, but there wasn’t a single earworm in the soundtrack at first blush. That said, there are plenty of musical soundtracks that seem to comprise almost all ‘deep cuts’, but I usually come away with at least one song looping in my head for a few days to a week after a show which wasn’t the case here. In terms of choices, as you stated there are three distinct personalities you can align Grace with via dialogue options and a few story junctures that lock some characters out for a portion of the story to focus on others. I have to say on my first run of the game, I must have made the worst choices possible given where my Grace found herself at the end of it all. I’m not sure whether it was a lack of signposting or sheer idiocy on my part, but in exploring some of the alternatives when revisiting the game it feels to me there are significantly better versions of this story than others.
Jess: My first playthrough definitely suffered the same fate – I was ready to condemn the ending sections for disregarding what I thought were big choices I’d made, but then I realised it was my own error – just one that wasn’t well signposted. It feels like there are ‘correct’ choices here, and certainly ones that feel more rewarding, even though taking different paths will ultimately unlock new and different songs. Each of Grace’s potential suitors, for example, can serenade her with their own tune – as long as you choose to see one romance through to the end. There’s also a no-romance route that has its own unique song, which I’m glad exists, but I also wish it was a little harder to accidentally achieve – one wrong dialogue choice cut off a romance I’d been pursuing for the whole game on my first playthrough, and that was accidentally (and unknowingly) that. I will say I pursued two of the romantic interests on consecutive playthroughs, and it does seem that the same amount of love and attention has been given to each one, so that’s one choice that truly is up to you.
On a related note, I also want to shout out the diverse cast of Stray Gods, which for me might be its greatest strength. Several of your potential paramours are women (and honestly, Grace feels pretty clearly queer whether or not you choose to pursue either of them), and there are canonically queer couples who play important roles in the story, no matter what paths you choose. Combine that with the ensemble of diverse genders and gender expressions, races, and body types, and you have a cast that really feels dynamic and exciting, and which exemplifies the type of representation I think all games should strive for.
Stephen: The level of representation here is certainly a high point and something that serves to make some of the themes behind the story richer as well. I think the only kind of representation that hasn’t gone particularly well, given some recent tweets by writer David Gaider, is what Stray Gods really is – it’s somewhat roleplaying in a broad sense, but not what I generally consider when I think of roleplaying/RPG games. In fact, on the whole I’m of the opinion that the original title of Chorus: A Musical Adventure is more representative, but perhaps not as snappy from a PR standpoint. Very early on in our playthroughs, we both commented that the gameplay itself wasn’t quite what we were expecting from the title, hewing much closer to modern adventure game and visual novel mechanics and tropes. This is a fairly important distinction, as we also want to make sure we are judging Stray Gods on its own merits and not what we’d hoped it would be. As a visual novel, I think it works really well with the runtime and interactivity sitting where I’d expect. I also think I would have preferred to play this on Switch rather than sitting at my PC, it feels like a game that is nice to settle into on the couch or in bed for a few hours before bed. There were also some technical hiccups on the PC version we play that are expected to be ironed out before launch, but were still slightly off-putting. The most noticeable for me was the wildly differing volume levels between character dialogue in numerous scenes where suddenly there was a 6db jump which on at least one occasion caused me to jump in my seat!
Jess: It was definitely nice to play it curled up on the lounge on a laptop over a few sessions. The minimal amount of interactivity required meant that sitting down to play Stray Gods was more like sitting down for a movie night than anything else – though I do agree that visual novel is the best label for it. And if we’re judging it as a visual novel, I think it’s got a lot to offer – far more than it does as a ‘roleplaying musical’. But as interesting and unique as it is, I also think it’s fair to say that the game’s development went in a different direction to what we originally expected when Chorus: An Adventure Musical was announced back in 2019 – and in doing so, lost some of what would have made it a truly spectacular experience.
Stray Gods was reviewed on PC by both Jess and Stephen with code kindly supplied by the publisher.