From the minute I read the words "roleplaying musical," I wondered how well musical theater and video games would merge on the latter's home turf. After all, we've seen video games make the jump to the real-world stage a few times in history – Japan's Ace Attorney musicals and The Last Of Us: One Night Live spring to mind. However, a video game taking the form of a Broadway musical is a much rarer affair, and Stray Gods is a perfect example of what makes that adaptation so difficult. A great (if predictable) story, enhanced by some incredible musical performances, is limited by the medium chosen to host it, which creates a fun but imperfect experience.
Stray Gods tells the story of Grace, a young woman drifting through life without much purpose. Suddenly, through a chance meeting with someone who was more than she seemed, Grace finds herself the recipient of accidental immortality…and accusations of murdering the one who gave her these powers. With her best friend Freddie and a pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses hiding in plain sight, Grace must find out what happened to the mysterious girl who bestowed her with these powers, lest Grace join her benefactor in the afterlife.
The game plays out through dialogue choices, both in conversation and in song. Conversations with various characters lead to learning more about not only the deceased, but the other gods around Grace and how they've adapted throughout the millennia. Persephone turned her forced removal from the throne of Hades into ownership of a nightclub called The Underworld. Pan is a smooth-talking satyr who's constantly wheeling and dealing. Apollo, in perhaps the furthest deviation from the source material, is a quiet and brooding introvert. Meeting all of these immortals is fascinating, as expectations will almost always be subverted.
The player has some agency on how the story plays out, though I wouldn't call it enough for the game to earn that word "roleplaying" in the title. Sure, I can give Grace one of three traits which open up unique dialogue trees, and yes, a few of my choices influence the story – like deciding which of these gods to woo – but Grace isn't "leveling up" with each completed song. I'm not adjusting stats or giving her new singing abilities, I'm just playing through the story and deciding how she should think. Are the Telltale narrative games like Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us considered "roleplaying" games? I personally wouldn't call them that, and I wouldn't call Stray Gods that either.
Monikers aside, Stray Gods is driven, understandably, by the performances of its voice actors, and hot dang is the gaming industry loaded with some musically savvy people. Troy Baker (Apollo) and Ashley Johnson (Calliope) having pipes isn't surprising – see the aforementioned The Last Of Us One Night Live – but every actor crushes every song they're in. Laura Bailey owns the lead role of Grace, infusing soul and passion into every word. Janina Gavankar steals the show as Freddie, Grace's best friend and a constant source of comic relief. Oh, and a character introduced late in the game who I won't spoil is voiced by Broadway royalty, his voice sending me right back to repeated listenings of his most favorite work in high school.
My choice for the most well-rounded performance, however, is Khary Payton's Pan. Not only can he sing, but charisma oozes from the scheming satyr's every spoken word thanks to Payton's slick delivery. That being said, my favorite character in the game is the lovestruck minotaur Asterion, played by Rahul Kohli. His stammering delivery when speaking of his beloved is so charming and relatable, I smiled throughout his entire scene, the lovable scamp. Seriously, it's a delight.
As much as I loved the music and the performances behind it, I cannot say it was a perfect viewing experience, and the reason for this is a weird balancing act inherent in Stray Gods' identity. This is a video game, but it's also a musical, and the marriage of the two formats in this instance isn't a perfect one. Unfortunately, the reasons for this are baked into the very concept, and I don't know how they could have been avoided.
I happen to have a solid musical theater background, performing on stage since I was a boy. In high school, I took part in two musicals per year, and even now I'm part of a once-a-year community theater troupe. I'm no expert, but I know my way around the art. As such, that experience has given me an ear into how a song should flow, and how each verse links musically to the next one. Timing, rhythm, and more all play major factors in this, giving each song its unique qualities.
Stray Gods has these qualities, absolutely. These songs are beautifully written and performed, a testament to the talents of everyone involved. The problem comes in allowing me, the player, to have agency over how each song plays out. By giving me a choice in the next set of lyrics, I force the game to have to load my choice into the song, which then creates weird transitional sections in each song that throw off the rhythm. As a video game it's fine – it's what makes me play the game – but this in turn causes the musical half of the game's identity to suffer. It's sort of like an actor forgetting a line to a song in the middle of it, which forces the orchestra to improvise until the actor gets his crap together (not speaking from personal experience or anything here). Instead of immediately being moved by the next lyrics, I'm waiting for the song to move it along.
Therein lies the difficulty of creating a "video game musical;" giving the player more things to do negatively impacts the musicality, while making each song one set path gives the player less to do. It's an impossible back and forth, a problem I imagine was a Herculean task from the beginning. I will say the team did a wonderful job in dealing with this issue for the most part, but that doesn't make the start-and-stop nature of some climatic moments any less noticeable. I would love to see a one-night-only live stage version of this game in its pure musical form, not only to see what the team feels is the game's canon storyline, but also to hear these songs without those awkward transitions.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical is a project that should be experienced, if only to see how a musical fares in the world of video games. It's not a perfect pairing – there are traits unique to musicals which simply do not translate well into gaming – but the story being told and the voices behind that story are truly fantastic. When an all-star cast like this comes together in the same project, the work can't help but be great. Those inherent, unavoidable issues, however, keep Stray Gods from reaching true immortality.