David Gaider & Liam Esler Interview: Stray Gods, A Roleplaying Musical


Upcoming game Stray Gods puts a musical spin on the classic story-game formula. The title was first announced at the 2022 Humble Games Showcase as a collaboration between the publishing wing of Humble Bundle and Summerfall Studios. The title will combine Broadway-style song with dialogue decisions and other character choices that will make for a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

Stray Gods began as a project from the mind of David Gaider, the creator of the Dragon Age series, as a new way of looking at story games. In Stray Gods, players assume the role of Grace, who is quickly thrust into unknown territory after the last of the Greek muses dies in her arms. From there Grace will have to prove her innocence to a Chorus of Greek gods consisting of Athena, Apollo, Persephone, and Aphrodite, who give her one week to find the true murderer. Alongside normal dialogue decisions typically seen in story games, players will also make them during musical numbers, completely changing the tone and lyrics of the song based on their choice.

SCREENRANT VIDEO OF THE DAY

Stray Gods developers David Gaider and Liam Esler sat down with Screen Rant to discuss the difficulties with Stray Gods‘ unique mechanics, its musical inspirations, and their plans for its future.

I have to assume you guys are fans of musicals to an extent.

Liam Esler: I certainly haven’t been obsessed with them since childhood.

Do you have any in particular that helped inspire the game?

David Gaider: I think one big one that we’ve cited is the Buffy musical, just because that was one case where it was the song is part of the world. It’s not just in the background; it’s actually a power, so that was part of the inspiration. But there’s other ones that were favorites of ours.

Liam Esler: There’s lots of Sondheim-esque influence in this. Some more contemporary musicals like Dear Evan Hanson also have little touches here and there.

David Gaider: Yeah, the style is very much Broadway, because it’s not just about the tune. It’s not just that you’re gonna dance to it; it’s what’s been said. It’s more operatic, right? You have to listen to understand the lyrics, because these are the big critical, emotional moments of the story.

You’ve had a lot of experience making your own mythology for a world with Dragon Age, David, but this is incorporating already existing mythology and twisting it in a fun new way. What was that new experience like?

David Gaider: You’re taking existing characters that everyone’s familiar with, but we’re supporting them. We’re thinking, “Okay, what if they had continued to live? How would they have changed?”

You saw Persephone, who’s played by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. Everybody knows her story, and that she was kidnapped by Hades and brought down to the Underworld and made its queen. But she is sort of annoyed that’s where everyone thinks her story ended. In this, Persephone grew very angry and bitter at Hades. She ended up killing him and usurping his throne, and the rest said, “That’s not cool, you shouldn’t kill other idols,” and they stripped her of her throne. So, she’s carried all this bitterness; this grudge against her brothers and sisters all this time. And they all have this baggage that’s come with them.

If you know the story of the Greek gods, they’re a messy bunch. So much drama; so much that we had to work with. Really, it was a matter of figuring how this version of them works over the years. They’ve all died numerous times, so they all look very different. They’re different people but, even so, they have those memories that stretch back for thousands of years. They never just let anything go.

They have all these stories, so it was great for me to pick and choose which ones to use. “Oh, that story was kind of fake, but there’s a kernel of truth to this one,” and it grows from there. That was a fun process.

Are there any other big mythological characters that weren’t present in that main scene that players can expect at later times? Because Zeus is the messiest guy.

David Gaider: Zeus is gone, though. Funny thing is that the older gods—Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Ares—they’ve all disappeared or died over the years. The chorus that you encounter, they are the rulers of the islands. But there are other ones that you read into, who have assumed a new importance now that the elders are gone.

I know that the game used to be called Chorus. At what point in the development did it shift into something different entirely?

Liam Esler: Part of it was that as the game progressed, Chorus as a title felt a bit hollow. It wasn’t quite resonating. It didn’t really reflect the story. Chorus is a great title for a musical game, but it wasn’t reflective of the story we were trying to tell.

When Chorus: Rise As One came out, we were like, “Actually, let’s use that as an opportunity to rebrand and find something that’s a little bit more effective for us.” It took us like three months of going back and forth. It was an agonizing process to finally hit upon Stray Gods as a title that’s really reflective of the themes and the journeys that these characters take through the game.

David Gaider: Because the gods, while they’ve been around for so long, are all lost in their individual ways. Persephone is lost in her anger. Apollo is the God of prophecy, but prophecies trap you once you know them. So every time he tries to use his power to help, he actually ends up causing more harm than not. He feels like he can’t do anything or create change. He feels helpless and kind of depressed.

They’re all kind of lost, and it’s up to Grace to see if she can find them.

You’re collaborating with Austin Wintory, who’s a really awesome composer. During the showcase, he mentioned that there are a bunch of songs that many players will never encounter, and there’s a ton of secret stuff in this game. Can you elaborate on that a little bit more?

Liam Esler: Not a lot. Not without giving it away.

David Gaider: There’s over four hours of music that we’ve recorded, and a player is only going to encounter maybe an hour or an hour and twenty minutes in a given playthrough. That accounts for the branching, but also there’s some songs that only appear based on your choices—like romance songs.

And even in the song, you may only hear this portion of the song or this unique section if you take these particular choices. So, the player is going to go back and play through, encounter new stuff, and then just make new discoveries. That’s part of the point.

Liam Esler: You can easily play through three times and hear new music in every playthrough for a lot of it.

At this point, is there any runtime in mind? Or is it very variable?

Liam Esler: Yeah, right now it’s sitting at about five hours on the short end and eight hours on the longer end. It’s kind of the perfect game. It’s my favorite length to sit down for a couple of play sessions or get through in one day if you really want to.

David, you mentioned this was a project you wanted to do for a really long time.

David Gaider: Yeah, I brought it up back in the Bioware days, kind of half as a joke. “We should do a musical DLC.” The more I talked about it at Bioware, the more the cinematic people and VO people were like, “Yeah, how would we do that?” And the management was kinda like, “Woah. Let’s not get crazy.” They kind of kiboshed it, but in the back of my mind, I was like, “But we could do something like that…”

When Liam and I started talking to that, that’s why it came up as this unfinished thing. And it turned out that it was a lot more complicated than we thought, just because nobody’s done this before. Not to this extent. Even in games where music is really important, it still is essentially background.

And when we encountered Austin, he had always been playing with the idea on his own. He’s like, “Well, what about a game where the music is the point? We’re predominantly branching lyrics, or branching songs style, and how would we do that?” Then when a friend of Liam’s heard what we were doing, they were like, “You should talk to Austin, he’s got some of the same ideas.” It’s kind of serendipitous that we hooked up, because Austin has had a whole bunch of his own ideas, and he set some pretty tough challenges for himself.

But we had to kind of create the pipeline from scratch, because there was no one to ask. “How do we do the transitions? How do we make this manageable?” When I sat down, I first I thought, “How hard could writing lyrics be?” We had to get some lyricists on board: Tripod is a trio of lyricists from Melbourne. And then Montaigne, who was Australia’s entry into Eurovision, came on as lyricist.

I had to learn how to share the creation of these pivotal emotional moments. I have to share them not only with the composer, but with the lyricist. And while they’ve written songs before, they’ve never written branching songs where agency is a factor. So, all of us were doing a trial and error of trying to figure out how we make these. There was a point where the songs had a lot more mechanics; you were building up points and stuff. But then we found that, no, players are paying way too much attention to how to get those points and not listening to the songs. So, we had to play with that quite a lot until we finally figured out exactly how we’re going to do this.

When I first saw it introduced at the Humble Showcase, I wasn’t sure if it was a rhythm-based thing going on or what. It must be so complicated to make. Because usually, with branching dialogue, you just record these three options.

David Gaider: Yeah, cuz it wasn’t just like, “Okay, the lyrics change and the music changes, but that’s awesome for Austin.” But the songs have certain rules to how they’re formed. For the song you listened to, Apollo’s song, the first choice you make establishes a refrain. And you need to keep hearing that refrain as you go through the song. When you make a decision, you not only have three choices and three branches. Those branches need different variations based on what refrain you have from the beginning of the song, so a choice of three actually becomes a branch of nine.

We have bottlenecks that bring it back together and to keep the song moving forward; to try to keep the branching from getting out of hand. But somehow we had to, between the lyricists and their knowledge of how songs are made, and my knowledge of how to structure branching in narrative, we had to come together and figure out how to do that as a cohesive base.

How did you and Liam first come together for this project?

Liam Esler: I think, initially, we met at GaymerX3 in San Jose years ago. I think around the same time, we were both thinking of starting our own studio and had drinks at GDC one year. We were having a conversation and talking about, “What is your dream studio? What’s your dream game?” We started to talk, and we quickly realized we’re talking about the same thing. We were like, “Okay, that’s interesting,” and so we kept talking about that. And then in late 2017, we were like, “Right, let’s do it.”

David Gaider: Yeah, Liam was running GCAP in Melbourne, so he invited me down to speak at GCAP. And we thought, “Okay, we’re here. Let’s talk about the studio thing.” And I think within half an hour, we went from, “Do we start a studio together?” to “What’s our first project?”

What year did Stray Gods start really taking shape?

Liam Esler: 2019. There were a bunch of different versions, because we’ve been working on Stray Gods since 2017. But I think this version of it really only came into being in 2019.

David Gaider: Yeah, we put together the crowdfunding campaign just to kind of test it. Because even we didn’t know if there was actual interest in this. That was always the question from publishers too; they liked the idea, but there’s no direct line you can draw to any previous game as to why it will sell. Who is interested in this?

I was working on the narrative overview at that point, and we put together the campaign and put it out there just to see if we can raise enough money to get us through this initial period to find a publisher. Then we would continue because obviously there’s a market out there. We got some pretty intense interest. There’s a lot of people that came out of the woodwork to be like, “This game is made specifically for me.”

It’s the kind of thing that sounds so niche when you hear it, but then you’re like, “Wait, so many people actually like it.” It combines so many different genres into something really exciting.

David Gaider: Yeah. And it’s not an actual RPG, so it doesn’t have leveling up. It’s not an RPG in the traditional genre sense, but you’re roleplaying a character. We wanted to keep the mechanics really simple, because we want this to be the kind of game that someone who is just a Musical fan or Broadway fan can come in and play it too. You can get your grandma who just loves musicals to hop on and play it too. It won’t be that complicated.

Do you have any favorite ways that you’ve seen the game evolve over time?

Liam Esler: I think probably the story, for me. The story’s been through several drastic iterations. The pandemic slowed things down a lot, and that really sucked. That really delayed us a long time, working on an already difficult thing, doing core creative at the beginning of the pandemic.

We wrote the first version of the game, but the thing that the pandemic allowed us was time. And so, we did a bunch of play testing with people and got a bunch of feedback. We were able to then take on that feedback and recraft the story in different ways. We ended up rewriting, I think, two thirds of the game and really strengthening it a lot. A lot of the changes that happened there were really cool, and I’m just so excited for this version of it and what players will see. Awesome.

David Gaider: For me, I like watching Austin’s process. We knew sort of what he wanted, but he’s not a very vocal person in that sense. So, when we start getting the final instrumentation that’s coming through—he was just in Melbourne and recording a lot of final instrumentation with Orchestra Victoria, and we got to go in there and listen to them play. Hearing, “This is what he’s imagining for the final version of the song,” it was very moving to realize that between the voice acting, the singing, and the final music, the song that I’ve known mostly through scratch music and a piano backing track for years now suddenly blossoms into life.

Over the years that I’ve done this, the point at which the VO goes in is usually the last point for me; when I have a voice actor that’s brought what I’ve written to life. I’m familiar with that, and that’s its own special thing. But to have the addition of the music now as well means I sort of get two points where suddenly everything has changed and come alive for me. So, that was a real treat.

During that first duet with Calliope and Grace, I got chills. I can already foresee myself being Grace for Halloween. Love a brunette protagonist. It’s easy to slap together.

Liam Esler: Grace’s design was intended to be very cosplay-able. For all of the character designs that our art director put together, he kept that in mind. Some of them are pretty easy and some of them are much more complicated, but they are all very cosplayable.

Is there anything that you want players to know about Stray Gods at this point in development?

Liam Esler: Nothing I can talk about. It’s all stuff that people will play the game and find out.

David Gaider: I want to announce the cast. We get to work with some amazing people. We’ve had some voice actors come in, but it’s a mix. There’s some people that are well-known voice actors, and some of them are Broadway people. But all of them who came in started off—especially the voice actors—like, “I don’t know how this works exactly.” But by the time they got to the end of the process, they were like, “This is incredible. I love this. I’ve never done this in a voiceover session before. Do we have to stop?” And that was so gratifying to hear. I just want everybody to meet these characters and listen to the performances they gave us.

Troy Baker is such an amazing voice director. I got to sit in every session of course, from Melbourne in 2am sessions where I’m incredibly tired. But I got to watch him work his magic as he sort of pulls the performance out of people, and then Austin’s pulling the singing performance out of people. And it was really magic to behold. That’s the part I just want everybody to see, and they’re all gonna fall in love with specific characters, when we finally announce the rest of the cast. They’re gonna be like, “I want to romance that character!” There’s only four romances, not twelve.

That’s where I want to get to, but not just yet.

I know it’s early days still. Do you guys have any sort of timeline, or is it just up in the air?

Liam Esler: Not yet. The future?

David Gaider: As a studio, we’re determined to stick to a no-crunch policy. We don’t want to work anyone to death. We maintain that we also do not crunch, because we don’t want to lead into crunch by example. We don’t want anyone secretly working in crunch, or thinking that they need to be a team player to get ahead. So, we’re pacing ourselves; we want everybody to have a good work-life balance, and we’re gonna try to make the project fit the work we have available.

We’re in that kind of end-stage now where maybe there’s some stuff we have to cut, but we’ll figure it out. We will get there, and we don’t want to overpromise.

Stray Gods currently has no set release date.

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