The operatic Stray Gods, which won Game of the Year at the recent Australian Game Developer Awards, is an instant classic. By Katherine Cross.
A lifetime ago, a BioWare developer who worked on the legendary Dragon Age roleplaying game (RPG) series was viciously harassed by angry, mostly male gamers for having the gall to suggest it might be nice if players could choose to skip combat. More than a decade later, a new Australian studio has taken her advice to heart and gone one better.
Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical is a BioWare-esque narrative game that combines the best of the RPG genre with the mechanics of visual novels to tell a compelling, combat-free story about wayward ancient gods and the queer indie-band geeks who love them. It’s not only everything I hoped it would be: I’d say it ranks as an instant Australian-made classic, a high bar to clear in a local industry crowded with talent. Indeed, the 2023 Australian Game Developer Awards just recognised Stray Gods with a Game of the Year award, as well as its Excellence in Music and Excellence in Accessibility awards.
You play as Grace, the band’s frontwoman: a leather-wearing disaster bisexual with a grin like a shield. As with this game’s clear inspirations from the BioWare catalogue – Mass Effect and Dragon Age, or games with memorable player-protagonists such as Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey – Grace is a protagonist who is at once a cipher and a character with a set personality. As with Dragon Age 2’s Hawke, you can emphasise different parts of her personality to create a new whole: Grace can be “charismatic”, “clever” or “aggressive”. Crucially, each quality infuses her style of singing.
And sing she shall. Thanks to some supernatural intrigue, she comes home to her humble apartment to discover she’s become a Muse. And not just any Muse but the last one. A god. Or, in the parlance of the game’s lore, an idol. The other idols? Well, they might just think Grace came by these powers dishonestly. Some want her dead for it. What follows is the RPG equivalent of a locked-room murder mystery, replete with smoky misdirection, femmes (and hommes) fatales, and music. Lots and lots of gorgeous music.
Stray Gods is a chaotic alternative dimension of nerdy universes: a cross between comic books, Agatha Christie, classic RPGs, the musical episodes of Buffy or Star Trek: Strange New Worlds and your favourite queer webcomics. It’s a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk of different arts that are rare to see together in a relatively short indie game of this nature: beautiful writing and visual art, magnificent voice acting and singing and music. The comparison to opera is very advised indeed.
Stray Gods’ theme is redolent of the incisive comic series The Wicked and the Divine: gods ripped from antiquity and dropped into the social media-soaked present, with sideshaves, septum piercings, bad tattoos and undiagnosed mental health crises aplenty. There’s a richness to this vein that remains untapped, despite the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s variously successful attempts at it. In comic book-land the last truly insightful attempt at this sort of thing might be Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman from the early 2000s, which portrayed the Olympian gods of the titular heroine as powerful entities struggling to integrate with a modern world of mortals who no longer worshipped them.
Stray Gods puts that Olympian drama at the centre of the narrative, with Grace as the queer Everywoman marvelling at this universe of rules, contradictions and intractable grudges. Under the creative direction of BioWare veteran David Gaider, executive production of Elie Young and Liam Esler’s managing direction, the narrative sometimes leaps out at you like a thousand-year-old ghost. Old traumas re-emerge and fully fleshed-out characters pop off the screen. Grace’s possible decisions are all equally defensible and debatable, even as they pull the story in wildly different directions.
As with all the best musicals, song permits the characters to articulate aloud things they’d never otherwise say. Music bares the soul. And that, delightfully, is Grace’s Muse power. She can spontaneously start a musical number in which she literally battles another character’s inner demons, convincing them either to help her or to get out of her way. These numbers are the game’s “boss fights”, and the choices you make about how to continue the song are the most consequential.
This is Stray Gods’ highwire act, as there are multiple songs for each “number” in the game. Grace can choose to continue the song with one of her three personality types, and it both changes the coloratura of the piece and makes a narratively significant choice. Who will win the throne of the Underworld? Sing your choice. Making every possible combination of choices feel musically coherent must have been incredibly challenging from a development and composition standpoint but the game mostly makes it work.
Where it occasionally falls down as a musical is – to return to the Wagnerian business mentioned earlier – the lack of leitmotivs. I found myself yearning for an Eros chord or for Persephone to be connoted by notes. You know what a leitmotiv is: any time a character in a blockbuster movie has a theme, be it James Bond or Luke Skywalker or Wonder Woman, a chord will herald them. When you hear this, you immediately know who’s going to appear or what or who they’re thinking about. Whether it’s the sword Nothung from Der Ring des Nibelungen or Darth Vader’s long shadow, the music tells the tale. Viscerally. There is less of that here than I’d like – though there’s a notable bit of musical bookending in the form of Grace’s very first song and the song she sings before the game’s climax, which is a brilliant, tear-jerking callback. We just need more of that.
I also found myself lamenting something that was not the developers’ fault. Much of the game’s development took place during the nadir of the pandemic amid myriad travel restrictions. Many voice actors recorded their lines in uneven conditions – a fascinating tale that deserves an article all its own, with recordings done in Los Angeles, London and New York – and the uneven mic recordings are audible in the final track. Despite that, not one of the actors phoned it in; either in their voice acting or their singing. In Stray Gods, the songs are the soul, and each singer brought theirs to the table.
In any case, these are quibbles against a masterpiece. Stray Gods is an obvious labour of love that is destined to be the head of a uniquely Australian pantheon of video games. At once accessible but possessed of bottomless heart and soul, Stray Gods will take your workaday knowledge of Greek gods and mythological figures, spin them in dark nights of neon and satin, and leave you crying, cheering and pumping your fist for these beautiful disasters. For all its dark palettes, this is an incredibly hopeful and uplifting game that somehow manages to combine multiple love stories, stories of redemption, tragedy and triumph in the face of fascism.
Varric, the Dragon Age series’ legendary storyteller, has a touching line where he says he’d like to believe the world could be saved with a song. Stray Gods makes it happen.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Rough magic".
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