Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical has a not-so-secret ace up its sleeve: its superstar cast.
Just a short glance at the credit list from Summerfall Studios’ new game reveals some impressive choices. The cast includes fan favorites like Laura Bailey and Janina Gavankar from Critical Role, as well as English actor Rahul Kohli, who appeared in Netflix’s Midnight Mass. The cast is an obvious flex on the talent front. What’s less obvious are the ways in which these cast members actually shaped the final game.
Music director Austin Wintory — the only video game composer whose work (on Journey) has been nominated for a Grammy before 2023 — told Polygon that Stray Gods’ actors didn’t “just come in, read it, and bail out.” They actually played a central role in shaping the final sound of their characters and the songs they sang. So much so that Wintory ended up going back and redoing the concepts for entire songs. These edits profoundly changed the game, given that Stray Gods is one giant interactive musical with its score front and center.
In Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, players watch comic book-esque animated cutscenes where the characters sing out dramatic numbers. The player character is a woman named Grace who suddenly finds herself navigating the drama of Greek gods, whom she discovers out in the world secretly living among regular people. Stray Gods’ crown jewel is a soundtrack that adapts to players’ decisions in real time. As the story unfolds, players can pick different lyrical options mid-song in timed events. The story and score change depending on the player’s choices.
Wintory started by creating scratch recordings with a band. He told Polygon that he and the team recorded the demos in an “intentionally neutral” way so that the cast members just heard the basic melody and lyrics. After recording was complete, he would bring those simple recordings to each cast member and allow each actor to play with the song from the perspective of their role, trying to find the “vibe” of each character.
For the character of Medusa, Wintory initially imagined that her number would be an electronic track that sounded hypnotic in nature. At that point in the game, the protagonist has traveled to a place called the Viper’s Nest; she’s supposed to feel uneasy, like she’s in hostile territory. The scratch demo just had basic piano chords to represent this concept. Then came time for Anjali Bhimani to record.
“We get Anjali Bhimani in the booth. And the first thing out of her mouth was [Wintory does his best Eartha Kitt impression]: ‘I thought it would be fun if Medusa speaks with a kinda Eartha Kitt quality.’” She sang a bit so Wintory and his team could hear the results: “And we were like, Holy shit, this changes everything. And we loved it so much. We’re just falling all over ourselves dying laughing, and it was also creepy in this interesting way. She’s just fucking awesome.”
For the other characters, like Kohli’s take on the Minotaur, the score didn’t require as much of a rewrite; instead, Wintory pulled back some of the instrumentation to let the singer shine.
“Kohli as the Minotaur was infinitely funnier than we all thought that scene could be,” said Wintory. “And it totally changed how I approached everything about it afterward. I was worried that it might need to be a little bit musically jokey. And he was so funny that I was like, Actually, I can now play it kind of straight, musically, because he doesn’t need help. I don’t need to sell anything here.”
Polygon asked Wintory about what, if anything, video game designers could learn from the art form of musical theater more broadly. “The aphorism would be, ‘If you can’t say it, you sing it. If you can’t sing it, you dance it,’” Wintory said. “That’s a classic aphorism in the world of musicals. Games sometimes don’t trust themselves to let certain constituent parts take over in that way.”
When game designers do make an effort to harmonize these “constituent parts,” the result is worth it. Wintory explained by way of a story about working on Journey and how a later cutscene was redesigned to fit the grandness of a track he had written. What had started as a small, quiet moment took on an almost heavenly quality after the developers heard his take on a track.
Prior to Stray Gods, Wintory had worked on soundtracks for different genres of games with vastly different soundtracks, but he hadn’t worked on a score for a musical in this capacity.
“You look at musicals, where they’ll write it, then they’ll workshop it, and the cast will have ideas. They’ll workshop it for people and the audience members will say, ‘I didn’t really understand what the point of that character was.’ And you say, ‘OK, maybe we cut [a character].’ And of course games do play testing, and all that sort of thing. But all the component parts being made to kind of dance together more, and trust each other more, would be great.”