How The Stray Gods Team Wrote A Musical With Millions Of Variations
For composer Austin Wintory, Stray Gods started with a rejected pitch.
Five years ago, when he was invited to a pre-GDC meeting to pitch game ideas to an unnamed friend, Wintory had one that really excited him. It was a musical game – not just a game with musical numbers distributed throughout, but where the player has control over the music itself. Wintory's friend was less than enthusiastic.
"He said very graciously, but in no uncertain terms, 'I hate that idea, and I want nothing to do with that,'" Wintory recalls. He smiles as he tells the story, finding humor in the irony that this rejected pitch eventually became the game I'm currently interviewing him about.
While his unnamed friend wasn't interested, he did point Wintory towards Liam Esler, a developer with similar ambitions for finding new ways to create choice-based narrative games. At this point, Wintory "literally sprinted" across town to meet with Esler before their flight back to Australia. After chatting about their love for musicals (specifically, the musical episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer), the partnership between Wintory and Esler's Summerfall Studios was born.
The game they would eventually create is Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical. It follows Grace (played by veteran video game performer Laura Bailey), a woman who must prove her innocence in a murder case using the newly gained powers of a muse, which compels people near her to express themselves in the form of song. The world is a modern take on Greek myth, with many classic gods (now known as "idols") appearing, including Apollo, Persephone, and Athena. Gameplay is a twist on the choice-based role-playing genre; in addition to choosing dialogue options during conversations, players pick lyrics during musical numbers, altering the story and the music simultaneously.
Managing a branching story is a difficult enough task, but injecting a musical element also requires a baffling amount of effort and coordination. While Wintory doesn't say exactly what turned this friend off from helping with this game, he (along with every other Stray Gods team member I speak to) can't help but bring up the game's mind-boggling scope. It's a daunting project, especially for an indie studio's debut game, and raises a question I'm dying to get the answer to:
How did they figure out how to write a musical with millions of variations?
Music Beyond Measure
Wintory is Stray Gods' composer and music director, working closely with the narrative team and a crew of songwriters to assemble the songs and score. But while Wintory has written music for huge games, such as Journey and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, there's never been a game with a scale quite like Stray Gods.
"A song that only ever has three options at a time might end up with, quite literally, thousands of permutations," Wintory says. "In the case of the finale of the game, literally tens of millions."
Numbers get this big because it's not as simple as choosing red, blue, or green options. In many instances, choices you make earlier in the song (and sometimes earlier in the plot) come back to change the responses you currently face. Being nice to a character twice in a row is different than being nice, then mean, or vice versa. Each of those sections gets its own lyrics and, in many cases, largely altered backing tracks.
Here's another way of looking at the numbers: In one of the earliest songs, Grace is deciding how to proceed. She can side with her best friend, Freddie, the mischievous idol Pan, or choose to go it alone. While the song only has three verses, three choruses, two pre-choruses, and a bridge, the number of decisions creates 38 distinct sections of music that must be written and recorded. That's at least four times the amount of effort, assuming you don't consider the extra planning needed to coordinate each path. And this is just for an early song – as the story proceeds, the number of variables in each encounter only increases.
To capture as much of this branching story as possible, Wintory plans to release the soundtrack as a series of four albums. Each will roughly summarize a play style, but still, "at best, [give] a kind of outline of what's there," he says. Wintory tells me there's a total of six hours of music in the game, a runtime that dwarfs every other soundtrack of his I was able to find, but it's unclear if every minute of that will make it onto these soundtracks.
When it came time to assemble a team of songwriters, Wintory stresses the importance of each musician being familiar with video games and dialogue trees. Tripod, an Australian musical comedy trio, was an easy pick, due to their prior work with Wintory, especially on projects like This Gaming Life and Syndicate. Originally, Tripod would just help with lyrics, but its contributions quickly bled into the musical side of things as well.
Eventually, the team found itself with too much work and not enough people, so it started looking into recruiting another songwriter. At the top of their list was Australian Eurovision participant Montaigne, but before Summerfall could reach out to gauge their interest in writing music for a video game, Montaigne made the first move, tweeting, "seriously though. let me write music for your video game." Just like that, the music team grew from four to five.
A Pantheon of Performers
When songs were ready, Wintory, voice director Troy Baker (The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite), and creative director David Gaider all hopped in a recording session with the performers. But the process of writing songs was as non-linear as the songs themselves; according to Wintory, even when the lyrics were in a finished state, singers would sing over "the most bare bones of backing tracks," not much more than basic piano chords or an iPhone recording of a guitar.
Baker, who sits in on my interview with Wintory, says this simplicity is deliberate. He speaks not just as Stray Gods' voice director but as the voice of Apollo, one of the main love interests. He says, "Austin said, from the onset, 'I want you to understand it's important to all of us that you have authorship in this performance, and that will be reflected in the arrangement and orchestration of this song. I want the song to come to you, not for you to come to the song." Wintory verifies this, later adding that songs might shift entire genres based on how the singer performs.
This places an immense amount of trust in the game's cast, which is shockingly star-studded. "They didn't audition," Baker says. The group was picked specifically to make the recording process as efficient as possible. "We didn't have the margin of error that a lot of triple-A titles or even large indie titles had," Baker continues. "We had to get this right. We had it budgeted down to the hour of the session with each actor."
Some actors, like Rahul Kohli or Erika Ishii, were hesitant to sing at all. Baker calls it a "hard sell," saying that while others might be eager to jump into a musical project, others didn't really consider themselves as singers beforehand. But Wintory and Baker emphasize that it's that exact reason why they want them in the game. "It actually grounds our world a little bit more," Baker says. "Keep in mind, Grace is doing this through the extension of her newfound abilities. It's not that we gathered up all these singers; she's bringing this out of people."
I ask the songwriters if they notice any clear inspirations in their work. Responses are scattered: Yon says Sondheim's influence is unavoidable, Baker recalls seeing Hadestown on Broadway and worrying Stray Gods would feel like a rip-off (a quick call with Esler changed his mind), and Montaigne takes the opportunity to shout out a childhood favorite, 1994's The Swan Princess. But the one influence that literally everyone cites is "Once More, With Feeling," the musical episode from season six of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.
"The Buffy musical narrativizes the idea that they're in a musical and know that they are," Wintory says. "The song genres and the qualities of them are wrapped around the scenario the characters find themselves in." The variety of its music is a big part of the episode, and the music shapes the plot in a way that the team behind Stray Gods really connects with. That's not just the case between songs, but within songs as well, where the genre can shift based on the player's choices.
Because of these shifting genres (and the presence of player choice in general), recordings could get particularly tricky, even for experienced singers. Between songs and dialogue, everyone had to keep track of where any given option was in the story and adjust accordingly. Baker says the first recording session is a confrontational song between Grace and Medusa (played by Anjali Bhimani), and it was the first time they really figured out what the recording process would look like. When I ask why that song came first, Wintory and Baker each have different replies. Wintory says that it was probably the most finished song at that point and relatively simple in the way it branched out because it's a pretty contained sequence. Meanwhile, Baker laughs, saying they just needed to start somewhere.
"Nothing was on purpose," he chuckles.
Weeks after the interview, this quote sticks out to me for several reasons. I set out to investigate the songwriting process because it seemed impossibly large and coordinated, but I was told many tales of people improvising and scrambling to make things work. Stray Gods is a game born out of a rejected pitch, produced remotely during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, where singers (none of whom auditioned, some of whom aren't singers) recorded vocals, some of which were written by a musician that joined because of a tweet, all over unfinished tracks of music, to be arranged and orchestrated later.
"Nothing was on purpose" is clearly a joke – it's evident that a lot of effort was put into every part of this game, and there's no implication that the project was completed by accident. And yet, it's indicative of how meandering and frantic the creative process can feel, even when you've got some of the most decorated professionals in the gaming industry in a room together. Years later, Stray Gods is done, and its release date is approaching. It remains to be seen how the game will be received and whether the risks will pay off, but I got an answer to my biggest question.
How did they know how to write a musical with millions of variations? The answer is simple: at first, they didn't. What inspires me is that they wrote it anyways.
For more Stray Gods, check out our exclusive reveal of Adrift, the first song in the game.