Courtesy of Summerfall Studios

Stray Gods is a musical murder mystery RPG from a Bioware veteran

Brian Crecente |
September 6, 2023
Summerfall Studios is an independent game developer creating emotionally-fuelled, character-driven narrative games for audiences who value rich, compelling storytelling over mechanically demanding gameplay.

David Gaider, BioWare veteran of 17 years who was writer on some of the most genre-defining role-playing games, Liam Esler, an experienced producer, writer, and creative, as well as Elie Young, with decades of experience in the music industry, founded Summerfall Studios in 2019.
Stray Gods was born out of deep knowledge of how role-playing games work, and a desire to build a dream studio that could create an interactive, narrative-focused musical.

The musical bit—an addition to make the project more challenging and noteworthy—came from David Gaider, the studio’s co-founder, creative director, and former BioWare senior writer and designer. He had been mulling the idea over ever since pitching it as a musical DLC for Dragon Age.

The idea didn’t make the cut back then, but it enthused the new team in Summerfall’s formative moments.

The result is a game where player choice will have as much impact on the story you tell and the person Grace, the main character, becomes as it does the music you hear.

We chatted with some of the team at Summerfall Studios to find out how the team turned their unique idea into a game, the deep impact receiving an Epic MegaGrant had on the studio, and why Unreal Engine was the perfect match for their endeavor.
 

How did Summerfall Studios come about?

Liam Esler, Summerfall Studios Co-Founder and Managing Director:
David and I were at GDC one year, talking about our dream studios—the kinds of places we’d one day like to work at or run. Pretty quickly, we realised that we were talking about the same vision for a studio: a place where people were the focus, a positive work culture was critical, and we worked on projects that were both exciting to us and was actually marketable.

We kept talking over the following year, and at some point, it clicked, and we decided to move ahead. The first person we spoke to was our mutual friend Elie, who was in the music industry at the time, and the three of us embarked upon a wild and fantastical journey to assemble the gamedev equivalent of The Avengers.

We’re so proud of the team and what we’ve all created together and the 20-person strong studio that Summerfall has become. It’s definitely the best place any of us has ever worked, and we’re constantly pushing to improve how we operate: we just started trialling a four day, 30-hour work week, for example. Running an ethical and sustainable game development company takes mindful effort, and we often fall short of where we’d like to be, but there’s nothing quite like coming in to work every day with the best people on the planet.

It sounds like the concept for the game came about alongside the formation of the studio. Can you walk us through that bit of serendipity?

David Gaider, Summerfall Studios Co-Founder and Creative Director:
It really did. When Liam and I first got together to discuss whether we’d start a studio together, we thought that would be a longer conversation than it actually was. We very quickly moved onto what the first project of this new studio would be. At first, our thoughts leaned towards making an RPG, since that was what we were both experienced at making, but we also knew that an RPG can be a big task for a small studio. It has a lot of systems and moving parts, after all.

If we didn’t make a full RPG, then what? We still wanted to make something that was focused on narrative and characters, but had something extra added into the mix to make it more challenging and noteworthy as a first project. That’s when I brought up the idea of an interactive, narrative-focused musical… and Liam and Elie immediately liked the suggestion, so we ran with it.
Courtesy of Summerfall Studios
Why a musical?

Gaider:
Back when I worked at BioWare (where I was until 2016), I brought up the idea of doing a musical DLC for Dragon Age. I’d worked on a song for Dragon Age: Inquisition, something that the characters would sing in-game, and it was a great experience. So I thought maybe we could do more of that, but something a bit more complex: create songs that worked like dialogue, where you make choices during the song that created branches during the music. The team was excited by the idea, but it didn’t make the cut, so I abandoned the idea even if I always had it in the back of my mind as something I wanted to try. Hence why I immediately brought it up when we were discussing Summerfall’s first project. We were both big musical fans, after all, and we wondered why there’d never been an interactive musical game before. So why not make one?

What made you decide to use Unreal Engine to build your game?

Elie Young, Summerfall Studios Co-Founder and Executive Producer:
Early on, we did a significant amount of research into Unity and Unreal, and spoke with reps from both engines who gave us a deep-dive into their future plans. While there are lots of positives to Unity, we felt that for the kinds of games we wanted to do moving forward, Unreal was a no-brainer. Overall, five years after we made that decision, we’re still very happy with Unreal and feel that the future of the engine continues to be bright.

What challenges did you face as you developed your approach to Stray Gods and how did Unreal Engine help you overcome them?

Esler:
Creating a game that makes extensive use of real-time 2.5D cinematics was a challenge. In any engine this would be difficult, but Unreal’s existing tooling allowed us a strong base to work from in order to create pipelines that made Stray Gods possible. We created our own branching dialog tooling, and used Sequencer as a basis for our cinematics pipeline. This allowed us to recruit team members for animation and video editing, and create a robust cinematics pipeline we could rapidly expand and build out to create the many, many hours of content that make up our game!

Can you explain how the game’s mechanics work and how they allow players to guide the story?

Gaider:
All the major choices in the game are made in the songs. Think of them as our “boss battles.” They’re the big moments, the places where all our emotions come to bear, so they are also where the story forks. As the player hits each song, they determine where the story goes next, and we build up reactivity over time… until we get to the very end, where the amount of reactivity makes for a pretty wild web of divergent content. The player is determining not only what happens at the end of the plot, but the sort of person Grace becomes.
How does choice impact the music of the game and how were you able to implement that?

Troy Ferguson, Summerfall Studios Engineering Director:
Reactivity to choices is a core concept for our game and the music is no different. We developed tools that allow us to create and script complex flows based on the decisions that players make. And this is not limited to choices made during the song either, some choices the player made halfway through the game can influence what they hear.

Austin Wintory, Stray Gods Music Director: Early on we decided (hugely informed by David’s depth of RPG experience) on a trait-based branching “dialogue” approach to the music’s interactivity. However, instead of a dichotomous “good vs evil” approach, it became a roleplaying trait concept: kickass, charming, and clever. This meant all the songs had to be conceived based on how the player role-playing these traits could impact everything: the melodies, the backing tracks, the actors’ performances, and even fundamental details like the length of the songs. Everything had to be extensively mapped and tested at every step of the way to ensure it was working and made sense!

On Summerfall Studios’ site, there’s a quote from David Gaider that discusses the importance and power of good character design to a good game narrative. How did that philosophy guide the work on Stray Gods?

Gaider:
Stray Gods offers a world where the Greek gods of old are not only real, but still alive and hidden among us. That meant a lot of worldbuilding and lore needed to be created, but my philosophy has always been that the best way to relay all that is through characters the player enjoys. If the player cares about them, they’ll care about the world. So our primary focus has always been the characters and what their individual arcs would be, and why the player should care… that takes precedence even over the plot. What happens will never be of interest to the player unless they’re seeing it through the eyes of those they interact with.
Courtesy of Summerfall Studios
What made you decide to use the unique approach to the game’s look and how did that evolve over time?

Benjamin Ee, Summerfall Studios Art Director:
We knew very early on that we wanted Stray Gods to really feel handcrafted, to find some kind of avenue to help us feel like we’ve “stepped into a comics panel.”

Early on in the project, we discussed some key visual influences—taking inspiration from graphic novels and Broadway. Early ideation involved us exploring different ways we could create a unique and vibrant aesthetic, including exploring Ultimate Spider-Man (2005) or Framed (2014) style panelling, hand drawing every frame like an Infamous (2009) cutscene, to using a more Life is Strange (2015) style painted textural approach.

Initially, we experimented with a painterly-approach to both our motion-comic inspired cinematics and visual novel-esque “dialogue modes,” which was visually really interesting.
Courtesy of Summerfall Studios
Although it was really beautiful, we quickly encountered problems: it would be a gigantic time-sink to paint our entire game, which would hugely limit the kind of story we wanted to tell. We also found it was a difficult style to replicate amongst a team, so the weight of art production would be heavily pointed.

Additionally, our initial plan for the gameplay visuals was visual novel-esque dialogue back-and-forths (a staple in the genre), and then switching to sparingly shown painted panel cutscenes—but we found this was very often taking us out of the experience. It was clear that to sell the experience we wanted, we needed to lean towards our cinematics approach and abandon our “dialogue mode” visual novel aesthetic altogether. Of course, doing the entire game as a cinematic meant a whole lot more illustrations needed to be drawn, so we had to make two major visual decisions: 1) we would take a page from our friends in 2D animation and lean into comics cel-shading, and 2) we would convert our environments into 3D to have infinite angles to pick from, instead of painting each one.
 
Courtesy of Summerfall Studios

Courtesy of Summerfall Studios


After a discussion with Blue Manchu’s Dean Walshe, who worked on Void Bastards (2019) we discovered Grease Pencil for Blender, and found it the perfect way to inject our handcrafted, perfection-in-imperfection style into our environments and the game in general. Since our characters were hand drawn, it was important to us that our environments matched that look, so Greasepencil was a perfect opportunity for us to pull it back into a messier, more energetic, more alive look. After our first couple of environments, we knew we hit the jackpot.
Courtesy of Summerfall Studios
Now, keeping 2D characters in a 3D space has its own challenges with regards to our cinematic-focused approach to storytelling, but I’ll let Sasha Mutch, our Story Lead, talk to you about that!

Sasha Mutch, Summerfalls Studios Story Lead: I jumped onto the project just before the script was being finalized and right after Ben and Jessica Lee, our character Artist, had knuckled down the overall look of the game. I had come from a TV Animation background, working mainly with 2D animated characters on 2D backgrounds in linear scripts.

The biggest thing I had to wrap my head around as a Board Artist was branching narrative. It’s all well and good to want to make every single choice a player makes a unique visual but thinking about how they link back together, while keeping down the sprite limit AND keeping to a comic book style was HARD. Even though we mainly wanted a comic book style we also wanted to make use of the camera and its ability to move freely in the 3D space. We ended up with a more fleshed out animatic style where we could let characters play and act in a space through expression and pose changes without having to cut between cameras too often.
 
Courtesy of Summerfall Studios

Courtesy of Summerfall Studios


Music clearly plays a key role in the game. How did you settle on the style of music you wanted to use?

Wintory:
Because of the branching and player-led nature of the gameplay, I wouldn’t actually say the music lands on a single set style. Other than the fact that it all stems from me (and my amazing collaborators, the Australian comedy band Tripod, and singer/songwriter Montaigne), the goal was to maximize player agency by making it pretty eclectic. This had to have limits, lest it feel a bit mindlessly jukebox-y, but we nonetheless ended up with a pretty wide gamut. One thing I did to unify styles was to make some consistencies associated with the player trait choices: for example, Kickass tends towards the most musically simple but rhythmically complex (and therefore frequently is pretty hip hop adjacent), whereas Clever tends to be the most harmonically complex (and therefore the most frequently jazz-adjacent), and Charming tends to be the most lush/lyrical (and usually somewhat balladic or even symphonic).

How much music will you hear in a playthrough, and how much is actually in the game?

Wintory:
I probably should try to quantify that at some point! I’d estimate that you’ll hear a solid hour plus of singing per-playthrough, but I know there’s solidly six hours of total music in what I delivered (this is inclusive of both the songs and the score that ties it all together). But what’s interesting is that because it’s broken up into such a massive number of modular bits, the odds of hearing it all EVER are pretty low. It would take thousands of playthroughs to hear every combination of the elements!
Courtesy of Summerfall Studios
Why aren’t there more video games that are also musicals?

Gaider:
We wondered that, too, but the answer turned out to be “because it’s really complicated.” This is leagues above the amount of complexity and content needed to handle branching dialogue, as suddenly we need to worry about maintaining proper timing on top of the whole musical element itself. Possibly there’s also an element where the idea of a musical doesn’t mesh with the notion of games rooted in action and violence aimed at gamers. Games as a whole have outgrown that notion, surely, so maybe it’s time?

Were there any particular features of Unreal Engine that the team leaned into when creating Stray Gods?

Ferguson:
Because for the majority of the project I was the only engineer, I knew I needed to be efficient and make use of as many existing features as possible when building Stray Gods. As a result, we made extensive use of Blueprints and Sequencer as we created our own dialog tooling.

Our game is very cinematic, so leveraging and extending Sequencer was an obvious choice. We created several custom tracks to allow our Cinematic Editors more power and flexibility to create the best possible work they could.

In conjunction with Sequencer, we used Paper2D to handle all of our character sprites. This was a valuable time save as it meant we didn’t have to spend time creating tools to help us use 2D elements in our game.

Blueprints are a very powerful tool when it comes to efficiency. They help cut down iteration time, of both implementation of features and content, and are a really great way to empower those outside the engineering team to create and implement content themselves.
Courtesy of Summerfall Studios
What impact did receiving an Epic MegaGrant have on the game’s development?

Young:
As an indie studio making a game that doesn’t have a lot of comparison points, we faced considerable challenges in securing funding after our crowdfunding campaign on the now-defunct Fig. Initially, we were able to get several grants from local screen agency VicScreen, which was critical to our early success. When that money started to run out, at a time when we knew we needed to beef up our art department, the Epic MegaGrant we received came through in the clutch. Without that funding, the art for Stray Gods would not be nearly as spectacular, nor would we have been able to secure a publisher in the excellent Humble Games.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find out more about Stray Gods and Summerfall Studios?

Esler:
You can check our website out and find us on Twitter and Tiktok! Finally, you can find Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical on Steam and the Xbox and PlayStation stores.

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