Stray Gods

On creating a diverse and innovative art form in gaming


Artists: Summerfall Studios @summerfallstudios, Benjamin Ee @theboyofcheese, Jess Lee @_jelart

Photos: Jack Crnjanin (Benjamin's headshot), Lily Pagalis-Jackson (Jess's headshot)

In 2019, a crowdfunding campaign for a roleplaying musical adventure video game was announced. The unique setup of the game—a choose-your-own-adventure where different dialogue choices made by players influence the song lyrics and narrative throughout the game—combined with some big names in the video game and voiceover industry attached, quickly drew the attention of both avid and non- gamer fans alike.

Fast forward to August of this year, and the long-awaited Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical was released. In this game, players step into the role of Grace, a struggling musician who soon learns that she lives in a world where Greek gods live hidden among humans. Accused of the Muse, Calliope's murder, Grace has seven days to prove her innocence to gods Athena, Apollo, Persephone, and Aphrodite.

In July, Stray Gods won Best Upcoming Game at the BIG (Best International Games) Festival. Since its release, it has won more awards, including Game of the Year, Excellence in Music, and Excellence in Accessibility at the 2023 Australian Game Developer Award and the Developers Choice at IndieCade 2023. It is also nominated for the 2024 Grammy Awards in the Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media category.

Recently, Timid had the opportunity to interview Benjamin Ee and Jess Lee of Summerfall Studios, the studio and creative team behind Stray Gods.

As the Art Director, Ee’s job was to hone the vision and direct the team to bring it to fruition. “It’s about making a lot of the big decisions for our game’s visuals,” he explains. Ee has almost a decade of industry experience as a concept artist and illustrator and is well-known for his moody, gothic-tinged style and vibrant, bold color choices. While he started out as a freelance illustrator, Ee made a lasting impression on co-founders Liam Esler and David Gaider with his work on the protagonist's aesthetic and was offered a permanent role.

For Lee, her involvement began with a friend tagging her in a tweet from Summerfall looking for an illustrator. “I knew that I had to work on this game somehow,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to bold, linework-heavy art, and my mind was blown when I saw that a company in Melbourne was working on a musical game with an art style that seemed so catered to me personally. [...] Applying for the job was a no brainer.” Lee, whose background is in graphic design and print, is new to the game industry but has spent the last several years in character art and inking. Initially planned as an inker for Ee, her role expanded to become the primary character artist, creating roughs for all character sprites as the game's visual approach evolved.

Through the interview, Ee and Lee discussed the game’s artistic processes as well as the challenges and highlights that marked its development journey.

Timid Magazine: Can you walk us through your design process and how you created a cohesive final product while juggling evolving scripts, musical cues, animations, and voice-overs?

Benjamin Ee: Oh boy, how much time have we got? [laughs] Honestly, it proved quite complicated and difficult at times in a very chicken-and-the-egg kinda way. Songs and voice-overs would, through limitation of production, need to come in later in the project than earlier. We ended up having to make cinematic passes and songworlds before we had a strong idea of where they would end up, purposefully keeping them loose and malleable for a polish pass later in the project. Meetings would often reduce the risk of mismatched expectations, but the risk is never zero!

Jess Lee: Thankfully David [Gaider] nailed down the script for the game relatively early, so we always had a good handle on where the dialogue was going and the overall vibe outside of the songs. We also made sure not to take any of the character sprites to their final rendered stage until later in the project when we had a better idea of exactly what we needed and what sprites to focus our efforts on. [...] [Gradually], the art team built a robust library of character sprites with thousands of variations and expressions to use, so if a sprite no longer matched the scene, we’d have a lot of options.

TM: Can you tell us about the character design process? What were the influences on your designs, both from external sources and your personal artistic choices?

BE: When we were designing, we went in with the mindset of “they may look a little strange, but if you know, you know.” Although they may appear strange at first, attentive mythology nerds can pick out their easter egg designs from a mile away. That involved a bunch of research into the gods and their known symbology, and seeing how we can incorporate them into a modern design.

TM: Do you have a favorite character you're particularly proud of?

BE: One of my favorite designs I love to talk about is Hermes. The obvious giveaways for their divine nature would be the wings on the hat and the speedy/athletic wear fitting to the God of Travels aesthetic. Additionally, we have Caduceus, a symbol of Hermes, simplified as a graphic and placed all over their hoodie design, and the double lines implying roads (and therefore travel). See what I mean by “if you know, you know”?

JL: One of my favorite designs to work on is actually a character that has a more obvious otherworldly vibe compared to the others. Hecate was a great chance to get a look at a god, or in this case a Titan whose powers are still very potent. Despite this, we didn’t want her to stand out too much stylistically. So at first her body looks human, but as you look closer, you see that time and magic has altered her form in very deliberate ways. Hecate’s eyes and arms look ashy from magic use but also from the torches she was known to use, particularly when aiding Demeter. Ah, there’s so much more I want to talk about with Hecate’s design, but I’ll let players spot the rest.

TM: Because it was crowdfunded, the concept art for this project was shared in the early development stages, and there were noticeable changes in the final product. Could you describe the evolution and revision process for the characters?

BE: A lot of the changes we made came from shifting needs of the project. For example, when we realized we were going to make a much larger game and hand draw all our assets, the extra detail of Freddie’s complicated arm tattoo was no longer viable within the time frame and resources we had available. Others, like ancient designs of Eros, shifted once we knew more about the story we wanted to tell.

JL: In the end, game development is about making certain design choices in order to give the team more space to make a more consistent and polished game while also remaining healthy. Plus, the teams’ ideas about characters and the lore evolves over time and thus so do the designs. The nature of crowdfunding projects means that fans get to see these steps as they happen.

TM: How did you decide which cultures and identities to pull from in designing the characters?

JL: When designing characters, we try to feel the characters' voices and their energy, then explore the designs based on how these characters spoke to us. We all know that the media still suffers from an imbalance when it comes to representation, so we do keep that in mind when choosing a direction for our characters.

BE: Thankfully, from the ethos of Summerfall Studios, we wanted to push for representation and inclusivity from the get-go. Hermes, for example, was always going to be an Asian character after my own personal push for having characters that look like me in our game. Similarly, for Hermes being non-binary—not only was it a good way to introduce a wider range of identities, but it also made a lot of sense for the god of transitions and boundaries.

TM: How important is it to you as a creator to ensure diverse, inclusive, and intersectional representation in games like this? Did your own personal experiences play a role in shaping these design decisions?

BE: Oh, hugely. One of my favorite games was Mass Effect. A huge part of it was to model someone that looked like me—an Asian hero that the galaxy would look up to. That was so powerful for me growing up because I’ve experienced first-hand the power of representation in games. Obviously, there are limitations and decisions that are beyond me in the hierarchical ladder, but whenever I’ve suggested including more opportunities for representation, they’ve thankfully always been appreciated and celebrated at Summerfall.

JL: One of, if not the most important thing to me when working on this game was that we showed a world without discrimination, regardless of the characters’ backgrounds. A world where everyone is inspired to have a voice and where a diverse cast of characters is treated as an everyday normality. This is the world I want to live in. This is the world I want to show in the games I work on. Inclusivity is a huge priority for Summerfall and whenever there was a question of whether or not a character was being justly represented, the team had  an open discussion about it so we could make sure we were doing right by everyone.

TM: What were the biggest challenges in making the characters fit in each distinct setting based on the player choice while still creating a uniform look overall? Were these challenges unique to the game’s choose-your-own-adventure genre?

BE: Fun fact actually, the moment songworld design really clicked in my head was when I discovered K-Pop music videos as excellent inspiration! [laughs] Strong color schemes, very focused visual metaphors, and all on a small set big enough to dance around in—perfect for what we needed it to be. One of the things we took away from that would be how often the singers in the MVs would jump from songworld to songworld, and it felt very natural. Leaning on that, when designing our songworlds, we mostly focused on each songworld as their own unique thing and trusted that transitions into new songworlds wouldn’t be jarring by the audience's already established expectations from MVs.

It took some creative problem solving from our cinematic editors to transition in a way that felt natural, but the main focus from them would be to find the hidden narrative “bridge” that would tie them together. Some songworlds, like the diving into a puddle to find yourself in the ocean (Pan’s “I Can Teach You”) were designed to prebuilt bridges, but others, like the mirror/reflection transition in Medusa’s “Look Into Me”, were found by our awesome Cinematics team.

JL: While Ben was over there covering all the bases location-wise, my priority was actually to ensure that characters looked consistent across all instances. Hand drawing every piece of art meant that I was staring at a lot of art I did previously, as well as Ben’s concepts to make sure the designs were always consistent. While we created some art that was highly specific to individual scenes such as Grace being hypnotized or two characters dancing, a lot of art had to be more general so they could be used in other scenes. For instance, if I drew a sprite of Freddie sitting, she couldn’t be sitting on or touching anything too specific so that we could see her sitting in multiple locations. It took a lot of brain power and cross checking but I’d like to think that we pulled this off pretty efficiently and naturally!

TM: How has working on Stray Gods contributed to your growth and development as an artist?

BE: In a broader sense, it taught me a lot of fun graphical techniques that are foundations in the comics world (I come from a more painterly illustration style), as well as taught me a LOT about sequential art, cinematography, and gave me a fascination for animatics.

In a finer, more niche sense, working with Jess Lee and working amongst her drawings has genuinely improved the hands that I draw! [laughs] It’s crazy, we call her the “Master of Hands” in the office; she’s insanely impressive. I once caught her drawing hands as a recreational thing, and if you ask most artists, they’d tell you how insanely powerful a flex that is! [laughs]

JL: I love drawing hands! They’re so expressive and I honestly think they’re so important when it comes to mastering body language! Sorry, thinking about hands again.

Ben’s also taught me a lot when it comes to approaching forms which in turn has greatly improved my posing. He has such a masterful outlook on composition and balance which is applicable across so many styles—including my own!

As someone who primarily draws fanart, I was never sure if there was a place for me in full-time game development land, and so working at a studio that celebrates that has been super enriching! I love looking at the art I’ve created now, which I feel is half the battle and it’s something I wish for all artists out there.

Stray Gods was released on August 10, 2023 for Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.

Disclaimer: This interview was edited for length and clarity.