Thursday, April 18, 2024

Stray Gods features my favourite love story of 2023

If there’s one thing anyone needs to know about me, it’s this: I love romance. The racing of hearts, the sweaty palms, the will-they-or-won’t-they that makes each interaction feel as though someone’s pressed a knife to your throat… I adore it. So you shouldn’t be at all surprised that during my playthrough of Summerfall Studio’s debut game, Stray Gods, I quickly became enraptured by Grace’s romance options: Persephone, Freddie, Pan, and Apollo.

It should be noted that if you’ve not finished Stray Gods, then turn away now. We’re going into spoiler territory!

Three of Grace’s four love interests are part of the Greek pantheon. You’ve got Persephone, who guards her heart with the diligence it deserves and is fast to mistrust Grace’s intentions, Pan, a trickster faun who may or may not have something to do with the death of Calliope, and Apollo, a really sad guy who believes his power of foresight puts people in danger. All of these romantic interests are ripe with potential, all of them being a direct challenge to the world that Grace thought she knew and understood.

And yet, none felt quite as right for her as Grace’s best friend — Freddie. Freddie is not a deity of any sort, but a mythology nerd who happens to star alongside Grace in their band, Edge of Elysium. She’s been with Grace since the very start, and as we later discover, has harbored what she believes to be an unrequited affection for her best friend. It’s the same old trope that I gleefully consumed back when I was a teenager reading YA and fanfiction. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that requited love (but one the character believes is unrequited) and pining is still very much my bread and butter, so there was just no way I wasn’t going to pursue Freddie.

Despite the general weirdness of finding out that there’s a world where the Greek pantheon lives among them, Freddie quickly establishes herself as being in Grace’s corner. As a roleplaying musical, we’re treated to the first inkling of her affection for Grace in the first song we have with Pan. Regardless of which iteration of the song you choose through your lyrics, Pan always implies that there’s something between the two of them, and if players decide to go with Pan over Freddie, she pleads for Grace not to leave her behind in a way that feels romantic in nature. To be frank, I’m not sure how Grace didn’t pick up what Freddie was putting down from the get-go, but that is neither here nor there.

As Grace continues her adventure in Stray Gods, Freddie is always beside her. Together they fight off Medusa — yet another victim of Athena’s wrath and ignorance — and help Asterion (or hinder) on his journey to find love. Both times their relationship plays a significant role, with Freddie having Grace’s back during the Medusa encounter — who forewarns Freddie’s eventual death — and Asterion’s love confession as a best friend wanting more feeds directly into the feelings Freddie has for Grace. It is she who, at Grace’s behest, helps steer Asterion to declaring his love for Hecate. After all, if there’s someone who’s an expert on having feelings for your best friend, it’s Freddie.

Ultimately, the relationship between Freddie and Grace is a comfortable one in comparison to Grace’s burgeoning relationships with Apollo, Persephone, and Pan. Freddie is content in keeping her feelings for Grace on the down low, something which I feel like anyone who has harbored feelings for a friend can relate to, so their friendship is not at risk. And so, it’s only when Grace and Freddie go up against The Furies in Hecate’s Reliquary is their relationship shaken up, with Freddie sacrificing herself to protect Grace and then dying in her arms.

What follows is Grace running out of hope, having lost her best friend and realizing that she’s no closer to proving herself innocent and finding out the real killer behind Calliope’s death. The only spark that lights the fire is her belief that she can find answers in the Underworld, and perhaps save Freddie’s soul from damnation in the process. Persephone joins her, looking for a way to regain her throne. Grace’s journey is fuelled by desperation and love, romantic or otherwise, and it culminates in a hard-hitting moment where she and Persephone encounter the shades of Freddie and Calliope.

Stray Gods Freddie

‘It’s Time’ is one of the most heartbreaking songs from Stray Gods. Not only do we learn that Calliope and Persephone were lovers, but that Persephone lied and even if she was the Queen of the Underworld again, there’s no way for her to bring Freddie back. Stunned by this betrayal Grace may be, ‘It’s Time’ does what every good musical does: it opens a door to the turmoil of emotions felt by all four characters. During this song, Calliope and Persephone come together to reconcile their differences, where they went wrong, and why they still love one another despite the death and the betrayal and all the things unsaid. Calliope and Persephone’s relationship is fated to come to an end and, after knowing each other for so long and realizing that there’s still love in their hearts for one another, both are content to move on. For Grace, however, there’s too much left unsaid, and she pleads for Freddie to stay. It’s a selfish and excruciatingly devasting plea, as Freddie is happy knowing that she sacrificed herself for someone she loved and, depending on the player’s choice, Grace can respect that and let Freddie go, just as Persephone did with Calliope.

But Grace also has the option not to accept that. In fact, a world without Freddie is not a world she wants to be in at all, and much like how Calliope passed on her eidolon (her soul) to Grace and gave her the powers of a Muse, Grace is able to do so to Freddie and bring her back to life. She sings, tears in her eyes, that she doesn’t know what comes next for her, she could die if Athena finds her guilty at The Trial, but whatever comes, she wants to face it with Freddie by her side. And so Grace effectively gives up her godhood to bring her back, something which perplexes Persephone, a survivor through and through. Why would Grace give up power, her strength, to save Freddie? The answer is simple: because it’s Freddie. It’s such a direct contrast to Persephone and Calliope that part of me wonders why Summerfall Studios even gave multiple romance options in the first place because narratively speaking? How am I supposed to ignore the love and adoration these two women feel for one another and see it as platonic on either end? Summerfall Studios, please explain!

Yet even after you save Freddie, things are not exactly ‘happy’ in the Grace and Freddie household. Regardless of the love Grace and Freddie feel for one another, Freddie just straight up died a few hours before, only to be brought back by the woman she loves. Despite their history, they can’t go back to how they were before. Not only did Grace just give away her godhood to Freddie, granting her the powers of a Muse, but she also effectively put her in harm’s way. Freddie is alive and breathing, but Grace just saddled her with a whole bunch of different problems. It’s these conflicting emotions that eventually push Freddie to confess and reader, trust me when I say I yelped, I hollered and I howled.

Freddie Stray Gods

‘If Only,’ a song about unrequited love, not only had me tearing up because of Janina Gavankar’s performance as Freddie, but because it finally allowed her character the spotlight she deserved. She tearfully sings how she loves Grace (and players can express their own love back), but that with all they’ve been through, how can they ever return to normal? They can’t.

One of the main themes throughout Stray Gods is this feeling of being an outsider, unable to conform to society’s rules or express yourself in a way that feels natural. Grace quite literally sings about this feeling at the beginning of the game. All of the other characters are lost too, including Freddie — who may seem like the most put together out of them all, but that becomes abundantly clear to be false. She brings Grace into the band in the first place because she’s afraid to lose her, and yet, how can she really ‘have’ Grace if she’s afraid to open up to her about her feelings? The fact of the matter is that Freddie and Grace are the same — lost. A contradiction maybe, but feelings are not black and white, and Stray Gods does a great job at expressing that.

It’s only after Grace and Freddie talk through their feelings at the end of the game that we get this absolute banger of a lyric from Freddie that sums up their newly formed relationship: “I’m tethered to you, I’m free.” Together she and Grace are bound, and yet are free due to how secure their love for one another — no matter what comes in the future. Despite being lost at sea for so long, both have found their anchor: each other.

And as someone who is sapphic, can I just say how incredible it is to have a love story feel so catered to you and your experiences in a way that actually feels celebratory and amazing, while also not making it completely gooey and soft, as though relationships between women can’t be hard or painful? Like, fuck yes Grace gives up her powers to save the woman she loves and Freddie feels conflicted about it. This isn’t a fairytale. Romance rarely is.

Regardless of how you feel about Stray Gods, I feel as though the portrayal of the romance between Grace and Freddie is one that deserves recognition. It’s a love story that perhaps isn’t quite so unique on the surface, but one that still feels mature and grounded in a reality that many – particularly queer individuals – can relate to: finally opening up and being brave about love, embracing it — and the terrifying change that comes with it — with open arms, and being rewarded for it. I’m still so grateful exists. Grace and Freddie’s relationship in Stray Gods is a love story done right, and certainly one I’ll remain fond of for years to come.

Aimee Hart

[She/They] Aimee Hart specializes in queer fandom, video games and tabletop, having started her career writing for numerous websites like The Verge, Polygon, Input Magazine and more. Her goal now is to boost LGBTQ+ voices in the video games industry.