“There are many different types of musicals,” David Gaider, Creative Director at the newly formed Summerfall Studios tells me. We’re discussing musicals, or more specifically, Chorus, the first project from the Melbourne-based studio. (You can check out the Fig pitch here.) It’s an adventure game described as one-part narrative-driven journey and one-part interactive musical.
It’s the latter element that immediately grabs my attention, for its sheer potential and, well, the idea of a video game musical being a somewhat difficult concept to grasp. Musicals come in many forms, after all, from Broadway plays to animated films starring blue genies, and across to standalone episodes of popular TV shows.
“Generally, I want to hear songs that convey feeling as well as tell a story,” Gaider continues. “There are songs where it’s all in how danceable or catchy they are, but for me I need to feel the story in there. And have the part of the narrative that isn’t song flow seamlessly. It’s this critical combination of story and music that matters most, even when individual music tastes differ.”
Liam Esler, Managing Director at Summerfall Studios shares similar sensibilities. “A really good musical is mostly about how the music drives the story forward in interesting ways, so it’s been interesting working on a video game and interactive version of that. Giving players the information that they need to make choices, in addition to trying to show them the inner layers of characters in a way that is consistent with how dialogue works, but in a song. It’s been challenging to marry all of those different aspects in a way that is still compelling and emotional.”
Even though the concept of an interactive musical is quite fresh, there are direct correlations between this focus on character and story and player choice to that of the video game RPG – and for good reason.
Check out the Chorus crowdfunding pitch here:
“Our initial thoughts were, well, both of our backgrounds are in RPGs so should we work on an RPG?” Gaider responds, when asked about the formation of Summerfall Studios. “And that was on the table for a while. But RPGs are a big task for a new studio, they have so many moving parts, so many systems. While we love RPGs and we would never want to say no to an RPG in the future, at least initially, we wanted to do something a little different.”
Both David Gaider and Liam Esler have long and established careers in the industry; David as a former lead writer at BioWare working on titles like Dragon Age
and Knights of the Old Republic and Liam as part of the Game Developers’ Association of Australia in addition to writing for established RPGs like Baldur’s Gate for Beamdog and Pillars of Eternity for Obsidian Entertainment.
In 2017 Esler was heading up the regional developer conference GCAP, and personally felt ready to dive back into development. Gaider, having left BioWare and working for development studio Beamdog, was also looking for a change. Although no concrete plans were in place, both were independently thinking about starting a new studio. Meeting up at GDC in San Francisco the question was eventually raised – what would your dream studio look like? The answer from both was a studio that would focus on narrative-driven experiences that felt different: games that focused on women, and issues and themes some may not consider mainstream.
“It was eerie how on the same page we were,” Esler adds. “Later that year when we spent a day grilling each other on what we cared about and what kind of studio we wanted to be, by the end of that day or even halfway through that day, we weren’t talking in terms of ‘if’, it was now ‘what would our first project be’.”
One More Dragon Age with Feeling
“This was something that had come up while I was at BioWare,” Gaider recalls. “Numerous times during the development of Dragon Age I kept trying to convince management that we should do a musical DLC. Let players go into the Fade and experience a bit of a musical. Which is a dream, but not quite a dream because it’s the Fade. I thought that that would be cool, but they were never into the idea. I guess in the back of my head this was something I always wanted to do.”
A new studio, however, meant creative control. “That’s something I get to decide?” Gaider exclaims, revisiting the feeling he had when discussing the studio’s first project. “I’ve loved all the games I’ve worked on, but it was always working within a set box… After thinking about it for a moment I simply said… ‘musical’.”
That single word immediately sparked a range of discussions, as well as raising a few questions. Questions that might have already had answers if Gaider and the team at BioWare were given the chance to create that Dragon Age musical. How do you make a song interactive? If there are multiple paths through a song, and an underlying story, how would that work when played? What would make a musical a game as opposed to something you simply listened to and enjoyed?
“It took a while for us to define what it meant to be a musical,” Gaider continues. “It’s not just about writing a song in that traditional sense, because each song immediately becomes so much more. If you have multiple paths it becomes lyrically challenging and musically challenging because each needs to sound like it was the intended way to go.” From there, seemingly simple gameplay mechanics required extensive thought and eventual testing. Stuff like timing, right down to the second – the exact period a player would be given to not only read through choices but act in a way that didn’t disturb the flow and pacing of the music.
With many years spent creating rich character and choice-driven dialogue scenes and storylines in BioWare RPGs, it makes sense that this initial steer from Gaider was towards the how. But, marrying lyrics and song proved to be an experience akin to learning to ride a bike all over again. “Every now and then during my career I’ve had to re-learn the process,” Gaider tells me. “Switching media, like going from games to novels or comic books, you really do have to re-learn how it all works. And Chorus has been the same thing. Even though when we started, I was like, ‘Oh, lyrics, songs, how hard could that be?’”
“Numerous times during the development of Dragon Age I kept trying to convince management that we should do a musical DLC… I thought that that would be cool, but they were never into the idea.” – David Gaider.
It Takes Two Baby. Or Three, Or Four, Or More
Collaboration is a key part of creating entertainment no matter the form of media it takes. For video games, one could easily imagine talented artists and collaborators in the fields of writing, art, technical expertise, music, voice work, programming, and others being intimately involved at various stages throughout a game’s development.
“Even if you approach dialogue or a scene in a Dragon Age game you would still need a bunch of people at the table,” Gaider says, whilst bringing up specific roles across BioWare’s animation and voice production teams. “With Chorus we have a composer who’s at the table, but we’re not just creating a scene, we have to figure out what the musical style is for a song. And that’s a new area for me. Do we create the informational arc first and then just graft the style on top of that? Or do we have to consider that stuff from the very beginning?”
The “we” in this exchange is Austin Wintory, the composer working with Summerfall Studios on the development of Chorus. Now, if that name sounds familiar it’s because Wintory’s work with Thatgamecompany’s Journey won the composer several awards and widespread critical acclaim. His long list of cinematic and video game credits is as impressive as it is far reaching in scope and style.
It was at GDC 2018, a year after Esler and Gaider first discussed the formation of a new studio, when Esler got a message from a friend advising him that Austin Wintory has been discussing the idea of a musical as a game during a conversation. So, you know, they should meet. “The whole idea of the interactive song was what he was so excited about,” Gaider tells me. “And Austin had so many ideas about how you could do that from a creative standpoint. It felt surreal, not only having a composer of his calibre just kind of drop into our laps but that he immediately brought so much to the table. Austin played a key role in helping us refine what we were trying to do and work out the specifics of what a video game musical could be.”
“Having the composer there when it’s still an idea means that if it goes a certain way, you can begin to hear the music,” he continues. “Maybe that’s darker, deeper tones, with more drums to match the emotion. And from there you’re in a better position to figure out the lyrics. Then you go back to the composer and present the lyrics. It’s a lot more back and forth. In a way, developing a musical has made the writing process feel more collaborative.”
Developing Chorus and expanding ideas into something people could experience and hear, even in rudimentary form, came next. It was a proof of concept, but also something to help people – potential publishers, investors, and partners – wrap their heads around the idea of an interactive song. The studio made a mock-up of how the art might look and how the player made choices, in addition to the creation of an actual song.
Story Above All
“The biggest theme in Chorus is that of being lost and finding one’s way,” Gaider tells me. “Every part of the story breaks down to someone who has fallen off the path or doesn’t know where they want to go with their life. Devastated in some way, they don’t know how to break out of that pattern. How do you overcome adversity? How do you deal with trauma?”
When discussing Chorus, it’s natural to immediately focus on how an interactive song in a larger video game musical might work – what it will look and sound like, or how your decisions might alter an uplifting verse with an emotional turn. The broader perspective, however, is that it’s a unique framework in which to tell interesting and meaningful stories. Both Gaider and Esler are lifelong fans of musicals, and adopting this structure opens up new ways in which to approach narratives, and in the underlying themes, settings, and topics they could tackle.
In Chorus players will take on the role of Grace, the last Muse. It’s a modernised world where Greek mythology and the Gods are very real, and this allows the musical side of Chorus to feel grounded. “The Greek Gods allowed us to bring in the Muses so that the player could become the last Muse,” Gaider explains. “This is a power that the Muse has, that they can draw someone into their song. And during the song, the player is building up momentum to try to create an effect on the actual world. That is the conceit, and I thought that that was an interesting idea. Where the song is not just flavour.”
Found guilty of a crime she didn’t commit; Grace only has a certain amount of time to prove her innocence and uncover the truth. Some of the characters Grace will interact with during her adventure include Apollo, the God of Prophecy, and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. “They’re all kind of lost in this modern world and are dealing with issues that they have a hard time getting over,” Gaider continues. “So, Grace in this sense becomes a catalyst for them all. I think that’s probably the best way to describe it without spoiling the specifics.”
“The big moments in the game are going to be during song,” Esler adds. “Where an important decision needs to be made or a conflict occurs, or a relationship hits a pivotal point.” Confrontation through song would be another way to describe it, with both Gaider and Esler referring to how players build up and spend flow over the course of a song being akin to a big boss battle in an RPG. Gaider jokes, “Rather than using violence, we solve it with style.”
The Audience is Out There
“Everyone loved the idea. Every single publisher we talked to was like, ‘Oh, this is really interesting, and this is going to generate a lot of discussion’,” Esler responds, when the discussion shifts to funding or potential investment. “As we pursued a lot of those threads and conversations, what would come back was a case of being interested, but also the feeling that they’ve never seen anything like this before.”
In the corporate world the line between satire and a mountain of spreadsheets and graphs and pie-shaped charts is razer thin, or non-existent. Creating something new, or in this case developing a game without a direct correlation or an established example meant that “completely data driven” publishing decisions left Chorus without a theatre. Even with a scope and budget that would factor in the small size of the development team and a planned run-time like that of a film or play, the team slowly realised that they needed to take Chorus off-Broadway.
“The reality is that a videogame musical, especially when there are many branches, is very expensive,” Esler continues. “Not all projects of this size and scope are as expensive. For every three minutes of music the player hears we’ll record seven to eight minutes because of the branching narrative. And with vocals and music being a lot more expensive than text it gets very expensive, very quickly. And really, we would rather create an experience that is rich and detailed. Also one you’re not going to get sick of – we’ve also had long discussions about like, at what point would a musical become tiring?”
Sing Me a Song, Pixelated Piano Man
With Chorus, Liam Esler and David Gaider knew that they needed something to show people in order to not only convey the concept of an interactive song – but also set the tone and expectation for the type of musical they were creating. With Austin Wintory on board as composer, the goal was to write, record, and animate a song for this very purpose.
Troy Baker, a friend of Austin’s, came in to help with some of the early singing and was excited about the project for the same reasons as Austin. In fact, the concept of a videogame musical had been something the two friends had been discussing for years. When it came time to wrangle voice actors for recording, Summerfall Studios knew that it would need to start looking for a Voice Director who could oversee the performances. And just like that fated lunch at GDC with Austin, at the same time Troy called to ask if they were, well, looking for a Voice Director.
“Again, here was someone else that came along that was passionate and helped redirect the course of the project,” Esler recalls. Troy’s involvement from this point on would become integral to Chorus.
“He has so much experience with voice acting and was right away thinking about how we could incorporate the voice actors in the performances,” Gaider adds. “Where they have more freedom to play with the song and make it as much about their expression and emotion as it is our writing.”
Rehearsals After School
With art, story, and music taking shape and the team at Summerfall Studios now having worked on Chorus for the better part of a year – it’s ready for the next step. Casting, rehearsals, costume design; the theatre owner standing at the back row wondering if this is the story that will fill seats come opening night. Launching a crowdfunding campaign and creating a start-up brings with it a rollercoaster of emotion, excitement, fear, anxiety, but above all – promise.
“Going the crowdfunding route is a way to prove that there is interest and an audience out there,” Gaider tells me. “And the scope of what we’re doing, a lot of it’s going to depend on how successful the crowdfunding campaign is.”
For all its ambition and the infectious passion between team members working on Chorus, it’s this thought from Liam Esler that stood out long after our conversation ended. “We tend to think that there’s a lot more in common between theatre and games than there is cinema and games,” Esler says. “Because in a game the player is both on stage playing a role as well as becoming the audience.”
Kosta Andreadis is a freelancer writer and music producer based in Melbourne Australia. He’s on Twitter.