Australian developer Summerfall Studios is pushing into new territory for video games, uniting a team that includes Dragon Age writer David Gaider, composer Austin Wintory, and voice actors Troy Baker and Laura Bailey on a project it describes as an "adventure musical."
The Melbourne-based studio was announced in September, but co-founders Liam Esler and David Gaider have been working on the concept for almost two years. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz at Melbourne International Games Week, the pair described the starting point as Game Connect Asia Pacific in 2017, where a mutual admiration for smaller, narrative-driven titles like Gone Home and Firewatch sparked the idea of working together.
"Narrative games haven't really changed, or evolved in a way that's interesting to audiences"
However, Gaider and Esler are both experienced developers; the former after a long career, a huge chunk of which was spent as lead writer at Bioware, and the latter as an influential figure in the resurgent Australian development scene. Games like Gone Home and Firewatch may have been inspirational, but both Gaider and Esler immediately recognized that Summerfall would have to do more to stand out in a crowded marketplace.
"Differentiation was one of the first things we talked about," Esler said. "We're both massive fans of character- and narrative-driven games, but the genre hasn't done super well over the last couple of years.
"There was this massive peak where games like Gone Home and Firewatch just went crazy -- they did incredibly well -- and then we had Life is Strange, and since then we're getting fewer and fewer successes. And that's because the genre of narrative games hasn't really changed. It hasn't really seen innovation, or evolved in a way that's interesting to audiences."
This perceived stasis could be linked to the spread of the term "walking simulator," which was concocted as a club with which to beat the trend of narrative-driven games that followed Gone Home and Dear Esther. Esler and Gaider have no fondness for that description, of course, but as the co-founders of a small development studio in late 2019 they also recognise the need to bring something new to the table.
"From a marketing perspective, we need something different," Esler added. "People are hungry for something that they can talk about -- that's remarkable, in the true sense of that word. You can remark on it because it's different."
"Music has been important in games, but it's always in the background... It's always tertiary"
Summerfall's first game is Chorus: An Adventure Musical, the precision of its title a nod toward the challenge of communicating the kind of experience it is creating. Esler said the premise is "built around interactive musical numbers, and the player can decide where the song branches and goes" -- a concept that both he and Gaider are confident is a first in video games.
A short video goes some way toward proving this claim; a claim that many developers make, thoughSummerfall may be one of the few to do so with any justification. It is a pre-visualisation of one of the game's key 'numbers' -- the use of theatre terminology is deliberate, as Chorus will be very much in the tradition of Broadway shows -- in which two characters sing dialogue to each other. A choice wheel similar to the one used in Mass Effect (on which Gaider was lead writer) appears at the bottom, offering three distinct emotional paths down which the player can travel.
"If you start making aggressive choices, the song gets a drum beat and gets faster," Gaider said, offering an example. "When we came up with the idea it was 'How can we do this from a functional standpoint?' and 'How can we do this from a creative standpoint?' That's where Auston Wintory comes in. We needed someone who understands music."
You might recognise the name. Austin Wintory is one of the more prominent composers working in video games, with credits including Journey, Abzu, and John Wick Hex. Both Gaider and Esler knew that to have any shot at making such an ambitious concept work, Summerfall would need the right people in the right roles.
Wintory on his own would be enough reason to feel confident in that respect, but Summerfall has secured Tory Baker as its voice director and Laura Bailey as a key member of Chorus' cast. All three are at the very top of their fields, and each field will be absolutely crucial to deliver a kind of storytelling that no developer -- not even Bioware with its rich, narrative games -- has ever really tried.
"That's why it hasn't been attempted," Gaider said. "Music has been important in games, but it's always in the background. It can be a beautiful score, but it's always tertiary. Now, what if you could make a game where it wasn't tertiary?
"That's why Austin was so interested. For everyone who's in music or voice acting, we so much as breathe the project to them and they lose their minds. It's the kind of thing they've been hoping for, even if they didn't know it."
Summerfall is aiming to secure $600,000 (USD) for Chorus through the FIG equity crowdfunding platform. Initially, the Esler and Gaider had intended to raise money through Kickstarter, but accusations of "union busting" prompted them to change their plans.
We will publish our full interview with Summerfall Studios next week, in which Gaider and Esler go into detail about their plans for the studio, and the evolution of Chorus: An Adventure Musical.
In light of recent statements from @Kickstarter regarding unionisation, we've made the decision to move our crowdfunding campaign to @PlayFig. We hope Kickstarter voluntarily recognises @ksr_united. pic.twitter.com/PT4C8DTCH9— Summerfall Studios (@summerfallgames) October 4, 2019
GamesIndustry.biz attended Melbourne International Games Week as a guest of Creative Victoria.