Chorus is a upcoming Aussie musical adventure game from Melbourne’s Summerfall Studios. With a AAA line-up of talent that includes veteran voice actors Troy Baker and Laura Bailey, as well as Dragon Age lead writer, David Gaider, its scope of ambition is huge — but so is the passion and talent behind the game.
Taking inspiration from classic musical episodes like Buffy’s “Once More, with Feeling” and theatre hits like Wicked, Chorus aims to innovate a genre yet to be fully explored by video games. It’s an interactive musical crossed with a narrative adventure, starring Grace as an unwitting pawn in a mysterious godly war.
While challenges like coronavirus and the loss of games development events like Games Developers Conference (GDC) and PAX Australia have impacted Chorus‘s long development and funding processes, the team’s spirits remain high. Chorus is a project driven by excitement, the support of its fans and the hard-working team bringing the game’s vision to life.
Kotaku Australia recently spoke to Summerfall Studios’ managing director, Liam Esler, to find out more about the game, how coronavirus has affected the studio, the importance of funding and what to expect when Chorus finally releases.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kotaku Australia: How are you and the team going?
Liam Esler, Managing Director, Summerfall Studios: The start of all of this was pretty rough. We just started hunting for funding when everything started. We were pretty reliant on GDC and all of those other events and then it all disappeared. We’ve had to re-strategise entirely and that sucked. It was a couple of months of ‘oh god, we’re losing so much time.’ Everyone’s slower and just having a really rough time. But I think by month two-and-half it kind of hit equilibrium and we started to take stock of where we were and it was all better from there. Things have mostly been pretty good.
[Our team] is working from home and have this entire time. We do have an office and it’s currently laying dormant. That sucks. We all miss each other a lot but we talk every day. What we miss the most is the opportunity to chat to someone and be like, “hey I’ve got this problem” and have them talk it through with you. When you’re used to that and then you go to an all-online setting it’s a lot harder for people to feel comfortable. It’s almost we’ve had to build in those chats formally as opposed to having those informal chats during the day.
We’re in a pretty good place now, but it did take us a while.
Is it hard to organise such a global team right now?
Esler: It’s always a challenge. Most of my career, I’ve been working with remote teams. Even before I worked in games, I was a modder for a decade and worked remotely as a modder with a remote team, so working remotely is pretty much second nature to me. It’s never been a problem, but in comparison to running a co-located team it’s definitely different and it definitely requires more effort.
In person, you can always ask for clarification but it’s a lot harder when you’re in different time zones. I always build in a lot of clarifying calls to make sure everyone’s on the same page — really focusing on documentation and … making sure everyone has an understanding of the problems you’re facing and the solutions you’re putting together. The transition into covid was really no different for us, but it was more the emotional weight of it for everyone that was harder and the various personal consequences that covid brought on. That was very difficult.
We’re really lucky that everyone we’re working with, for the most part, is really experienced and really passionate about what we’re doing so everyone’s really keen to … jump on a chat and solve [whatever problems come up]. It’s one of the benefits of having done this for a long time and working with people who are quite experienced.
Let’s talk about Chorus. Why was Chorus a musical?
Esler: Because musical are just fucking cool. My background is theatre and musical theatre. I’ve always been a massive fan of musical theatre, and it’s an area that hasn’t been well explored in video games. There are obviously some indie games that’ve explored it but there was never something that I felt super passionately about.
It certainly hasn’t been explored to the extent that I would like to see it explored so when Dave [David Gaider] suggested we do a musical, we were talking about the Buffy musical episode and it was an instant light bulb moment of “hell yeah!” It’s always exciting when you get to do something genuine and … we instantly had an idea for how we wanted to do these songs.
[We wanted] an interactive version of a musical number and the specifics of it have changed over time but the core of it remains the same and it’s built on our understanding of branching dialogue. It’s an area that both David and I are well versed in. Although we were pretty confident in our ability to do that, we quickly learned it’s never easy to jump into an entirely new field. Over time, we’ve learned so much and brought on new collaborators to help out.
I think the idea has expanded so much from where it was. We just recently heard the first full draft of the first interactive song of the game and that was a really exciting moment to be like “oh yeah, this is actually working in the way we wanted it to work and this is going to be pretty kick arse if this is the first thing we’ve got.” So that was pretty exciting.
Musicals are a new frontier and that comes with a lot of excitement and a lot of problems. A lot of problem solving and a lot of learning. But as game developers … if you’re not learning, then what’s the point — you’re not pushing yourself and pushing further.
On a technical basis, how do you plan action around music? What comes first?
Esler: We start with an outline or the structure of a song. What are the key decisions being made? Then we break it down into ‘what’s the emotional journey that’s happening?’ How does that vary between the paths and then actually breaking it down into ‘here are the specifics of what happens in each section of this song’ and how they fit together. Then it goes to Austin Wintory [the composer who handled Flow and Journey‘s ethereal soundtracks] and our lyricists break it down further into the actual song.
So it starts with story and it ends with story.
How did you manage to wrangle such a talented AAA team for Chorus, particularly given Australian games don’t typically have the same ambitions and scale as overseas productions?
Esler: It’s pretty rare that a project comes together in a way that Chorus has, in my experience. Normally, when people use the word ‘passion’ in the games industry, I hate it. It’s usually code for things like crunch or overwork. I’m going to be really clear when I say this a project we’re all incredibly passionate about, we’re not talking about crunch.
When I first talked to Austin about it, he immediately understood what we were doing. He’d been wanting to do something like that for years and it was like a meeting of like minds. We just clicked instantly. It was very clear from the first time I met him that this was the right person to be working with for this project. We met through a friend who happened to have talked to us both within a small period of time and connected us as a result. It was a bit serendipitous. It’s been like that with every part of the project.
We worked very, very hard to find the right people to work with. I don’t really believe in luck per se, but it’s one of those things that if you put yourself in the right position and work hard and make sure you’re talking to as many people as you can about what’s going on, you put yourself in a position to be lucky. We did our best to do that.
We were lucky in that sense, that people like Austin and Troy Baker and through Troy, Laura — and the rest of the team were able to meet us and talk to us about what this project really was. There aren’t a lot of projects like Chorus. There aren’t a lot of musical games, or musicals in games. It’s a massive, unexplored space that a lot of people really care about.
The opportunity to work on something that’s unexplored that a lot of people really care about doesn’t come along very often, particularly with a team that has experience and is really passionate about what they’re working on. We’re very careful with our hours and the stuff we’re working on because it’s the kind of project we want to throw ourselves into. Of course, that makes managing the team hard — and a lot of it is making sure people are actually doing eight hours.
But it’s exciting to work on a project that everyone cares about and understands what’s going on. Everyone understands the risks and what challenges need to be overcome. Everyone is prepared to give and take. I feel very grateful to be working with a team that is as genuinely excited and passionate about what we’re doing as I am — and I know David feels the same way.
It’s a dream project for us, despite the incredible difficulties.
When you first started the game, you received funding from Film Victoria. How much did that help your development?
Esler: I think it’s safe to say that without funding from Film Victoria, Chorus might not have happened. It was absolutely crucial for taking us through those initial stages and helping us to shape the vision for what we’re doing — and the vision for Chorus has always been really specific the entire way through. We were able to take the time and work out what this was and what we were trying to do with it, and test that out in a way that we might never have been able to do otherwise.
It gave confidence in what we were doing to others as well as ourselves. They’re such a fantastic partner. We’re so lucky they saw value in what we’re doing. I’ve always been a massive fan of Film Vic and continue to be.
Film Victoria do amazing work. [Most states] have their own funding bodies for games now with some exceptions.
Esler: SA Film, Screen Queensland, Screen Tasmania, Screen West — almost every state in Australia has some form of games funding now. Even New South Wales. There have been some projects that have received funding. They’re few and far between and very specific situations. Hopefully [Screen NSW] cotton on soon enough.
I mean, SA just got a 10 per cent production offset for games that was extended from film and post-production. That’s huge. It makes Adelaide one of the most attractive places to make games in Australia, particularly if you’re an investor or publisher. The more that we can encourage initiatives like that from government, the better off we’ll all be.
Hopefully the federal government will soon take steps to broaden the scope of the current production and post-production offsets federally so we can all take advantage of those tax breaks. That’s going to help create a more sustainable and stable industry and help grow it in a way we really need, particularly for mid-sized teams.
IGEA have done an excellent job of presenting the industry to government and I know they’re continuing to push for things like offsets and grants. I’m really confident that sooner or later, the government (working on IGEA’s advice) will take that forward. That’ll be huge for the industry because there’s such a huge opportunity for the government. The games industry here has such potential to employ people and ultimately that’s what this government wants. It’s a bit of a no-brainer to me.
How much does PAX and GDC not happening this year impact your product and your ability to connect with an audience?
Esler: Different events have different goals and impacts. A lot of indies go to GDC to pitch publishers or to show off their games. Everyone goes for different reasons. For us, we were starting to pitch the current version of Chorus so we’d be able to expand it. Our crowdfunding campaign was really successful but doing this in the way we want requires more cash, essentially — particularly if we want to do things like full voice-over and adding more songs.
The loss of something like GDC is huge for a project in the process of seeking funding because it’s one of the few events where lots of publishers and funding bodies and developers are in the same place. It makes it easier for everyone. Each publisher has a pipeline for how they choose which projects to fund. Events like GDC, D.I.C.E. and E3 are big parts of that pipeline because it helps them to see all of what’s available and they can make decisions based on that.
When GDC got canned, not only was it bad for developers who could’ve showed games to publishers, it also meant that publishers couldn’t see games, so it was a lot harder for them to make decisions. In addition to that, the uncertainty that coronavirus started meant that a lot of publishers are going conservative again with what they’re choosing to fund — which is totally understandable. Some of them stopped funding things temporarily and it definitely makes things very difficult for anyone who’s hunting down money.
The cancellation of something like PAX can have similar effects, depending on what developers are going for. For us, PAX is a touchstone. It’s not a crucial event. While we’re really gutted we don’t get to do anything at PAX Australia, I’m really glad PAX is still going ahead in some form and obviously, we’ll be there next year.
Chorus is currently pencilled in for a late 2021 release. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to catch a glimpse of it at PAX Australia 2021 but until then, you can follow the game’s updates on its Fig page or social media.