Dragon Age Writer Reveals A New Game, And It Is Completely Different

BioWare veteran David Gaider, who left the esteemed role-playing game studio in 2016 after almost two decades with the company, has announced his next big project. Gaider has started a new team, Summerfall Studios, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, and their first game is probably not what you would expect. The new game is called Chorus. It is part musical, part illustrated adventure game, and part character-driven narrative. Summerfall is looking to fund the game on the crowdfunding/equity platform Fig, with a projected release in Q1 2021.

Summerfall has assembled top talent for Chorus. In addition to Gaider–the former head writer on the Dragon Age series–the studio brought on former Obsidian and Beamdog developer Liam Esler as the company’s managing director. Being a music-themed game, Summerfall seems to be sparing no expense with its musical talent. The company is working with Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory (Journey) on the music, while veteran voice actor Troy Baker (who is also an accomplished musician) will work on Chorus as its Voice Director. Additionally, prolific voice actress Laura Bailey (Gears 5, Uncharted 4) is lined up to voice the main character, Grace.

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Summerfall says Chorus is a “first of its kind” game from an “all-star team gone indie.”

The story follows Grace in a sweeping narrative involving gods, music, and other-worldly creatures. “In Chorus, we follow Grace’s story as she finds herself thrust into a high-stakes world of weary gods and fantastical creatures after her new bandmate dies bleeding in her apartment–but not before granting Grace the divine power of song,” reads a line from the game’s description. “When the gods accuse her of murdering Calliope, the ‘fair-voiced’ muse, Grace must discover the truth… before the gods take her life in exchange.”

Chorus takes its inspiration from a number of different sources, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” the dialogue and companions of Dragon Age, and the quirkiness of Dream Daddy.

“For Summerfall’s first game, Liam and I felt that we wanted to do something a little different,” Gaider, who is the game’s creative director, told GameSpot in an interview. “I’ve personally wanted to work on a musical ever since I was lead writer on Dragon Age back at BioWare, and I used to half-jokingly suggest to my bosses that a musical DLC would be a delightful break from the norm. We never did that, of course, but the idea stuck with me… and when I suggested to Liam that it could be our ‘something a little different,” he jumped on the idea, and everything started falling into place right afterwards.”

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The characters are at the heart of Chorus’s story–and this includes romance options. The romance system in Chorus isn’t relegated to a “side show,” Gaider explained. Instead, romancing other characters is a central part of the plot, and it can even affect how the story ends. “The characters are part of the Chorus universe, and getting the player to care about those characters makes them also care about their world and their problems,” Gaider said. “Indeed, in BioWare games we found that many players were so invested in their relationships that it made the more abstract problems presented by the plot completely secondary.”

While Summerfall is based in Melbourne, Gaider continues to live in Edmonton, Canada. Esler is heading up the team in Melbourne, and he is quick to point out that the studio is planning to do right by its employees by avoiding burnout and crunch, while also actively recruiting with the aim of creating a diverse workforce. Not only this, but Summerfall worked with Film Victoria, a government group that supports media teams and projects, to help create the new game.

“When David and I first began to talk about starting a studio, one of the things we immediately agreed on was that we are done with burnout, crunch culture and workplace toxicity,” Esler said. “We are both passionate about diversity of all kinds, and want to ensure we create a workplace where all kinds of people are welcome, and diverse perspectives are appreciated. To achieve these goals, we’ve worked hard to speak with experts and studios all over the globe, inside and outside of games, to create supportive and proactive work policies. It might sound trite, but we’re determined to make Summerfall a studio where the team works together to create something beautiful–not a studio where something beautiful is created at the expense of the team. “

Summerfall met with publishers to discuss deals and partnerships. While various companies expressed enthusiasm, the feedback from these meetings was direct: there was no data to show a game like Chorus could succeed. As such, Summerfall is looking to fund Chorus via crowdfunding. Esler reflected on the conversations he had with publishers.

“There’s nothing like it out there. Chorus has elements from many places, but you can’t draw a direct line between it and any other game without some kind of caveat,” Esler said. “While almost everyone we spoke to was very enthusiastic about the concept, and most agreed it was both novel and that there was a clear audience, there’s just no data or previous success to prove it.

“The audience for musicals–despite massive successes like Hamilton or Frozen–is considered niche. Somebody’s got to try it first, so we figured–why not us? And we would rather talk to our audience directly to find out if they want a game like this!”

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Summerfall is looking to raise $600,000 USD to fund Chorus, with a number of physical and digital bonuses and experiences available for those who support the campaign. Summerfall originally was looking to fund Chorus on Kickstarter, but those plans were canceled in the wake of the revelation that Kickstarter as a company won’t voluntarily recognize employee unions.

For lots more on Chous, check out GameSpot’s interview with Gaider and Esler below. They’ll both also appear on a GameSpot Theatre panel on Saturday, October 12 to discuss lots more about Summerfall and Chorus–get more details here.

Chorus is part musical, part illustrated adventure game, and part character-driven narrative–where did the idea for this kind of game come from?

David Gaider: For Summerfall’s first game, Liam and I felt that we wanted to do something a little different. I’ve personally wanted to work on a musical ever since I was Lead Writer on Dragon Age back at BioWare, and I used to half-jokingly suggest to my bosses that a musical DLC would be a delightful break from the norm. We never did that, of course, but the idea stuck with me… and when I suggested to Liam that it could be our “something a little different,” he jumped on the idea, and everything started falling into place right afterwards.

Can you talk about how the various distinct elements–adventure game, musical, character-driven narrative–tie together and work off each other?

Gaider: A great deal of Chorus is a choice-driven game, much like the RPG’s I’ve worked on previously. The player engages with scenes using branching dialogue, and moves from scene to scene during the story by making selections on a different screen–like “find the owner” or “break down the door”. This allows us to have the kind of choice-driven narrative we both like and are accustomed to making. The major difference is that the big moments in Chorus are resolved not with combat, but with song. A musical scene begins, and the player makes choices during it much the same as they do during dialogue, and that changes the course of the song… and, ultimately, determines where the song ends and how the story changes as a result.

What did you take from Dragon Age and your previous work at BioWare that’s helping or instructing the ideas and themes of Chorus?

Gaider: I’ve spent my entire career working with branching dialogue and branching narrative, so that’s certainly helpful with Chorus. I think I’ve also gained an appreciation for just how much of the audience prioritizes things like characters, romance, and narrative over things like combat and progression mechanics.

Relationships and romance are going to be a part of Chorus. Can you talk about that more?

Gaider: Characters are at the center of Chorus’s story – the player character joins a society of Greek gods that are still alive in the modern world, and very dysfunctional, and she’s going to have to navigate them and make choices about which ones are her friends and enemies. Part of that is also offering the chance to start a romance… not as a side show, but as something that develops into a central part of the plot and can change how the story ends. The characters are part of the Chorus universe, and getting the player to care about those characters makes them also care about their world and their problems. Indeed, in BioWare games we found that many players were so invested in their relationships that it made the more abstract problems presented by the plot completely secondary.

Why did you want to leave AAA and move to the indie space? What kinds of new freedoms and opportunities do you have now at a smaller studio?

Gaider: I think there’s room in the industry for smaller teams and smaller games which can achieve success on a smaller scale. You can make something that’s much more focused on its audience, and there’s a lot of freedom in that, as a creator. A great deal more challenges too, obviously, but so far I’m really enjoying the camaraderie of a small team where we band together and do whatever we think works best, without having to worry about numerous layers of management and greenlight procedures.

What are some of the challenges related to being a smaller team?

Gaider: Security is the big one. You always feel like you’re half a step from oblivion, and you don’t have the comfort of many others around you to offer advice and share the blame. Everyone also needs to multitask, since you don’t have enough people to really specialize in their one field… everyone needs to be willing to jump onto something that needs doing, and learn how to do it if necessary. That can be a little harrying, even if it’s also exciting.

David and Liam, why did you choose Melbourne as the city for Summerfall?

Gaider: For me, when I first came to Melbourne and was introduced to its dev community, the thing I noticed was how tightly-knit and friendly they were. There’s a lot of potential for growth, here. I’m still based in Edmonton for now, but if I end up moving to Melbourne personally to join the rest of the team it certainly doesn’t hurt that I’d be leaving the long Canadian winter behind.

Liam Esler: Melbourne is my favourite city in the world–and conveniently has one of the most vibrant and interesting game development communities I’ve seen. I’ve been extremely passionate about supporting and growing the Australian and Victorian game development industry since I worked with the Game Developers’ Association of Australia and helped run Game Connect Asia Pacific–so it made perfect sense for us to start Summerfall here.

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You’ve said you want Summerfall to be a sustainable studio that does right by its employees. How are you going about achieving this?

Esler: When David and I first began to talk about starting a studio, one of the things we immediately agreed on was that we are done with burnout, crunch culture and workplace toxicity. We are both passionate about diversity of all kinds, and want to ensure we create a workplace where all kinds of people are welcome, and diverse perspectives are appreciated. To achieve these goals, we’ve worked hard to speak with experts and studios all over the globe, inside and outside of games, to create supportive and proactive work policies. It might sound trite, but we’re determined to make Summerfall a studio where the team works together to create something beautiful–not a studio where something beautiful is created at the expense of the team.

“We’re making Chorus for the people who often get left behind by big-budget video games, who aren’t necessarily here for the combat or the violence, but are EXTREMELY here for everything else.” — Esler

Who is the target audience for Chorus?

Esler: We’re making Chorus for people who love characters and narrative, who love vibrant, human stories, who love musicals and song. Those who loved the characters of Dragon Age, the music of Buffy: Once More With Feeling or Dear Evan Hansen, or who are big fans of urban fantasy and witty writing.

Most of all, though, we’re making Chorus for the people who often get left behind by big-budget video games, who aren’t necessarily here for the combat or the violence, but are EXTREMELY here for everything else.

Why do you think there haven’t been more musical games?

Gaider: I think there have been many games in which music has played a big part, it’s just always been a big part of the background. For most, I suspect the challenge would be how to incorporate music as a more active element. Our biggest challenge was figuring out how to make the songs interactive, allowing the player time to make choices while still preserving the overall pace and flow of the music. There’s also the element of needing to incorporate a composer into the process much earlier. We’re not just adding singing to interactive dialogue, after all – it has to be a production now, and that’s a much more complicated proposition.

Why do you think publishers thought Chorus was too risky or different to take on?

Esler: There’s nothing like it out there. Chorus has elements from many places, but you can’t draw a direct line between it and any other game without some kind of caveat. While almost everyone we spoke to was very enthusiastic about the concept, and most agreed it was both novel and that there was a clear audience, there’s just no data or previous success to prove it.

The audience for musicals–despite massive successes like Hamilton or Frozen–is considered niche. Somebody’s got to try it first, so we figured–why not us? And we would rather talk to our audience directly to find out if they want a game like this!

Can you talk about your relationship with Film Victoria about their contributions to Chorus and the other help they provided to you on the project?

Esler: Film Victoria has been invaluable on Chorus from the get-go. As soon as we had a clear idea of what we were doing and how we needed to be proceeding, we started talking to Film Victoria, who provided advice and guidance on all manner of things. We were lucky enough to be recipients of two rounds of grant funding, which allowed us the time and space to really develop Chorus into something special, while they provided expert feedback and support. We can’t thank them enough!

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Author: Eddie Makuch