'Punk rock' Aussie game studio debuts world first
One man's desire to escape the harsh Canadian winter kick-started a dream to push the boundaries in Australia's video-game industry.
Reaching the end of his time at major developer Beamdog, David Gaider - one of the sector's most celebrated writers - was looking for where to go next, preferably somewhere warmer.
The Canadian settled on Melbourne, where he and friend Liam Esler formed indie gaming studio Summerfall with musician Ellie Young.
The conversation to decide on their first project took less than an hour as the trio settled on an unusual concept: a role-playing musical.
That was five years ago and today Summerfall is three months away from debuting the musical theatre-inspired, Greek mythology-tinged Stray Gods.
"There are moments where we were like, 'Are we crazy?'" Gaider told AAP.
"We absolutely were," Esler chipped in.
And yet Gaider and Esler had no issue convincing others - including the Victorian government - to jump onboard.
Actor, musician and self-professed "hardcore gamer" Janina Gavankar didn't hesitate when she got the call to join the project by her friend and Stray Gods co-star Troy Baker.
Gavankar voices Freddie, one of the four characters gamers can choose to romance
"This is the first of its kind. None of us have done anything like this," she told AAP.
It was perhaps wandering into the unknown that drew her in the most.
"The most important work that's coming out of the games industry is coming from independent studios," Gavankar said.
"These indie teams have to take risks. They have to stay punk rock. Otherwise, they'll never have a footprint.
"And because of that, they move the needle in games, culture and storytelling faster."
That innovation is what attracted Victorian government agency VicScreen to Summerfall, according to the organisation's head of game and interactive, Paul Callaghan.
"Our support gives them the space to prove to themselves and to a publisher that this is a thing that can work, and that it will work," he said of VicScreen's decision to financially back Stray Gods.
"As a project (it) is quite attractive, but the amount of effort required and the level of risk in proving that this idea can work is quite significant."
The game follows school dropout Grace after the death of her friend Calliope, who bestows upon her the powers of a Muse, the inspirational goddesses of literature, science and the arts.
She is given three days to prove her innocence to a group of mythological beings known as the chorus.
Asked what attracted the team to a modern retelling of Greek gods, Gaider is blunt: "They're really terrible people."
Esler added: "But these are the Greek gods as you have never seen them."
Whether Grace makes an enemy, ally or lover out of the characters she encounters is up to the player.
Composed by Austin Wintory, the game's Broadway-esque songs work as part of a choose-your-own-adventure story in which player choices rewrite the music. One song alone has 72 million permutations.
The game's developers claim no two players will hear the same soundtrack as the likelihood they will make the same decisions is impossible.
"Any other project that I've been on, we record a song and it's done," voice actor Laura Bailey said.
"With this, we were recording music like Lego pieces. We would be recording bits and pieces and just having to trust.
"Sometimes, I couldn't find what the actual overall melody was going to be until we'd recorded four sessions and then it would start to click."
Hype has long been building around the project, which attracted nearly US$700,000 from more than 6000 backers in an early crowdfunding campaign.
Esler said Summerfall wouldn't exist if VicScreen hadn't helped with initial funding and the same was true of other games, like Melbourne-based studio Massive Monster's hit Cult of the Lamb.
"I've worked at a lot of different companies in Australia and internationally, so I know what I'm talking about when I say that Melbourne is one of the best, if not the best, place to make games in the world," he said.
But it isn't just the promise of a first-of-its-kind musical theatre game that makes Summerfall one to watch.
The team is determined to make changes to an industry infamous for "crunch culture" and toxic workplaces.
In the industry, "crunch" is the compulsory overtime worked in order to get a project out on time, often leading to dozens of hours of uncompensated work each week.
"There's this idea that unions wouldn't work in gaming, that this is just the way things will always be, that 'crunch' has been made part of the schedules so you can never escape," Gaider said.
"But there's many good people in these companies who are fighting tooth and nail to change that. There's a push across the industry for that."
Gaider said moving from a major game developer to an independent outfit had been "a delight" and change would inevitably move up through the industry from the smaller firms.
When building their team, it was also essential for Esler and Gaider to create a diverse group that reflected the people who played games.
Esler co-founded GX Australia, a diversity-focused gaming convention that ran in 2016 and 2017.
"Summerfall is a place where we show, don't tell," he said.
"If you look at our team, if you look at the games that we make, they should speak for themselves."