A Light in Chorus, video game, box art, light particles, deer, stag

Interview: A Light in Chorus

The award for prettiest video game at this year’s EGX would definitely have gone to A Light in Chorus. We reached out to developers Eliott Johnson and Matthew Warshaw to find out more.

Title overview

Name: A Light in Chorus
Developer: Eliott Johnson and Matthew Warshaw
Publisher: Eliott Johnson and Matthew Warshaw
Release date: To be announced
PEGI rating: Not listed
Platforms: To be announced
More information: Official website

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Kim says…

You know those moments, where you walk past someone playing a video game but then have to stop and do a double-take, just so you can say ‘Wow’? That’s what happened to us at the EGX event last month when we came across A Light in Chorus in the Leftfield Collection area. This exploration game is set in a world made entirely of particles, where players move around the environment as a reconfigurable swarm of points; adopting the shapes of things around them, illuminating hidden landscapes and revealing shadowy fragments of a much larger mystery.

Developers Eliott Johnson and Matthew Warshaw are currently based in London, having previously studied Fine Art at the Central St Martins School of Art and Design. We reached out to the guys and they kindly took some time out of their busy schedules last week to answer our questions about their project.

Can you tell us about your backgrounds and what made you decide to start making A Light in Chorus?

Eliott: “After graduating I worked in post-production for commercials while trying to get a fine art career off the ground. The game grew out of one of the projects I was trying to make – a film about the history of visual technologies and how they’ve shaped our understanding of landscape.

“I’d been looking at lots of sonar scans of the sea floor and was struck by how beautiful and eerie that way of representing the world was (as point clouds). It wasn’t long before wanting to walk around them, I was already a 3D artist by trade so began making tools to emulate the scanning process in a virtual environment. I’d wanted to collaborate on a big project with Mat for years, and after showing him some of the stuff I’d been working on we started talking about how to make this happen.”

Mat: “For the past eight years or so I’d been working on interactive art and experimenting with programming visual systems. I’d had a couple software engineer-y jobs but not felt particularly settled and I was really excited to work with Eliott who I respect a lot as an artist and to cobble together some of those experiments and modules into a system that could realise this beautiful vision of wandering through a point-world.”

Are you gamers yourselves? If so, do you have any preferred genres or favourite titles?

Eliott: “Recently some of my favourite games have been Kentucky Route Zero, FTL, Gone Home and Spy Party.”

Mat: “I tend to like games where you can really get in and understand a system at work. As a kid I sunk a good deal of time into Championship Manager, Creatures 2 and Worms. I play an online collectible card game called Cardhunter. Away from the screen, I’ve played a lot of chess, go and was a semi (demi) professional poker player for a few years.”

We first came across A Light in Chorus at this year’s EGX event, where we spent an enjoyable half-hour playing the game. How did you find the event and are you hoping to be at Rezzed in March?

Eliott:EGX has been amazing for us, getting to see people enjoy the world you’ve spent the last few months working on is really rewarding. It’s also just been a great for publicity in general – for example, opportunities like this… We found people were far more patient with the game than we’d expected. We’d love to show at Rezzed in March if we’re able to, but it’s difficult to say anything for sure right now.”

The title is one of exploration set in a world made entirely of light particles. Although we understand that it’s more about mood, does the game have a storyline?

Eliott: “We have several small intertwined stories we’d like to tell, all of them themed around the journeys of migratory animals and involving a collection of escaped circus animals. That being said, we’re not looking to make an overtly plot-based game. Much of these stories are suggested by the environmental details around you.

“So much of the visual style is reliant on the brain filling in the blanks between points… the detail is implied, and that’s something we see carrying over into the narrative with players piecing together their own idea of what happened. If we do our job well enough, we won’t need to spell everything out.”

Players move around the world, adopting the shape of objects around them and illuminating hidden landscapes. Can you tell us more about the gameplay?

Eliott: “Right now our core mechanic revolves around being able to morph or swap almost any one game object into another, with certain special objects behaving in ways which alter the world around them.

“We have one object that increases the detail of anything around it (which in our world means increasing the number of particles) revealing hidden clues and activating previously ‘incomplete’ objects. Another allows the player a glimpse into the hidden landscapes you mention. We’re trying to make a system that allows you to stack the behaviour of all these simple elements together and fosters creative gameplay within the world.

“We’re still getting a feel for how these will work together in the finished game. With the build you saw the design was still playing catch up with the mechanics. There were behaviours left totally unexplained and we’ll be focusing on this in the next period of development.”

The demo we played brought games such as The Unfinished Swan to mind. Have any other titles influenced your work?

Eliott: “It’s only this past week either of us have played The Unfinished Swan, though we were both aware of it before. I think the game that’s most influenced what we’re trying to do has been Proteus.”

Mat:Eliott mentioned Kentucky Route Zero above, and I think that feeling of eerie, incomplete information is something we’d like to permeate the game.”

Whilst hanging around your stand at EGX we heard many attendees comment on A Light in Chorus’ visuals – and indeed, it was one of the best-looking games there. What made you decide to go in this direction?

Eliott: “We’re trying to make a game that is, at least partly, about evoking feelings of being present in specific types of spaces, so for us choices that at first seem like polish very often affect the player’s core experience.

“The overriding appeal of the style for us as artists was that the gameplay would be directly influenced by the art, rather than exist as something conceptually separate from it – ie the art style doesn’t exist as just this thin skin over the mechanics, it’s an integral part of what they are. How objects glow or vibrate as you move through them, how the space changes from state to state, how objects can re-assemble into other objects, all these things are part of what constitutes the game you play.”

Something we were very impressed with was how a world of light particles could still manage to convey a level of detail and textures. Has this been difficult to achieve?

Eliott: “Yes. Beyond making our own toolset (still evolving) it’s been a very delicate balancing act to make sure everything reads nicely and suggests just the right thing. As we said before, with so much in this game the mind fills in a lot of the blanks. It’s something I’ve long been interested in: where does the edge of recognition lie? What’s an object’s lowest common denominator. It’s a tired example but cartoonists will often just outline one or two bricks and leave a red expanse to represent a wall, sometimes even just picking the colour will bring to mind the right object. So much of design is tied up in finding these magic signifiers.”

The game has an ambient soundtrack that really compliments the visuals. Can you tell us more about its creator and design?

Eliott: “We’re working with two super talented people on the sound and music. Gordon McBryde is acting as our producer together with electro / ambient musician Chris Zabriskie. It’s just as much a collaborative project between Gordon and Chris, as it is with us. It’s still early days but we want sound and music to play an integral part of how the world we’re making operates, rearranging the physical space should also reconfigure the soundscape.”

Can you tell us which component of A Light in Chorus you’re currently working on? When do you think it will be ready for release?

Eliott: “So far development has been about getting the game to look and feel right, but now we’re focused on tightening up the gameplay. There’s so much more potential for the art style to inform this, so we’ll be spending some time further balancing what feels right with what’s fun to play. Given that, we’re not looking at a release for at least another eighteen months.”

Is there any advice you’d give to someone who’s thinking of making an indie game?

Eliott: “Don’t be afraid of sharing what you’re working on. Talking to other people about your work provides valuable feedback, stuff you can miss when you’re caught up in the middle of a project. It also helps to promote your game. We wouldn’t be in a position to show at EGX if it weren’t for the support and encouragement of other developers, a year ago nobody knew who we were or what we were up to, it’s amazing how powerful just showing people what you’re doing can be.”

Mat: “I’ve often perceived a gap between the artwork / programming projects that I do and games that might be accessible and interesting to people. So at the risk of repeating ‘just make it’, I’d say that you don’t need any special knowledge or qualifications but a desire to keep experimenting and that there is probably less of a barrier between you and the industry than you think.”

What does the future hold for both A Light in Chorus and yourselves?

Both: “A lot more hard work!”

Thank you once again to Eliott and Mat for answering our questions. We may have another year-and-a-half before we can get our hands on the final version of A Light in Chorus but this is a game we’ve definitely got our eyes on – the videos above just don’t do its particle-gorgeousness justice. We’ll bring you more news as we receive it, but in the meantime make sure you sign up to the mailing list on the official website.

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