By now you’ve probably seen the teaser trailer for Jeff Gardiner’s next game, announced Tuesday at Gamescom, and based on his resumé you’ve might have formed some word-association impressions of what the Fallout and Elder Scrolls veteran is up to with his new studio. Terms like open-world, fantasy RPG, or lore-heavy.
Stop right there. “The lore part, that’s very interesting, because I’m actually trying to avoid lore for the most part,” said Gardiner, whose closed his 16-year tenure with Bethesda Game Studios one year ago as of Friday. “So I’m setting it somewhat historical. […] I want to explore this idea of the player being an unreliable narrator, and there’s no better setting than this, sort of semi-mythological, [Knights] Templar sort of backdrop.”
That “unreliable narrator,” familiar to those who sunk hundreds of hours into The Elder Scrolls 3: Oblivion, or Fallout 3, or any of a dozen RPGs that inspired both, is the keystone to Wyrdsong, which Gardiner is developing with Charlie Staples, a longtime friend and Obsidian Entertainment alumnus, under a new studio called Something Wicked Games. Their project has no launch window — the studio itself has only 15 employees out of the 70 that Gardiner and Staples reckon they need.
But they do have backing from NetEase, a $13.2 million seed round to be precise. And Something Wicked Games is visiting Gamescom this week for old-school, trade-convention purposes: Wave the flag, make a business deal or two, pass around some business cards and maybe get some names and phone numbers of developers who’d like to party up. That’s sort of how Gardiner himself landed at Bethesda Game Studios back in 2005, when he saw Oblivion at E3 and talked Todd Howard into a job offer.
If all of this sounds like Gardiner had a plan when he left Bethesda Softworks last August, he’d say you’re mistaken. Gardiner, who was most recently the project lead for Fallout 76, more or less left Bethesda with no options in hand; he said he needed to step away after more than a year of post-launch development during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off [thanks to] the Microsoft acquisition,” Gardiner said. So he didn’t really have an idea of what to do with his free time.
“COVID probably didn’t give me enough time to reflect,” Gardiner says. “I immediately started playing 100-hour RPGs; I replayed Baldur’s Gate 1, 2: Shadows of Amn, stuff like that. I realized that, while this sounds like a great idea to play 16 hours a day of RPGs, like I did when I was a kid, it’s not really that fulfilling.”
Soon enough, Gardiner was looking for work. “I did kick some tires, I pursued some executive manager roles at various studios and publishers,” he said. “I thought about consulting.” But a nostalgia for the days when he was directly involved with a game’s creative staff — that Fallout 3 to Skyrim sweet spot of 2007 to 2011 — always lingered.
The short version: Gardiner and Staples put together a pitch deck, made some phone calls, and nearly all of them were returned to set up a meeting. The two only needed the second sit-down, with NetEase, where the enormous Chinese gaming and internet conglomerate agreed to their seed-funding figure before the conversation was done. That was back in April.
“They believe in the game, they believe in the title, and they’re fully committed to supporting us,” Gardiner said. “You want to be sure you’re taking the best deal, and it was definitely NetEase. We had other offers, and we’re still going to be looking for future offers, to be honest with you, because the game is going to be a little bit bigger than the seed fund. But I think we’re well positioned for success to fund this game and get this out.”
When Gardiner describes Wyrdsong (it’s pronounced “weird-song”), it doesn’t sound like one of those auteur, statement-of-self works that a director has been busting to get out of his system for a long time — hence Gardiner’s deliberately lore-light approach. Truth be told, Gardiner’s inspiration for Wyrdsong comes from the last vacation he and his wife took before the pandemic, to Portugal. Wyrdsong is set in that country, circa 13th to 14th century, but in a preternatural world with its own laws of nature and magic.
Gardiner said after their visit to Portugal, he read Freddy Silva’s “First Templar Nation,” a 2017 thesis about the founding of the Knights Templar, a military order that has shown up in pop-culture adventures ranging from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Silva’s book connected Gardiner’s imagination to several places he’d visited in person, and eventually his wife flat-out said he should set his next game in medieval Portugal, given how much he talked about it. Gardiner accepted the advice and — albeit after 30 revisions — created the pitch deck that would hang a shingle for Something Wicked Games.
Still, the fact Gardiner is chief executive of a new studio means he can’t completely revisit the purely creative roles he held on games more than a decade old. But he is experiencing and enjoying creative direction in a different way, through establishing a big-picture vision and then trusting colleagues to embellish the finer points and make them shine in ways he hadn’t considered.
“What I did on Skyrim, my primary focus, I was testing, tracking, following up, helping people get what they needed to be successful,” he says. “I managed people for a large part of my career, and the most important thing is just — hand it off. They have this thing called ‘Kill your darlings,’ like, just give them stuff. Let them have fun with it.
“Part of the fun of creativity is seeing where these brilliant minds can take you, not going, ‘Oh, we have to get to this place, or it’s going to be terrible,” Gardiner said. “No, it’s the opposite. They’re going to take you on this journey.”