Ever since those gorgeous screenshots and gifs were released, we’ve had our eyes on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. A mystery horror exploration adventure game from independent studio The Astronauts, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter certainly looks the part. We recently had a chat with Adrien Chmielarz, one of the founders of The Astronauts, and game designer in charge of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, about narrative, gameplay, and how the team’s time developing some of the most hectic old-school shooters at People Can Fly has influenced their narrative approach with Ethan Carter.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is first and foremost a narrative experience. Chmielarz gave us a quick rundown of the premise:
“You are a famous occult private detective who receives a letter from a boy – Ethan Carter – and realizes that it’s not a regular fan mail, there are some dark forces at play there, truly messing with the boy’s life. You get to Red Creek Valley as soon as possible, but Ethan is nowhere to be found. What you do find, however, is a corpse – and this is where your investigation begins.”
“We call this game a weird fiction horror,” Chmielarz said, “and the weird fiction part is crucial.
It’s not a horror game in the traditional shoot all the monsters sense, either. “I love how our writer describes the horror element of our game,” Chmielarz said. “Clumsy unease.” While there is gore and macabre scenes in the game – “after all, you’re dealing with the dead who did not leave this world voluntarily” – the fear does not come from “evil entities bent on killing you”. Chmielarz calls it a “soft horror” game, with serious themes put in place to relax and thrill the audience at the same time.
“There’s gameplay, but there’s no combat and no hiding. The fears and thrills in our game come from a different source.”
We pressed Chmielarz more specifically on the gameplay issue. With no combat and no monsters, the nature of that gameplay could be questioned by those who fundamentally disagree with the exploration game format. To counteract that potential view, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will emphasise “basically, stuff to do.”
“Exploration games are often criticized for being ‘walking simulators’… museum tours. I don’t necessarily agree.” He expanded, “For example, there was a lot of ‘gameplay’ in Gone Home – I had to connect a lot of dots myself – and the only difference between this solution and a ‘normal’ game was that the game did not give me any confirmation that I was right.”
“But still,” Chmielarz conceded,” I understand why it bothers some people, because the holy trinity of adventure is: presence, immersion and engagement. If one of these suffers – and engagement might suffer in pure exploration games, then it hurts the overall experience.”
“Leaving all game design theory aside,” Chmielarz said, “what you do in the game is… try to figure out what happened to Ethan Carter by analysing clues and putting it all together.” This essentially boils down to walking around the open world finding dead people and talking to them, extracting the details you want, trying to figure out the mystery and learning more about the world. You’ll also have fragmented visions of the crime, a special ability the protagonist can use to help solve the mystery. There will be interaction with items and other objects important to the plot, “but the secret sauce is not in what you do, but in how you do it.”
“We want to propose a couple of ideas that I hope gamers will find fresh of what exactly you can do in a game focused on story-telling. That your actions actually matter, that you are an agent of change in a game that’s not about branching choices.”
The exact extent of the impact player choice has on the game is currently being kept very hush hush. “We’ve made a decision a long time ago not to discuss elements of discovery in a game about discovery.” Chmielarz explained. “That does not mean the game has multiple endings or that it does not, I am just explaining why we don’t want to elaborate on subjects like that.”
That stance presents the team with a difficulty – namely, marketing. Balancing providing details to capture an audience with the narrative integrity and prevention of spoilers is being taken very seriously by The Astronauts. “Of course, the marketing of our game would be impossible without telling people anything about it, but we try to keep it to minimum.”
“It is extremely hard to market a game like this, because everything feels like a spoiler.” Chmielarz expanded, “And we don’t want that. In the age when every movie trailer is basically a short version of the entire movie, we’re trying to grab people’s attention with less obvious material.” Some of that material includes a number of eye grabbing screenshots, gifs, trailers and even a mini prequel comic.
The Astronauts were willing to part with some details about the nature of the game’s length, though. Chmielarz emphasised the player’s role in shaping the length of play time, saying that it’s “very flexible”. The way a player moves through the world and solves the mystery is dependent on their tastes. “For example,” Chmielarz said, “you could be very meticulous and discover everything in one go, or rush through the game and then return to it for one or two more playthroughs.”
“There’s not one right way to play it, because it depends on how you understand the role of the detective: should he take things slowly, or try to find Ethan as soon as quickly possible, even if that means the details are fuzzy and the investigation might be at risk?”
The game world itself is set to be “pretty big for a game like [this]. You could almost call this game an open world game.” How big exactly he wouldn’t say, but apparently it’s such a large world that crossing the entire valley takes so much time that the team had to increase the protagonist’s running speed “to make it bearable.”
The exact length of the game, though, is still up for speculation. “I’ll happily answer that question once we have the game playable from A to Z.” Chmielarz stated. The exact gameplay time doesn’t matter too much to him, as long as the quality of the experience is satisfactory. “I think that people will be pleased,” Chmielarz said, “but still, eliminating filler and making sure that we have a great storytelling discipline is our priority.”
That discipline in story also means that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is designed to be a complete experience. At this point, no DLC is planned, and Chmielarz “highly doubt[s]” that there will ever be DLC.
At first glance, with its focus on storytelling over frantic gameplay, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter seems like a massive departure from The Astronauts’ previous modus operandi. While Ethan Carter is the first game being made under The Astronauts name, this isn’t the first time the three founding members have worked together. Artist Andrew Poznanski, animator Michal Kosieradzki, and designer Adrian Chmielarz have been together for over ten years, formerly founding and working at People Can Fly. You might be familiar with some of their previous work – Painkiller, Bulletstorm, and Gears of War: Judgment. So how exactly does a studio that has brought some of the most pure, gamey, shootery of shooters to the world branch out into a contemplative narrative driven adventure game?
“Actually, I started my game designer career by writing three adventure games.” Chmielarz told us. “Even the very first one, The Mystery of the Statuette, was a mix of horror and thriller. In a surprising way then it’s the shooters that were an oddity for me, not story-focused games.”
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a good shooter, and somehow I ended up making just these in the last ten years, but I always wanted to go back to the roots sooner or later.”
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t the first adventure game the team have worked together on, though. Back in the mid-2000s, between Painkiller and Bulletstorm, there was an adventure game in development. Called Come Midnight, it featured a private detective who could communicate with the dead, similar to Ethan Carter. The game never saw the light of day, however, being cancelled in 2006 by THQ “for reasons that did not have much to do with the game itself.”
Now that they have moved to the independent scene and cut ties with publishers, the team are seeing the benefits, as well as some of the downsides, of indie development. “The good side is obvious: it’s the freedom.” Chmielarz continued. “Decisions can be made quickly, and you understand who’s responsible for what. And you don’t need to check with the ten thousand people whether the hero can or cannot smoke a cigarette.”
“The bad side is that a big studio is a machine that can produce content like there’s no tomorrow. You request something as a designer, and you can have a prototype in a few hours and then fairly polished version just days later. That’s often not the case when there’s just a few guys working on the entire game. You just don’t have the same level of flexibility and sheer power.”
But sometimes, Chmielarz told us, these resource and time constraints can be positive. “I guess that TV is a good example,” he explained, “We have a lot of amazing TV series that are made for only a fraction of what a movie costs. So when you have limited resources, you really look at each feature twice, and focus only on what’s truly important.” He gave us an example, telling us “just the other I… managed to turn a big feature into something that requires half the original planned effort, but is actually much better for the game than the original idea.”
Free from the constraints of a publisher, The Astronauts are able to pursue their own vision for the game, making it unique in several ways. “First,” Chmielarz told us, “we’re making this game for a very specific group of people. It’s [for] the guys and girls who love video games, but [are finding it] harder and harder… to find something that satisfies them.” The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is for players who want a different experience beyond competing, even in single player games, who have “[jumped] over enough platforms and killed enough enemy soldiers”.
To The Astronauts, trusting the player is key to the design process. “I’m not even sure if there’s going to be a tutorial,” Chmielarz explained. “because it’s extremely hard to make them without breaking immersion and forcing you to crouch under that branch that always somehow manages to block your way in the beginning of a game.” We all know that branch. The UI is important, but that is secondary to the game trusting players and letting them discover the world for themselves. “Yes, the cost is that some players will have troubles remembering that this button does that, or they will miss some content, but for the rest of them the experience will be greater, I think.”
Another way The Astronauts are stamping The Vanishing of Ethan Carter with their vision is directly through graphics. “If we believed that cartoon shader or 8-bit art would fit our story best, we would go for just that.” Chmielarz said. Many indie studios decide on a particular art style that expresses their game’s purpose, and this is also true for Ethan Carter. It just so happens that “a very natural, organic, nearly photorealistic world helps with the sense of presence, and this is crucial to the experience the game offers. The side effect is that the game looks, I hope, pretty cool, but that was not the goal in itself.” Graphics support the experience, rather than define it.
Considering how great the current screenshots and gifs look, it’s a little surprising that Ethan Carter is being developed on older tech. Using Unreal Engine 3 seems like a strange approach for developers looking to get their games on to PS4 and Xbox One, especially considering the upgrades and capabilities of Unreal Engine 4. “It was simply much safer for us to go with UE3, because we [have been] using it since 2006, and we know how to achieve what we want with it.” Chmielarz explained. “We will switch to UE4, maybe with the next game, but for now UE3 does all we want it to do.”
And despite the engine’s age, it’s far from incapable of change. The Astronauts are bringing some pretty powerful new tech to the field. At the forefront of these is a technique called photogrammetry. “It’s a fairly new way of acquiring high quality in-game assets – even as big as an entire building – through a series of photographs.” Chmielarz explained. “The end result is a photorealistic look of the environment, something we have not seen in games before.”
“Even though photogrammetry looks great, it’s not a solution for everybody.” Chmielarz explained. “It’s a very tricky business, and requires a lot of research and know-how. But at the end of the day I think that some studios may find it useful, simply because once you have it all figured out, the results can be uncanny and in some cases you can also produce high quality content faster.”
Photogrammetry does come with some downsides. While CPU draw isn’t too much extra, to make up for the increased textural fidelity more GPU memory is required. On top of that, the models and textures take up plenty of space on the hard drive. “But we want our game to be played by as many people as possible, even those with older graphic cards, and thus the memory requirement is not something we can accept. Plus, I don’t think the world is ready for one terabyte large games yet!” To reduce the GPU memory load and on-disk size, The Astronauts are combining photogrammetry with more traditional methods for creating assets, such as the tried and true method of hand-making assets, as well as optimising the code so that the game “runs great and looks great on any half-decent hardware.”
It’s not just the PC platform that The Astronauts are targeting for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Next-gen is squarely in their sights. “It’s what we want, of course.” Chmielarz told us. “We try to be platform agnostic, and I don’t remember who said it, but ‘we are where the gamers are’.” While it might not be possible to “make the game work on some platforms… both the PS4 and Xbox One look like a valid option.” This is all theoretical though, according to Chmielarz. “Things can change overnight in this business, and you never know what the future brings.” Chmielarz philosophised. “So we will see what exactly happens to Ethan and on which platform.”
The Astronauts have no concrete release date at this point. Originally set to release in 2013, the game’s expansion in scope dictated a slip into 2014. “I’m sure it’s 2014,” Chmielarz told us, “but… I think it’s wise for us to not say anything else until we’re one hundred percent sure.”
“I can promise… that we treat this game very seriously, and we’re working our asses off to deliver… Expect some new stuff in the next few months.”
And as for The Astronauts’ take on the future of single player gaming in a world of connectivity? “With single player games it’s like with PC gaming: a lot of people say it’s dead, and somehow it’s still not dead.” Chmielarz told us. “And I hope it’ll never be dead. I’m sure there’s a lot of cool things that can be done with, say, online single player, where human-controlled NPCs cannot screw up your gameplay, but can enhance it, but I’m also sure there’s a place for offline games you play alone or with your better half or a friend who are right there with you.”
Thanks very much to Adrian Chmielarz and The Astronauts in taking the time to chat with us. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is aiming for a 2014 PC release at this point, with the potential of a next-gen console release. The Astronauts have quite a few pretty assets up on their website, including that prequel comic if you’re interested in having a browse. We’ll keep you updated with all the new developments on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter as we hear them.