Afterwords – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
After developing Painkiller and Bulletstorm, the three founders of People Can Fly left the studio and form their own independent company, The Astronauts. This studio’s first game, a haunting, unguided adventure called The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, impressed us as much as it unnerved us. We caught up with game designer Adrian Chmielarz and talked with him about his game’s unstructured nature, how the team conjured up Ethan Carter’s photo-like visuals, and why they were drawn to turn of the century horror for inspiration.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is quite a bit different from previous titles you guys worked on at People Can Fly. Were you all eager to move away from FPSs?
It wasn’t really about moving away from shooters as much as it was about moving towards the terra incognita of narrative-focused games. It’s an exciting journey, and an area we wanted to explore for a long time. Between Painkiller and Bulletstorm we were making a very story-focused game with THQ, Come Midnight, but that got cancelled because, you know, THQ. So then we made another shooter. After going independent, we could simply pursue the dream once again.
What kind of research did you do to create Ethan Carter’s world?
We stole from the nature itself. When you create game levels using your imagination, no matter how talented your artists are, these levels still feel a bit artificial. More like a spectacular movie set than a real place. And since our game is all about immersion and the feeling of presence, we decided to copy entire acres of land into the game. Most of Ethan was shot in Karkonosze mountains here in Poland.
What also helped was this magical tech called photogrammetry. In short, you take dozens of photos of an object, put them into this special software, and an hour later it spits out a nice, game-ready 3D object. Of course, this is an extreme simplification, but that’s the gist of it.
We heard that the game was inspired by the short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. What drew you to that story and how did it affect the title?
We knew we wanted to tell a horror story, but we also wanted a different kind of horror. Not terror, not gore, not slasher – just dread and unease. So I started my research and then realized that many of the authors I liked, from Lovecraft to King, can all be put under the label called “weird fiction.”
I started reading more weird fiction stories, and “An Occurrence…” came up. One of the very first weird fiction stories ever, 1890, and bam, the source of every mind f*** book and movie ever. Funnily enough I got the idea for Ethan earlier than I read that story, but reading it made me realize that the idea is legit and actually still fresh.
Some gamers appreciated the text at the beginning of the game explaining that it is a “narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” When in the process did you feel the need to add that text?
You can blame Thomas Grip from Frictional Games (Amnesia) for that. A few months ago we both talked about the importance of properly setting the player’s expectations and even kind of affecting their behavior in the game by having an intro text, and how both Amnesia and The Walking Dead did it. Then I forgot about it, but a couple of days before the release Thomas asked me if I added the intro, and I quote, “you know, something like: this game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”
I was hesitant to add it because that was a so-called feature creep, and that’s not something you want during the last days of development. But I knew how important such an intro is, so I asked the team to do it, and then contacted Tom and Rob, the writers, and asked them if they could give me something like that line, just “less rude.” They both said that a little severity wouldn’t hurt and we could keep the line as it was. I easily agreed, as it really was the best and the shortest way to explain the game. So something that Thomas suggested as a placeholder for a “proper” intro became the final intro.
What kind of response have you seen to the game's lack of handholding?
Every kind. “The game is too easy,” “The game is too hard,” “The game is full of hand holding,” “They took the lack of hand holding too far,” Rinse, repeat.
Luckily for us, for most people it’s just right. It was a risky game, because the no handholding is not just about the lack of tutorial. It’s also about discovering the truth behind the ending or about digging deep into the story layers. But people responded in a way that floored us. We got 91 percent “Recommended” rating on Steam, and that’s incredibly rewarding. Also, I can breathe again.
Did you guys ever consider allowing Paul to converse with the dead verbally or add any other kind of conversation system?
We considered an insane amount of things. Then you look at the team size, the timeline and the budget, and the list gets shorter very quickly.
This might be a tough question, but what do you consider the weakest parts of the game?
There are a couple of rough spots like the controversial mine section or the long walk at the end that happens to some people. None of these problems were unsolvable, but in order to even see them as problems we should have spent more time in playtests. The game that was released is almost purely the vanilla vision of the creators, without any outside review.
We couldn’t do much about it, though. We put all we had into the game, and we believed what we had was good, and it was high time to release, as all the juggernauts were already on the horizon. The lesson here is very simple: with the next game we want to make sure that there’s enough time between the beta and the release to eliminate the roughness of the design or the execution.
Were there any problems or narrative nuts that you struggled to smooth out during the development process?
Oh, sure. The design of Ethan looks deceptively simple, but that’s a result of many months of work. The game went through many design iterations in order to look simple.
Let me give you an example. The hero is this hardboiled private detective, right? So we wanted to give him a lot of lines and have him comment on everything, but that clashed with the idea of the player’s freedom and the idea of the player using their own imagination to fill in the gaps. So we were gradually removing the lines until Paul had, like, fifty lines tops in the final game. So the outside perspective might be that we just wrote fifty lines for the hero, while the truth is we removed a couple hundred.
You spend most of the game alone, but near the end you encounter a few zombie-like monsters. This seems a little out of sync with the rest of the game. What was the philosophy behind adding this section?
This was our slight miscalculation. During the development I kept repeating that there were no jump scares in the game, because the jump scares are the lowest form of horror. And I think even YouTube screamers are tired of them. So we have added this character with exaggerated behavior (e.g. the sound he makes when he materializes) that is actually the opposite of a regular jump scare monster. Not only he does not kill you, he also tries to save your life, actually. And his own story is kind of tragic.
But what we missed was that the guy is truly creepy for a lot of people, and probably too close to the “real” jump scares than we wanted him to be.
I know that you've expressed wanting to get back to create another adventure game for such a long time, did this project get the itch out of your system or would you like to define The Astronauts by this style of game moving forward?
We are called The Astronauts because we like exploring places no one explored before. But we don’t have a long-term plan. Luckily, right now we’re focusing on the PS4 version of Ethan, so that should give us a good couple of months to figure out what’s next for us.
Looking for more great indie games? Check out our list of Ten Games You've Never Heard Of, But Should Keep Your Eye On.