Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Adrian Chmielarz is most renowned for creating intense, frenetic shooters. While at People Can Fly, Chmielarz designed games like Bulletstorm, Gears of War: Judgment, and the Painkiller series, known more for their tight controls and shooting mechanics than their narrative arcs.
Which is perhaps one of the reasons he decided to depart the company. Along with Andrew Poznanski and Michal Kosieradzki, he founded The Astronauts, the studio behind the weird fiction horror title The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Set just after the turn of the century, this adventure game is about the bizarre circumstances surrounding a young boy’s kidnapping. The main character is an aging detective whose keen ability to visualize crime scenes makes him perhaps the only person who can save the boy from a horrific fate.
Mr. Chmielarz was kind enough to answer some questions about the mysterious, potentially unsettling world surrounding The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which is set to be released later this year.
BD: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter seems to be a departure from your previous work with People Can Fly, like the Painkiller series and BulletStorm. Talk a little bit about what inspired you to make this game, specifically.
Two things inspired us. First, the wish to be a part of the evolution of games, specifically the branch focused on narrative experiences. We can either complain about the state of games – their stale, tired formulas and cardboard characters – or we can do or at least try to do something about it. Second, this is in a way a return for us to what we were doing before Painkiller.
My personal roots are in adventure games, and I was always very interested in games as a powerful storytelling medium. We had this fun and exciting ten year long episode with shooters, but we felt it’s time to call back our first love, games that dig a little deeper into the player’s psyche.
BD: You describe the story as inspired by weird fiction of the early 20th century. What are some of your favorite weird tales, and how do they inform your approach to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter?
Weird fiction is one of the hardest things to translate to a video game because the written word works much better for your imagination than any, well, image. To this day we don’t really have a great, spotless Lovecraftian movie, right? Dagon was good, and At the Mountains of Madness was good, but nothing was mind-blowing.
And have you ever seen a really convincing, madness-inducing painting of Cthulhu? Luckily for us, weird fiction is not limited to Lovecraft, and if you check the writers like Blackwood or Grabinski, suddenly all kinds of possibilities open up. Not that we do not reach for Lovecraft in our game, it’s just that weird fiction is much broader than underwater temples, blasphemous rituals and sleeping gods. And that’s exactly what I love about weird fiction, where nothing is what it seems, and yet nothing is surreal. I think it’s a great foundation for a video game.
BD: What made you choose Wisconsin for the game’s setting?
Proximity to New England, the land of the weird, and (cough) some silly practical reasons. We did not want the game to take place in any particular location, we wanted it to happen everywhere and nowhere in particular. But then we realized we have a boy named Ethan Carter in the title, so no, the game could not take place in Poland or Spain. And since we use real Polish locations as visual inspiration, we looked for an area in US that is similar to our country: full four seasons, similar vegetation, etc. And Wisconsin turned out to be just right.
BD: The world looks incredible. How big will the world be, and how much control will players have over where they can go? How linear or open is it?
I think our game offers unexpectedly open environment. We’re not forcing to go down just one path, you have a whole valley to explore. This comes at a cost – there are areas in the game where literally nothing happens – but from a different angle it’s actually a gain, as the world is much more believable this way. That non-linearity is not limited to just the environment. We ran a playtest the other day and were surprised by how many people were dropping one area in the middle of an activity only to go sample another one and come back later.
They had a lot of fun this way, they felt like they were the makers of their own destiny, and played on their own terms. Which is absolutely perfect, that’s what we’re aiming for. That freedom might be overwhelming to players used to objective markers and task checklists, but I think that at the end of the day this was the right way to go for this particular game. I don’t think you can really have a game about exploration and discovery if you’re guided and don’t really need to explore in order to discover.
BD: What gameplay mechanics are integrated into investigating crime scenes? o In what ways will players interact with the world? Will there be combat of any kind, or does the gameplay extend entirely from the investigative aspects of exploration?
You play as Paul Prospero, an occult detective, and you have this one advantage over any other detective that you can communicate with the dead and see through the veil of any dark forces’ lies. So even though there are elements of regular investigation in the game, stuff like finding and analyzing evidence, there are also supernatural elements like being able to mentally sync with the deceased and see their final moments. “Sync” or “evidence” sounds a bit cold and technical, but the game is nothing like that. There’s a slightly oneiric mood to it all, and I think we’ve managed to make every element of the investigation natural and organic. There’s zero combat in the game. The darkness is after your mind, not your flesh. There are some surprises when it comes to meeting evil entities, but I should probably keep quiet about those.
BD: How difficult is it to balance the importance of mood and environment as immersive narrative elements with the outside pressure of making a more traditional sort horror experience?
There was this pressure for a while, as the most successful horror games cater nicely to YouTube screamers. We thought about integrating jump scares and evil entities bent on killing you into our game, but it would corrupt the core idea, so after some consideration we have decided to risk it and make a different type of horror, well aware that it would probably cost us some points with people expecting heart attack inducing events. But I am also hoping that people will get that horror has many faces, and just as a bloodied chainsaw is horror, so can be a misty forest full of unsettling whispers.
BD: You released a prequel comic online. Are you planning on following up with any other tie-ins like that?
Probably not, as the game is a self-contained story with an actual ending. This is not a beginning of a franchise, and there are no side stories to tell. You buy a game, and it’s all there. Personally I love transmedia, I read all Dead Space books and comics, for example, but it’s just not something that would fit The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
BD: How long do you anticipate the game will be?
Three hours? Five hours? I have no idea, honestly. We have tested 25% of it and it took people one hour on average to finish it. But will the rest take them less time, or more time, I don’t know that yet. We have a lot of custom stuff in the game, and solving one murder may take you half an hour, and another is fifteen minutes. Other things you do in the game have varied playtime, too. But the truth is that after we realized and made sure that the game offered a good value for money we stopped caring about the gameplay length. We’re only focusing on the quality of the experience and remove everything that’s in the way. There are no filler activities in the game.
BD: The team has been very active on the site, openly providing extensive coverage of the game’s development, including insight into the variety of public opinions that accompany showing early versions and playtesting. How has this process of being so open affected your approach to developing the game? It seems like this kind of forthrightness and openness will be the standard in the future. Do you see it as a net positive for the process of making games?
I don’t know. I think we bit a bit more than we could chew. The marketing is important, but going all the way like we did is just too much work for a small team like ours. And I don’t think, for example, that my daily blogging on Tumblr gave us that much advantage compared to the cost of it. I like to finish what I start, so we’ll keep it this way until the day of release, but in the future we have to be a bit smarter about it.
Please note that the marketing is especially difficult for a game like ours. On one hand, there are thousand things I’d love to tell people about, and at the same time everything feels like a spoiler. And we don’t want to spoil the game in order to generate more hype before release. So it’s a really hard work to blog and tweet daily when you don’t really want to say too much about your game.
BD: Since it is a narrative-based game, do you plan on offering playable demos before the game’s actual release?
No, but that’s mainly because of the way the game is structured. I mean, how do you do a demo of GTA? Of course we’re not GTA, but the game is non-linear and with a fairly small, but open world. I guess time-limited demo is an option, something that To the Moon did: you get a full game but there’s a paywall after an hour or whatever. But not only that would be an immersion killer, but also it would not necessarily translate to a better experience, just larger reach.
It’s basic psychology, you don’t give any game you get for free the same amount of care and attention as to the one you paid for. It’s a controversial subject and probably too long for this interview, but, in short, not only is making a demo much harder than anyone suspects, but the demo as such is not necessarily a good thing for the players themselves. I think that in times of online reviews from both gamers and journalists and in times of YouTube you can really understand if you want to purchase a game or not without having a playable demo.
BD: Do you have anything to add or announce?
It’s a race against time for us, to release the game before the autumn insanity. Just today I got a document with every spoken line in the game and we’re ready to finally record all voice-overs. We will hit alpha in a few weeks. Fingers crossed then for Ethan’s release in the third quarter of this year.