Unless you are living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about ‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter‘, a horror game which puts the player in the shoes of Paul Prospero, a detective. Paul receives a letter from Ethan Carter, a boy who has apparently vanished. Featuring an intriguing narrative, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is described as a ‘weird fiction’.
GamingBolt got in touch with Adrian Chmielarz, Creative Director and Co-owner at The Astronauts to know what exactly is ‘weird’ about the game, the inspiration behind the title, the gameplay mechanics, potential Xbox One/PS4 ports and more.
Pramath Parijat: So I was looking into the premise of the game, and it sounds like there is a little bit of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective and Minority Report in there. Were these two on your mind at all when you were conceptualizing the game?
Adrian Chmielarz: No, not at all. I was inspired by many things, from the XIX century weird fiction writers to games like To the Moon, but these two titles don’t really have much to do with Ethan Carter.
After I had the design for Ethan done, I did learn about Ghost Trick and tried to play it to see how they dealt with the detective mechanics. But despite my repeated attempts I just could never get into the game. I don’t have the patience nor will to deal with time-limited puzzles anymore. I’m sure it’s a fun game for a lot of people, but it just wasn’t for me, even from the research point of view.Which made me sad, because I am a big fan of detective games on NDS – from the Phoenix Wright series to Hotel Dusk and its sequel – and I was hoping for another cool detective game to add to the collection.
"It’s worth nothing, though, that Ethan Carter is not scary in a way that a monster chasing you in the dark is. If pure horror is a hand with the bloodied knife, Ethan Carter is a misty forest."
Pramath Parijat: The story sounds spooky, and this sounds like the kind of title that would benefit a lot from its atmosphere. What all are you going to do to ensure the game does not falter in that area?
Adrian Chmielarz: The short answer is: everything we can. Because you’re right, the atmosphere is absolutely crucial to the experience. I know a designer who claims that the atmosphere is more important than the story, and even though I do not fully agree, I believe there’s a certain truth in that.
It’s worth nothing, though, that Ethan Carter is not scary in a way that a monster chasing you in the dark is. If pure horror is a hand with the bloodied knife, Ethan Carter is a misty forest.
Pramath Parijat: An adventure game with a detective story premise understandably needs good writing and storytelling. Although more and more exceptions to the rule have begun cropping up in recent times, writing and storytelling in videogames isn’t accepted as being of an especially high standard. Did you view that as a challenge going into the development of this game?
Adrian Chmielarz: It’s not as much of a challenge as it is our duty to the players. Way too often, for decades, developers have been embarrassing them with the stories in their games, and this is heart-breaking, especially with video games having the potential to be the most powerful story-telling medium.
But you said it yourself, we see more and more exceptions. And I hope we will reach the point when they’re not exceptions anymore. I do think such a future is near. You asking me the question about the quality of story-telling is a proof that we all care more and more.Five years ago no one gave a damn about the utter stupidity of the stories in some of the top AAA franchises, but this year almost everybody did.
As for Ethan Carter, all I can say is we are doing our best to make sure that we deliver a good story, but of course it’s the players who will ultimately decide if we have done our job right.
"The thing is, we keep talking about games telling stories, story-telling games, etc. – and we shouldn’t. The players should not be told a story, they should experience it – and these are two completely different things."
Pramath Parijat: This is an adventure game, although the definition of that seems to be changing in modern times- we have everything from traditional point and click adventure games such as Hotel Dusk that thrive on the DS, visual novels that are finding unexpected popularity such as 999, and more modern takes on the genre, such as Telltale’s Walking Dead, or Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Speaking strictly from a gameplay perspective, would you tell us where your game falls? What kinds of gameplay are we looking at? How much moment to moment agency will the player have?
Adrian Chmielarz: Here’s the problem with our game. There are some things that are familiar – examining and picking up items is not exactly a ground-breaking feature – but there’s also so much new at the game’s core that, as I joke sometimes, we could not even borrow any solutions from other games, and had to design a lot from scratch.
Agency is paramount to us. The thing is, we keep talking about games telling stories, story-telling games, etc. – and we shouldn’t. The players should not be told a story, they should experience it – and these are two completely different things.
Of course, if the game has a story – does not matter if it has a hundred branches or not, at the end of the day there is still a limited amount of “journeys” to choose from – you cannot really achieve a 100% agency …unless you cheat. And that’s the entire challenge of the design of games like Ethan Carter, which is about experiencing, not listening to the story – how to make sure that we do tell a certain story we had in mind, but do it in a way that makes the story their own for the players. But this is exactly what we focus on in our game.
Pramath Parijat: Returning to the story, then, modern adventure games are known to hand an unusual amount of control of the story to the player- what the player does over the course of the game affects how the story is resolved. Is this also going to be true of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter?
Adrian Chmielarz: Yes and no. That’s all I can say.
Pramath Parijat: I want to discuss the name of the game with you! A lot of games try to go for names that seem to have a ‘hook’ to them that attracts the player’s attention. By contrast, the name of this game is very straightforward, and a pretty succinct summary of the basic premise (although it does skimp out on a lot!). In that regard, it’s a lot like many detective stories in literature. Was this a conscious decision by you, to channel fiction and literature with your title?
Adrian Chmielarz: Yes, absolutely. I wanted to pay the tribute to the classic authors of weird fiction, and I have noticed that a lot of stories in the incredibly influential Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s and 30s had this structure of “The Something of Someone”. Even in the very first year of the magazine we had eight such stories, from “The Return of Paul Slavsky” to “The Dead-Naming of Lukapehu”. So that was the first step, using that formula.
And then I spotted a short story by August Derleth, published in the February 1933 issue, called “The Vanishing of Simmons”. I loved it, and it fit the story. I came up with the name for the boy – Ethan Carter – and that was it, we had the title.
"It’s a mix of photogrammetry, mostly for rocks, roads and such, and good old handwork, like in the case of foliage. I guess the photogrammetry is kind of a big deal here, as it’s relatively new to the world of video games. To explain it quickly, I’d say it’s black magic."
Pramath Parijat: You have hinted several times [via your Twitter feed] that you want the game on the PlayStation 4? What exactly is stopping that from happening?
Adrian Chmielarz: We’d love to publish the game on PS4. Even if purely because the way that Sony is dealing with indie devs is nothing short of outstanding. But it’s just not that easy for us. We started making the game on Unreal Engine 3, because UE4 was not production-ready at the time. And UE3 does not support the next-gen consoles. So what we have to do is to either port or remake the game in UE4, or to write some extra code for UE3. Any of that is going to take some time, so we’re releasing on the PC first.
Pramath Parijat: Are there any plans to bring the game on the Xbox One? If not, why?
Adrian Chmielarz: We will see. We try to be platform agnostic.
Pramath Parijat: You have released some screens from the game and to be honest, they look breathtaking. Can you tell us about the technology that has gone behind in creating such a visual style?
Adrian Chmielarz: It’s a mix of photogrammetry, mostly for rocks, roads and such, and good old handwork, like in the case of foliage. I guess the photogrammetry is kind of a big deal here, as it’s relatively new to the world of video games. To explain it quickly, I’d say it’s black magic. You take a few dozen photos of something, put it all in a special software, and it spits out a fully textured 3D model.
Of course, things are never that simple, and there’s a lot of pre- and post-processing, but that’s the gist of it. Photogrammetry allows us to acquire high quality, photorealistic assets faster than any traditional method.
Pramath Parijat: With games like Outlast and Amnesia the horror genre is far from dead. Both of these games excelled in one thing and that is to scare the crap out of players. How do you plan to achieve the same with your game?
Adrian Chmielarz: It’s simple: we don’t. Even though it features a certain dose of macabre, you don’t need a diaper to play Ethan. Inducing survival type of fear is not what we’re aiming for. Our scares comes from a different place, they are more metaphysical than primal. We don’t have jump scares in the game, and no entity tries to kill you. There are dark forces at work indeed, but they’re messing with your mind, not with your body.
"Yeah, when I said PS4 is 50% faster a lot of people assumed I meant that XBO could not end up on top. But Betamax was superior to VHS, and Super Audio CD is superior to MP3 – guess what won? Things are never as simple as you’d think just looking at the specs."
Pramath Parijat: Furthermore, do you think The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will kick off a series of Youtube videos where people share their reactions online?
Adrian Chmielarz: I certainly hope for people to share their thoughts and opinions on the game and the story they are experiencing, but I doubt we’ll see much screaming. A little bit of shock and “can’t believe they did that” maybe!
Pramath Parijat: Let us talk a bit about the PS4 and Xbox One. It’s no secret that one console is obviously powerful than the other, if not by much. As a developer how do you approach such a situation when you sit down and plan to develop games for each platform?
Adrian Chmielarz: Well, you basically have three options. One, you make the best version possible on each console and don’t care that one is a bit better than the other. Two, you cripple the better version to make sure both versions look identical. Three, you spend super extra time and effort on the weaker version to get it as close as possible to the better version.
All I know is that option two is not an option for us. It’s not as bad as it sounds, and it helps avoid silly fanboy wars, but still, it’s not something we’re interested in pursuing.
Pramath Parijat: There has been some criticism for Xbox One related to it’seSRAM based architecture and what not. But according to you what is the one thing that the Xbox One has over the PS4?
Adrian Chmielarz: Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t have any next-gen console, because nothing has been released yet that would make my heart skip a bit. Of course, sooner or later I’ll get both, but that’s probably for after Ethan.
Having said that, in the previous gen I did love the Xbox controller. It was in a different league to the PS3 one. But I am hearing things are not as simple now, so I’ll have to see for myself if, as the rumor goes, PS4 controller got much better, and XBO controller got a bit worse.
Pramath Parijat: If The Vanishing of Ethan Carter ever turns up on the Xbox One, do you think you will be able to do complete justice in terms of resolution and frame rates [1080p/60fps]?
Adrian Chmielarz: Absolutely no idea. But if we do XBO version, rest assured we’ll do everything we can to make sure that the players are happy with what they get.
Pramath Parijat: You famously stated that the PS4 is 50% more powerful than the Xbox One but later clarified that having a weaker hardware does not translate into bad games, and the war is far from over. Now that both consoles are out and have sold in millions, do you think this is still the case given that certain multiplatform games are being held back on Xbox One due to resolution/frame rate issues?
Adrian Chmielarz: Yeah, when I said PS4 is 50% faster a lot of people assumed I meant that XBO could not end up on top. But Betamax was superior to VHS, and Super Audio CD is superior to MP3 – guess what won? Things are never as simple as you’d think just looking at the specs.
The war is very far from over. Anyone with even one eye open can see that Sony is on the roll, with great hardware, great sales, and great attitude. And they’re about to introduce VR into the mix. And there’s going to be Uncharted 4. But trust me, Microsoft has some aces up their sleeves as well, and the next year is going to be very, very interesting.