The indie studio known as The Astronauts was conceived by a few formerly AAA developers who worked on some fairly high profile games like Bulletstorm and Painkiller back at a studio known as People Can Fly. They’ve added several members since then, including a designer from the well-respected Eidos Montreal. Now, AAA experience in hand, they’re setting off down a very unique path — Lovecraft-inspired horror — otherwise known as weird fiction.
The Astronauts are currently hard at work on their first ever indie title, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, with which they have plans to create a uniquely disturbing and memorable experience. Recently Gamnesia had the chance to pick the brain of Adrian Chmielarz, one of the studio’s game designers. He had a lot to say about about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter‘s unique mechanics, the reasons behind the game’s stunning aesthetic, the nature of weird fiction horror, and he even drops a fantastic Lovecraft quote in there!
Q). For our readers who haven’t heard of the game yet, could you give us quick summary of what The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is and what you hope to achieve?
It’s a different kind of horror, namely weird fiction horror. Meaning it’s less about jump scares and monsters, and more about a certain atmosphere, mystery and the feeling of unease. We play as an occult detective trying to figure out the fate of a certain boy.
Q). I’ve read that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter won’t contain any combat, but what kind of mechanics and scenarios will the game be employing in its place?
I would call our game “an explorer”, just like you can have “a shooter” or “a platformer”. Our focus is on the sense of presence and immersion in the story. The point of the game is to discover the truth behind the disappearance of Ethan, and there are multiple layers of that mystery – but the road to discovery leads through exploration and experience rather than combat or puzzles.
Q). I think you’ve mentioned before that in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the player will be a sort of detective. Could you clarify what that means a little bit?
It would divide it into two things. First, just as any regular human being you can collect evidence, find clues, draw conclusions. Second, you have a supernatural ability to see the final moments of someone’s death. All you have to do is recreate the crime scene, and you’re ready for the vision. Obviously, these visions would play a crucial role in your quest to uncover the truth.
Q). One of the things that originally intrigued me with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was the Lovecraft and “weird fiction”-inspired horror that was discussed at the time of the reveal. How will the Lovecraftian influence be felt throughout game play? What do you think will really set the Lovecraft style apart from other horror games?
One of the most famous Lovecraft quotes is: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. And this is what we try to play with in our game. Although, to be precise, we’re not making a Cthulhu Mythos game, even though it is a weird fiction horror. We’re just as much inspired by other authors, from the classics like M.R. James to modern writers like Stephen King. I think we have a great representation of slasher, gore, and terror horror in video games. We also have something I call “extreme fear”, which comes in Slender or Amnesia form. What we would love to add to the genre is something less scary, but equally effective, and with the focus on atmosphere rather than primal instincts.
Q). Most indie games end up needing to either go the 2D route or have heavily stylized 3D graphics in order to cover up their low budget polygon counts and textures. So how are you guys managing to build a game with what appear to be triple-A level graphics?
On one hand, we simply have a great experience working on nice visuals, so we’re just trying to leverage that here. On the other hand, we do have a secret sauce, and I hope to reveal more info about it in mere couple of months.
Q). From what I’ve seen so far via concept art and the teaser trailer, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter looks like it’s going to have an absolutely gorgeous autumn look to it. What inspired you guys to have such a beautiful aesthetic in a horror game?
Personally I am fascinated by that face of weird fiction horror, the fact that not everything must look like the most hardcore moments of Silent Hill. Speaking of which, I always preferred exploring the game’s town during the misty nightfall to experiencing the bloody terror of the Otherworld.
Our autumn visuals try to emphasize the melancholic, highly atmospheric side of our story. We have first witnessed how effective that could be when we played “Dear Esther”.
Q). Obviously, Lovecraftian horror is new territory for video games, but could you tell us what games you would say inspired your group to make The Vanishing of Ethan Carter?
Actually, I think we do have a decent dose of Lovecraftian horror in games, including the very fresh Magrunner. The big problem, however, is that reading Lovecraft and seeing Lovecraft are two completely different beasts. I mean, try to find an image of Cthulhu that scares you. When you read about Cthulhu, it’s a very powerful and unsettling experience, but when you see it visualized? I cannot not laugh.So that’s exactly what we are trying to avoid. You cannot do a direct translation of Lovecraft to a movie or a video game. You need to try to make your own equivalent of what made Lovecraft’s stories so effective.
Q). Have you been reading a lot of Lovecraft to get ideas for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter? Have any one of his stories been exceptionally influential in Ethan Carter‘s development?
Sure, I read Lovecraft, and many post-Lovecraft mythos stories. Actually, you can see the influence in the last name of our missing boy…But I’ve also read tons of other weird fiction stories, because we’re not really trying to make a mythos game, we’re trying to make our own thing. I highly recommend the book called “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories”, this is pure gold for anyone interested in a good and unique horror.
Q). Since a lot of The Astronauts have had experience working in big budget development studios, could you provide any insight into the major differences between indie and Triple-A game development?
Nearly everything is different. There are bad things about working on your own dime: limited resources, lack of access to resources, being forced to wear multiple hats. But obviously there are amazing things, too: the creative freedom, direct and honest contact with fans, gamers and the media, and taking full responsibility for the project.
Q). I know the games some of The Astronauts have worked on in the past — Bulletstorm, Painkiller, Thief, etc. — are hugely different from The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but is there anything you’ve learned from your previous projects that has carried over into The Vanishing of Ethan Carter?
I’d say we now know how the sausage is made. We know what it takes to start and finish the project, and how to set priorities and goals properly. Of course, we’ve also gained experience in various areas: be it high quality visuals or UI design. But, in a really surprising way, we’ve also learned what we wouldn’t want to do anymore. In my case, it means a game design that focuses on something completely opposite to the regular old school game design, which is all about setting obstacles on the player’s way.
Q). I’ve been reading the studio’s blog for a while, and I’ve noticed you talk a lot about two things in particular: how immersion in games works and what makes the medium of games unique to other art forms. If you had to pick one aspect of each topic that’s the most interesting to you, what would they be?
Actually, I can tell you one thing that covers both topics. Some designers believe that the atmosphere, the mood of a video game is more important than the story it’s trying to say. I’m inclined to agree. What games can potentially do very well is to give the player a sense of presence that other art forms cannot match. I am deeply interested in that escapist aspect of video games.
Q). If you had to break it down into just a few sentences, what would you say is the core experience you’re hoping for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to provide? Past all the mechanics, environments, and situations the game contains, what is the fundamental draw to your game?
A journey to another time and place that stays with you for a while.
Q). Finally, since the details surrounding The Vanishing of Ethan Carter are extremely vague at present, is there any new information you’d be willing to disclose to us, or are you hoping to keep up the ambiguity for a while longer?
The weird thing about the game like Ethan Carter is that there’s nothing to show for a long time, but then when you’re ready, you’re almost done with the entire thing. I’m exaggerating, but not as much as I would like to! We are about to release a short comic prequel to Ethan Carter, and I would like to invite you to play a detective when and if you read it. There are some hints about the game in the comic, if you pay attention. For example: what do we know about the year (more or less) in which the game takes place? What is the thing that proves it’s not 1940s?
There you have it. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will be an “explorer” that will not soon be forgotten. The Astronauts have set Ethan Carter‘s release date for later this year on PC. Who else is looking forward to it?
And on another note, here’s The Vanishing of Ethan Carter prequel comic spoken about during the interview.