“There was this physics teacher I had in high school who was cool enough to lend out these ZX Spectrums to students on the weekends,” says Adrian Chmielarz, creative director of The Astronauts, the team that developed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. “We’re talking about communist Poland here, just three years after martial law to eliminate democratic opposition, so this teacher was taking a big risk. After playing many games on this system, it didn’t take me long to start making them myself.”
Adrian is perhaps best known for co-founding People Can Fly, a development studio based in Poland. There, he was the creative director on Painkiller and Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment in conjunction with Epic Games. In 2012, the co-founders of People Can Fly parted ways with the company. “Andrew, Michal and I wanted to different, more risky games,” Chmielarz explains, “The only way for us to do this was to become fully independent. So we went for it, hired some great people, and formed The Astronauts, and eight person studio.”
The Astronauts have since released The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a supernatural murder mystery, to critical acclaim. In his review of the game for IGN, Marty Sliva states, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s story is powerful, and its world is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played through.”
“I believe that narrative games need the trinity of presence, immersion and engagement. The visuals and audio played a large part in achieving a great sense of presence in the game,” explains Chmielarz “The funny thing is we actually had to decrease the realism a little bit to ensure a certain sense of serenity and oneirism. This helped keep players in the mood and heightened the experience. The end result was enough realism to make Red Creek Valley believable, but not so much that the world felt mundane.”
Many gamers have questioned how such a small team could make a game with such an unbelievable graphic quality. The team used a process called photogrammetry, where they “took dozens of photos of an object, put them into a special software, and that software spit out a game-ready 3D asset.” Chmielarz explains that while photogrammetry is useless in many cases, such as science-fiction games, it works great when crafting a realistic, believable environment.
Quick peaks at the Steam and Metacritic reviews of the game criticize its short length. “Don’t even get me started here, most gamers don’t even finish games, yet they complain when a game is anything less than ten hours,” Chmielarz comments. “We weren’t aiming for any particular playthrough length. We had a story for the players to experience, and we added nothing artificial, nor did we make it short on purpose.” He adds, “The fact that the average length of a playthrough is 4.5 hours is purely an accident, although it did lead to a higher than average completion ratio.”
Polygon’s Philip Kollar writes, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells the kind of story that works best in a game,” and is the future of “games as a storytelling medium.” SPOILERS In the end, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is just about a boy, his family and their problems. It’s a very personal, grounded story. “Most storytelling is, at the end of the day, about us connecting to other human beings. Ethan Carter is no exception,” explained Chmielarz.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is coming, console exclusive, to the Playstation 4, with The Astronauts aiming for Q2 2015. When asked if the PS4 version will be a carbon-copy of the PC version, Chmielarz responded, “It’s something we keep on debating. Do we make a mirror copy of the PC version, or do we add a few things that alter the experience a bit? Today, I have no answer. On one hand, it’s always dangerously tempting to unnecessarily keep improving your game ad infinitum, on the other; we do have a few idea we like. We’ll see, I suppose.”
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is out now on PC, and comes highly recommended. I’d like to thank Adrian Chmielarz for the interview, and I wish The Astronauts all the best in 2015!