Most people who recognize the name of Polish designer Adrian Chmielarz probably associate the co-founder of People Can Fly with the high-profile action games Painkiller, Bulletstorm, and Gears of War: Judgment. Far fewer may be aware that his work on the soon-to-be-released indie adventure game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter actually is a return to his adventure game roots, though with a very forward-thinking, ambitious design. The goal of Adrian and his new studio The Astronauts is nothing less than a unique experience that tries to evolve interactive storytelling in exciting ways. Needless to say, this unusual project caught our attention and motivated us to get hold of the mastermind behind this highly-anticipated project and discuss all-things-Ethan Carter.
Ingmar Böke: Hello Adrian. Not all of our readers may know your name just yet, so please introduce yourself, and give us an idea of your background in this industry.
Adrian Chmielarz: I’m Adrian Chmielarz, a game designer, a co-founder of The Astronauts, and previously a co-founder of People Can Fly. If people know me, then most of the time it’s from that last studio – I‘ve worked on Painkiller, Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment there.
Not exactly adventure games, I know. But my first projects – The Mystery of the Statuette, Teenagent, and The Prince and the Coward – were all adventure games. So the game I am making right now is in a way a journey back to my roots.
Ingmar: Someone who worked on various acclaimed AAA games now doing a comparably smaller indie project is quite an interesting story. How did this happen and what’s the aspiration of The Astronauts?
Adrian: We believe that games are a very potent story-telling medium, and we hope to be a part of the movement trying to evolve story-telling in games. It’s very hard to experiment and take new directions in AAA, so we’ve established a new studio where we can take more risks and be entirely responsible – for good and for bad – for our work.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Welcome to Red Creek Valley trailer
Ingmar: What pros and cons – compared to working on an AAA game for a big publisher – have you encountered so far?
Adrian: As an independent developer we can make a game that an AAA publisher would never greenlight. Because the story is too complex, or maybe the themes are too risky, or possibly the scope is too small – take your pick. So it’s great to be on our very own and be able to make games without having to consult the design with the marketing department.
Of course, there are cons too. For example, even though we are veterans in game development, the studio itself is new and is yet to prove itself. Especially considering that our last three games were all shooters. So we’ve yet to earn the public’s trust, and that of course makes the marketing much harder.
Ingmar: Please give us an idea of the story behind The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
Adrian: You are Paul Prospero, a private detective with a certain supernatural power of being able to see the final memories of the dead. One day you get a letter from a boy named Ethan Carter and realize that he is a real danger. When you arrive in Red Creek Valley, Ethan’s home, the boy is nowhere to be found. What you do find, though, is a corpse. It’s not Ethan, but it’s clear that he is involved somehow. And that is how your search for Ethan Carter begins, and this is where I probably should stop talking, the game being a mystery and all.
Ingmar: How does interactivity work in Ethan Carter? Please give us an idea of how the gameplay works.
Adrian: There are two major gameplay layers in the game.
The first is solving the mystery of Ethan’s disappearance by investigating clues – even if finding them means you have to reach for the memories of the corpses you find. But in order to be able to communicate with the dead, first you need to restore the crime scene to what it was right before their death. An example is to move a railcar back to the place where it stood originally – assuming, of course, you figured out where that original spot is.
The second layer is the one we have not really talked about yet. But there are… certain places in the valley that are different, and anything can happen there. Solving the mystery of these places is something that helps you understand the larger picture of the events in Red Creek Valley.
Ingmar: Ethan Carter seems like a very unusual and unique sort of adventure. How would you say that it is different from other games within this genre?
Adrian: It’s different enough to cause us identity issues. Gamers love to be able to put a clear label on something. But is Ethan Carter an adventure game or is it an explorer? Is it horror or is it crime? And so on and so forth. On our side, we’ve finally settled on calling it a “first-person mystery”.
The game is different and it’s not. I know, yes, that does not explain much, does it? But in short, our game is something that anyone who plays video games should understand immediately, while at the same time they will see that we have done some new things they hopefully have never seen before.
We had a few goals when we made Ethan Carter: make a game for people who love video games but have been playing them for so long that lately they have a problem finding anything worth their time and money, try to evolve storytelling in games by merging story and gameplay, etc. But one of the goals was to try to evoke the feeling of excitement of experiencing something fresh and special, like the first time you played a video game. It sounds too ambitious and I am pretty sure it’s not quite possible to achieve, but “Shoot for the moon and even if you miss you'll land among the stars”, right?
The Astronauts hard at work
Ingmar: Does a strong connection between story and gameplay automatically result in less gameplay challenge, or do you feel that does not necessarily have to be the case? How does Ethan Carter handle this issue?
Adrian: It depends on the design. You can have a game that is easy to finish, like The Walking Dead. The challenges of that game are not about proving your manual or puzzle-solving skills. And you can have a game that’s nearly impossible to finish on your own, like Antichamber. Both can be considered adventure games, but both could not be more different.
In our case, we’ve decided to make a game that demands some mental investment from the player. There’s no tutorial, no hints, no journal, and no objective markers. You’re on your own. It’s not a hardcore game, but it assumes it’s being played by someone who already has some experience with video games.Continued on the next page...