Q&A: Making horror games a little weirder in Ethan Carter

"The one distinct element of weird fiction for me is the fact that it's about fear, but not about jump scares, and it's about macabre, but not about gore." -- The Astronauts' Adrian Chmielarz on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
Video game developers have known for a while how to design cheap "jump scares" -- basically the equivalent of an older sibling jumping out of a room to scream "BOO!" as you walk unsuspectingly down a dark hallway. But over the past few years, as we've seen big-production games in the horror genre take on the action-oriented angle, independently-developed games like Home, Amnesia, Lone Survivor and others have been exploring game design that evokes a creeping uneasiness in players. It's a kind of design that, instead of breaking immersion with a cheap scare, cultivates fear throughout the course of play. Adrian Chmielarz, one of the founders of game studio The Astronauts, wants to deliver his own twist on the psychological horror experience with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a game inspired by the weird fiction genre. The Astronauts is no stranger to game development, as its three founders come from People Can Fly, creators of Painkiller, Bulletstorm and other titles. You can read more about the game itself here. To learn how Chmielarz plans to make horror video games a little weirder, read on.

"Weird fiction." I read that as "Lovecraftian" (and that's not a bad thing, for me!). Where does the game pull its influences? Seems like quite a departure from your previous work.

Molier's Monsieur Jourdain discovered one day that he has "been speaking prose all my life, and didn't even know it!" I think it's the same case with weird fiction horror. For example, a lot of what Stephen King writes is weird fiction horror, but most of the readers are not necessarily aware of that. To them, he just writes horror stories in which strange things happen, some bordering on surreal. But that's exactly it -- that's weird fiction. That's, for example, how China Mieville describes it: as something halfway between pulp and surrealism. However, our approach is a bit more old-fashioned, and we're more into the original weird fiction than the "New Weird." What I mean by that is our approach to weird fiction is "pulp meets strange," not "pulp meets surrealism." We're a little toned down. I love disciplined storytelling and I love the believability of a story. Surrealism is a step too far. So in Ethan Carter we put a lot of emphasis into making sure this is about strange things happening to real people, and into avoiding the loss of credibility of the experience. As for the horror part, the one distinct element of weird fiction for me is the fact that it's about fear, but not about jump scares, and it's about macabre, but not about gore. You mentioned Lovecraft, and he is indeed a great example. You don't necessarily hide under the bed when you read Lovecraft. Most of the time his stories are not that scary on the surface. But there's always something in the air, right? When you let him, Lovecraft actually reaches deeper than most horror authors, and the images he paints, the images of indifferent cosmos are more terrifying than, say, the terrors of the flesh. But the way he tells stories is devoid of any cheap scares. And I love that. Is it a completely new direction for the guys who made Painkiller and Bulletstorm? To be honest, not really. Painkiller had obvious horror undertones, what with the undead and cemeteries and haunted orphanages. And after Painkiller we wanted to make Come Midnight, which was a mix of horror and pulp thriller. Unfortunately, THQ cancelled the title after a year of production, along with many other titles, during one of the changes of leadership and direction. Water under the bridge, but all I am saying here is that we were into the darker side of things for a long time. And now we can finally get back to that.

You've decided to go with no cut scenes. What led to that decision?

The utter devotion to maintaining high levels of immersion and presence. Obviously we're not very original here, Half-Life 2 hid its cut-scenes under first-person scripts and so did Call of Duty. And it works. When you think about it, it's kind of really weird to have cinematics in an [first-person perspective] game. You role-play someone, and you have almost perfect control over the character: you jump, you shoot, you crouch, you move...But every now and then that is all taken away from you, a cut scene plays, something happens, and then you're given that control back. That reminds the players they are merely actors in the script that's already written, and this is not something a game designer wants. So the entire trick is to maintain the illusion of freedom, and make sure that no immersion or sense of presence are ruined. Total holodeck freedom won't be possible for a long, long time.

Why is the missing person a child? Do you feel that by using a child in distress, it is perhaps easier to elicit emotion from players, rather than an adult character?

There is something that resonated with me deeply when a few years ago Gabe Newell said that a lot of young fans of Half Life became adults and now have different fears. "The death of their children. The fading of their own abilities," he said. And he's right. And the cathartic role of a video game can be to face these fears. So it's not about reaching for the low-hanging fruit, just because it's easy to evoke emotions with a child in danger. It's about facing real fears that adult people, especially parents, have to deal with every single day. To be clear, of course I believe that the story works well even if you're not a parent -- it's just that it will probably resonate more with adults rather than, say, teenagers.

You've said you want to make this game immersive, but "immersion" is definitely one of those ambiguous terms that gets thrown around in game design circles. What does that word mean to you and how do you expect to achieve "immersion" in Ethan Carter? How do you design for immersion?

Hah, yeah, people are often confusing engagement and immersion, for example. Immersion to me is forgetting the reality and teleporting our full attention to a different, made-up reality. By itself, it's not unique to video games, we can easily be immersed in a movie or a book. However, the way you achieve immersion in a video game is different. For example, the key is to avoid, or at least hide, a black box design, as [Amnesia creative director] Thomas Grip calls it. Black box is about players optimizing the system that a video game focused on mechanics often is. A good example is fighting against an enemy that is hiding behind cover. The players focus on figuring out the rules of enemy behavior: [the enemy's] peeking-out interval, the amount of pixels that will be visible when the enemy pops his head out, etc. But that's not immersion, that's engagement. You're thinking about a system, an AI bot and how to best explore the game system to your advantage, and not about killing a poor guy who's afraid of you and would preferably just be back at home with his wife. In Ethan Carter we focus on three core elements: engaging narrative understood as a fusion of story-telling and gameplay, the sense of presence, and the general atmosphere. I hope that in our case these three things combined will provide for a great immersive experience.

Can you explain a few key design principles or pillars in Ethan Carter that relate to making an effective horror game?

Someone once said that stories in games are not important, but the atmosphere is. I cannot agree fully, but I do think that a mood plays a great role in creating a memorable experience. So this is what we're investing a lot into, and that's one of our pillars. However, we're not making Amnesia, we're not making Slenderman, we're not making Dead Space. Our game, in short, is not about evil entities that want to kill you. We want "clammy unease" rather than sheer terror. There is a hard road ahead of us, as most horror games are survival horrors, and not story-focused experiences. Survival horrors come with certain expectations. We are a different kind of horror, and we will see if there is a place in the market for a game like [ours]: less jump scares and primal fears, more thinking and subtlety. It's risky but that's our second pillar: make a game for people who want a deeper experience at their own pace, and don't need ultra-strong impulses to further harass their already high level of stress of everyday life. The final pillar are the themes we want the players to think about when they experience our game. Explaining more would be a spoiler, so let's just say we try to provide a multi-layered experience that stays with you a big longer than the end credits.

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