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Road to the IGF: The Astronauts' The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

If you're familiar with the team at Polish studio The Astronauts, the Independent Games Festival-nominated The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may seem like a departure.

Kris Graft, Contributor

February 23, 2015

5 Min Read

If you're familiar with the team at Polish developer The Astronauts, the studio's debut game, The Vanishing of Ethan Cartermay seem like a departure. While Ethan Carter is the first game from the studio, core members were founders of People Can Fly (later known as Epic Games Poland), creators of high-octane shooters Painkiller, Bulletstorm, and Gears of War: Judgment.

Ethan Carter, however, is a deliberately-paced, narrative-driven weird fiction mystery game. It's up for IGF's Excellence in Audio award, and also has honorable mentions for Excellence in Visual Art and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. Adrian Chmielarz, creative director at The Astronauts, answered some questions about Ethan Carter as part of our ongoing Road to the IGF series.

What is your background in making games?

In 1986, our high school agreed to lend a few ZX Spectrums to the students for the weekends, and I was the first in queue. My first couple of weeks with the Speccy were just about discovering and playing games, but right after that phase I got into making my own games. I did everything, from design and coding to graphics and sound.

And then there was a slow linear growth throughout all the years: three studios, 11 published games, and a few unreleased ones, all the way up to now with The Astronauts and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

What development tools did you use?

We have used the obvious industry juggernauts like Unreal Engine, Perforce, or Photoshop. We have also used a few smaller tools that made our life so much better or easier, like Total Commander, Hipchat or Wunderlist. But I guess these are fairly obvious, too.

One development tool that is not obvious at all, though, would be this little innocent looking thing called PhotoScan. To a layman, it’s a magical piece of software that, when fed with a couple dozen photos of an object, spits out that object as a game-ready, high-quality 3D fully-textured asset.

Of course, nothing is that simple, so there was a lot of extra work involved when dealing with PhotoScan and photogrammetry, but I hope the end results show that it was all worth it.

How long have you and your team been working on the game?

About a year longer that we have initially assumed, meaning it was two years in total. Luckily, only a part of that was due to the usual inability to plan properly. The “delay” was mostly due to our conscious decision to make the game bigger than what we had originally designed.

How did you come up with the concept?

It was a very odd process, different to how I usually work. It's crazy how many iterations Ethan went through, from a seed idea to “maybe let's make a weird fiction horror game” to the final form. Sometimes during the dev meetings, we would jokingly refer to this or that older idea as something from the 453rd or 711th iteration.

Anyway, I think one of the most important moments of the initial design phase happened when I read Ambrose Bierce’s shorty story titled An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. I already had the most basic idea for the game in my head but that story made me way more confident about it.

A lot of people approach narrative in video games differently. What was the overarching philosophy for narrative in Ethan Carter?

The idea was for the player to experience a weird fiction story. The key word being “experience." Not “listen to” or “read," but “experience.” We wanted to achieve that by making sure that we tell the story through gameplay, or vice versa: to have the gameplay tell a story. Basically, to make gameplay and story indistinguishable from each other.

The music and the audio in Ethan Carter work seamlessly with one another, and along with the actual play, gives players a strong sense of place and presence in the game world. How was your team able to achieve that? What should other developers keep in mind when designing audio?

The basic philosophy behind the audio in Ethan is simple: audio is super-incredibly important, period. That’s one thing that developers should always remember, I believe.

Of course, audio needs to support the core idea of the experience, so its use is different for each game. For example, in our case we knew we wanted the player to get lost in the melancholic beauty of the world, so our ambient music uses much more melody than most games. Also, we went for a little more movie-like approach to sound design, and not everything that produces sound in real life actually produces sound in Ethan -- only the things important to the story that the player experiences are producing sounds. We didn’t go for realism, but tight and focused immersion.

Ethan Carter skews more toward theme, as opposed to mechanics, compared to your previous games. How much of an adjustment was that?

I almost had to re-learn video games from scratch, and I am not exaggerating. Most of my life I designed with my gut, or, if the actual hard thinking was involved, without any systemic, well-organized knowledge. A couple of indie games I played in 2012 challenged everything I knew or felt, and I went on a journey of self-discovery and reflection. Again, no matter how pretentious that sounds, I am neither kidding nor exaggerating. You can actually see the results of that journey in form of 2012-2014 blog posts on our website.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

I played Talos Principle for a couple of hours, it even inspired me to write a Medium analysis. I cannot wait to find some quality time aside for 80 Days, I have heard nothing but wonderful things about it. Same goes for Framed and The Sailor's Dream.

But I admit I never heard about half of the IGF finalists. Which I guess proves the usefulness of the festival. I am already seeing a couple of interesting titles that I would miss otherwise, and that’d be a shame -- not just for me as a designer who should learn from the others, but simply as a gamer too.

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