The Astronauts, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter and the evolution of videogame storytelling
One might be expecting the debut game from The Astronauts, the studio founded by the trio that once set up People Can Fly, to be the kind of bombastic shooter that studio is best known for. And yet beyond its firstperson perspective, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter shares little in common with Painkiller, Bulletstorm or Gears Of War: Judgment.
It is instead ‘a weird piece of horror fiction’ or an ‘interactive drama,’ as the Polish studio would have it. It is entirely free of combat, centred upon the exploration of and interaction with the scenery, and will also ask players to visualise the final moments of the game’s murder victims through its lead character’s supernatural powers. As occult detective Paul Prospero, you must solve the game’s titular mystery.
In developing a story-driven firstperson game, The Astronauts is contributing to a growing trend; The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter will follow Gone Home and Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs in a groundswell of games which take the rules of the FPS and supplant its guns and action with narrative and atmosphere. But that niche, and indeed storytelling in games at large, isn’t even close to reaching maturity yet, says lead designer Adrian Chmielarz. “I think we’re still infants,” he tells us. “There are still a lot of very core problems to solve. We don’t have a universal design frame for storytelling games yet, all we have is a bit of theory and a couple of attempts, every single one going in a different direction. Story-focused games are terra incognita. But of course that’s one of the reasons why trying to help evolve that branch of gaming is so exciting.”
Storytelling in games, once inserted arbitrarily to add meaning to reaching the end of a game, has become a vital part of play. Chmielarz suggests that the most memorable parts of games are increasingly linked to the narrative, with action becoming less relevant as the medium evolves; most players’ most cherished memory from Red Dead Redemption, for example, isn’t one of many shootouts, it’s the crossing to Mexico or the ending, he says.
“It seems like both developers and gamers want more of that, but the problem is that the old designs are in the way of unleashing the full power of video games as storytelling devices,” he tells us. “It’s just simple science, really – your brain cannot be analytic and emotional at the same time. So once we hit the wall with our old designs, it was time to try something new, like Fahrenheit or Journey. And most of the time the thought of trying something radically new is too scary for investors – and honestly, why should they change anything, when they can still sell millions of copies of games designed like it’s 2003? – so it’s now up to indies to prove that this new direction makes sense.”
He’s not saying that classic game design will be replaced, rather that it is “a new branch of a wonderful gaming tree,” he adds.
There’s no question that the industry’s indie uprising is the primary catalyst for this new breed of rather subtler videogame storytelling. It’s obviously a hard sell for a larger developer or publisher, as Chmielarz notes, and exploring relatively untried new ideas comes with excitement and trepidation in equal measure. ”Being indie is not just happy brainstorming and game-making,” says Chmielarz. “It’s living without a safety net, and living in fear that what you do might be a disaster. So it’s all very exciting, but also scary as hell. It’s like you’re dropped naked in the middle of the jungle with nothing but a compass and a plastic fork and, you know, good luck and have fun, this might be an adventure of your life.”
The Astronauts hasn’t planned beyond an initial PC release for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in a few months’ time. It remains hopeful the game will reach next gen platforms as well, but iOS and Android releases are unlikely at this point, as it is a game intended to be played on a large screen – “If anything, it’d rather be Oculus than iPhone,” says Chmielarz.
The Astronauts’ leap from making effusive shooters to sombre, combat-free horror seems a little jarring at first, but surprisingly The Vanishing of Ethan Carter represents the fulfilment of a long-held desire, adds Chmielarz. “Actually, the first three games I’ve made were all adventure games,” he tells us. “and between Painkiller and Bulletstorm we were making Come Midnight for THQ, a horror game focused on storytelling. So on the surface it may seem like a surprise that ‘the shooter guys’ are making a game without combat – but we had it in us for a long, long time.”