"Dear Esther [with] gameplay, murder and corpses." It's a heck of a pitch, and the debut game from new studio The Astronauts looks more than capable of living up to it. It's a detective thriller with a distinct horror tinge that utilises a revolutionary visual technique to render ultra-realistic environments, and is powered by decidedly unconventional mechanics. Director Adrian Chmielarz says it will be a violent game, but this is a rare first-person title where guns don't play a major role.
That might come as a surprise given Chmielarz's background, but there's a reason he cites The Chinese Room's arty adventure in his vision for his new game. A former creative director at People Can Fly (Bulletstorm, Gears of War: Judgment), the outspoken Pole was best-known for loud, abrasive shooters, yet he had an epiphany after playing Dear Esther, and decided to step away from the noise to create something very different. He's since founded an independent studio, The Astronauts, whose first game will launch this September.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is described as a 'weird fiction horror'. You play as detective Paul Prospero, investigating the disappearance of the titular youngster in the leafy Red Creek Valley. This windy, autumnal setting has been realised in fine detail using a rendering technique known as photogrammetry. This allows The Astronauts' artists to take shots of real world locations, before scanning them and using the engine to recreate them as explorable 3D environments. The effect is startling, allowing for a level of detail that would otherwise be out of reach of a small team like this. The wear and tear on the buildings, for example, offers its own kind of visual storytelling.
That lends itself well to a detective story in which thorough investigation is key, and where the recent past has a crucial role in the narrative. Prospero pieces together individual mysteries using an otherworldly ability, which is visualised in the game in the form of floating words and visions. The detective, Chmielarz explains, has an uncanny ability to see death's imprint on the world. Find a corpse, for example, and you're asked to return the environment to its original state before their murder occurred, the process allowing you to witness the last half-minute of their life. In 'solving' these individual mysteries, you'll gradually piece together their part in the wider narrative.
The visualisation of these clues makes for a slightly hokey but undeniably efficient shorthand for Prospero's innate instincts, his knack of finding hidden clues. Call it a sixth sense, if you will. Venture in the wrong direction and the words will separate and grow indistinct; when you're getting warmer, they'll come closer together, eventually coalescing into a coherent vision of the object in question's location. Elsewhere, he stumbles upon a ruined old rail car, covered in cracks, rust – and blood. An inner monologue appears as the player presses a button to inspect the grisly scene, words floating before his eyes. Did a murder take place here? Does this blood belong to an animal or a human?
"The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is described as a 'weird fiction horror'"
Those answers – and others – will remain elusive for a good while yet. The game's most recent trailer shows an older man in a flat cap viciously bludgeoning a younger man to death with a metal crank, suggesting The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may be more howdunit or whydunit than whodunit, though Chmielarz is promising surprises. And while the central mystery is obviously the main narrative draw, the developer insists that it's also about atmosphere, mood, and the humanity of its cast – and it's here that the Dear Esther influence resonates longest and loudest.
But if there are still elements of the game, and how exactly its systems knot together, that remain an unknown quantity, that's quite a deliberate choice on the developer's part. After all, what is a mystery story without a sense of mystery? Chmielarz wants to avoid the modern trend for a slow drip-feed of fresh information, where by the end of a game's carefully constructed two-year campaign of steadily building hype it's hard not to know far more than you really want to about it. Instead, The Astronauts wants its game to remain something of an enigma.
What is clear is that Chmielarz is keen to ensure that the game's mechanics are neatly interwoven into its narrative, rather than clashing with it, as so many big-budget games do. The developer has been critical of even the most highly-rated games – including Uncharted and BioShock Infinite – for their reliance on mass murder as a mechanic. While Ethan Carter will still be a violent game, it represents a very different way of dealing with that violence.
Whether Chmielarz's belief that the advent of the new hardware generation will also herald "the next generation of game design" will manifest in his own game remains to be seen, but The Astronauts' debut is already defying conventions in a number of ways. In rejecting the action/cut-scene/action approach of so many blockbusters, this gripping tale of murder and the occult has the potential to become something very special indeed. It's a pulpy detective thriller that's also a character piece; an independent production with the visual oomph of its bigger-budget cousins; an art game with designs on the mainstream – or vice versa, perhaps.
However The Vanishing of Ethan Carter turns out, it's a game that defies easy description as readily as it rejects established game design ideas, and that's a big part of what makes it such an exciting proposition.