Peer behind the curtain at the creation of The Astronauts’ beautiful PS4 mystery
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first person mystery game launching on PS4 on 15th July. We thought it might be fun to introduce the game to you all by sharing a few secrets behind the game’s development process.
1. Why we chose to call it The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
The game is a ‘weird fiction’ story, or “horror meets pulp”. The best known weird fiction writers are Howard P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. To honour the game’s literary roots, we wanted its title to resemble the pulp horror stories of the 1930s and 1940s.
We went through countless old books and magazines, including the famous Weird Tales, creating a list of proposals that included titles like The Incident in Red Creek Valley, Midnight Detective, and The Case of Ethan Carter. But even though we liked some of them a lot, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was always out favourite.
The title is inspired by The Vanishing of Simmons, the story by August Derleth, a writer best known for being the first publisher of Lovecraft. There’s both poetry and mystery to the “vanishing” word, and that is exactly the message we wanted the title to express.
But why Ethan Carter?
There is this great anecdote about a poet who met a fan at a party, and that fan passionately analysed one of the poet’s works. “No, it’s not what’s about”, answered the poet, “But your interpretation is much better, so from now on I’m going to stick with it.”
It’s the same with the name of Ethan Carter. There’s no clear inspiration behind it – it just came to us, subconsciously, and felt right. But then one day a fan asked us if “Carter” was a nod to another story from the Weird Tales magazine: Lovecraft’s The Statement of Randolph Carter.
“No, but we love this idea, and from now we’re going to stick with it” – and that is why we tell everyone that it was Randolph Carter who inspired Ethan’s last name.
2. But that game title got us into a spot of trouble…
An ancient evil ruling a remote valley tries to stop a private detective from finding a missing boy. It’s a story that can happen almost anywhere, be it the United States or here in Poland.
At least that’s what we thought. It was only when we started marketing the game and telling everyone that the game doesn’t take place in any specific location that we realised that no, it’s not “a story that can happen almost anywhere” when your main character is named Ethan Carter, and not, say, Kajetan Woznica. Ethan Carter is a very British/American name.
So that forced us to look for a specific place that would fit the story and the name. We chose Wisconsin due to its striking similarity to the vegetation and landscapes of our fictional Red Creek Valley that was based on an actual valley in the Polish Karkonosze mountains.
3. We hated the game’s music, but then it won multiple awards…
Okay, we didn’t hate the music the entire time, just for the first three hours. Here’s the story.
The composer, Mikolai Stroinski, is known for his smaller (Dark Souls trailer) and bigger works (The Witcher 3). He expressed his interest in making music for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by sending us his own version of the score to the game’s teaser. We liked it, so a few months later we asked him to be the first guy to try creating an actual game score.
A few days later, Mikolai sent us three tracks. We listened to them all and I wish I could tell you “and then there was silence”, but the truth is we were very vocal about our disappointment. It’s just not what we imagined the score would be, the tracks were too engaging, too cinematic, too fantastical.
We listened to the tracks again and then called Mikolai, telling him that we didn’t like the direction he’d gone in but would like him to try again. Mikolai was a bit surprised but agreed to give it another go.
But then one of the team piped up, “Gentlemen, this music is incredible, but don’t just listen to it. Make sure you actually play the game and play the tracks as if they’re already implemented as the background music.”
And we did, and then there was light.
It turned out that what Mikolai has done was incredible – it’s just that we evaluated his work in the wrong way. Actually walking around Red Creek Valley with Mikolai’s music in the background was an astonishing, otherworldly experience.
We called Mikolai, and, wearing sackcloth and ashes, apologised. Luckily, Mikolai took it all like the pro that he is, and continued working with us closely for the next year or so. And then his original soundtrack for the game won multiple industry awards. Thanks, Mikolai!
4. The graphics were too realistic, so we changed them
Graphics aren’t always that important in video games, but they are extremely important in our game.
In order to offer never-before-seen visual quality, we used a technique called photogrammetry. In short, you photograph the real world, and then special software spits out a 3D game-ready asset that looks exactly like the real thing, generating something that could never be achieved by hand. Of course, it’s never that simple, but that’s the gist of it.
However, with assets like that, and the realistic “global illumination” lightning offered by the Unreal Engine, the game looked… too real.
I mentioned earlier that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a ‘weird fiction’ story, and with that comes a certain mood of otherworldliness, melancholy, and unease. While believability of the environment is important – hence our use of photogrammetry – it cannot dominate the artistic intent.
It’s nothing new in art. The True Detective TV series is a good example. It’s obviously something believable and with that extra touch of authenticity, but at the same time it’s highly stylised, soft, and impressionistic, with that famous yellow tint.
So we created our Red Creek Valley that looked and felt like a real place… and then we removed bits and pieces of that realism, and added post-processing and shader effects to make it feel less mundane. You still feel the wind in your hair, but you also feel there’s something special, something supernatural about the valley.
5. We forgot what the game was all about
It’s often said about game development that you never know the exact destination, just the general direction, and “pretending otherwise is costly and painful.” These are very true words, and one of the reasons we never produced a detailed game design document for the project.
Our design started with a certain idea of what happened to Ethan Carter. And then it took us a year of design and writing to get to the point where the story was exactly what we wanted it to be. However, all those months of writing made us lose perspective on what constituted the real heart of the story.
We remember writing a very long e-mail to our writers, Tom Bissell and Rob Auten, explaining that even though we knew how to get to the ending, we were still unsure of how to explain everything that the player experienced. And to wrap up the project, we need that final push – that one explanation that unites everything into a coherent tale.
We proposed three different takes on the detective’s journey, and sent that wall of text to the writers.
The answer was just one sentence. “Hey, but wasn’t the original idea that [this and that happened]?” We looked at each other and laughed. Yes, yes it was, and it was the perfect story. We just kind of forgot about it and for some reason moved on to new proposals and new solutions.
It’s very easy to get carried away like that when you spent two years on a game. You get so used to the old ideas that after a while they’re no longer as exciting as the new ones, and the new ones are exciting just because they’re new, not because they’re better.
These five stories from behind the scenes are just a few examples of the confusing, wonderful process that game development is. And difficult or not, we love every second of it.
After well over two years of hard work The Vanishing Ethan Carter is finally here, and it’s the most disciplined, but also the most creatively liberating thing we have ever done. We hope you’ll like this supernatural mystery when it hits PlayStation Store on 15th July.
Meanwhile, check out the brand new trailer for the game at the top of this post.