Outspoken Polish video game designer Adrian Chmielarz last year came up with the goods. After an epiphany sent him away from the Bulletstorms of his past, towards deeper no-combat experiences, he came up with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and it was a gem - a compact evening of entertainment that lingered in memory far longer; a mirror prompting introspective exploration. "Peerless mystery storytelling in an engaging, open world," we declared.
Ethan Carter sold 60,000 copies in a month and now, more than half-a-year later, it has crossed the 250,000 mark. "I stopped counting after 250,000 copies," Chmielarz tells me over a beer at Polish games conference Digital Dragons. "Considering that it's a PC platform where it's very easy to get a non-Steam torrent version then it's really good."
He stopped counting because at that point the studio's future was relatively secure. "I mean we invested everything we had, and I mean literally - and I mean literally literally! - we invested everything to the last penny. From that point of view we have got our money back and we are able to sustain the studio and make a new game so it's OK."
That studio is The Astronauts and it has a busy schedule ahead. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is coming to PS4 and, I discover, is actually being remade for the occasion using Unreal Engine 4 (the original game was UE3). That's why it's taking so long. But it's in beta and it should be out in the third-quarter of the year, he tells me. The concrete date depends on certification processes out of his control.
After, this enhanced UE4 Ethan Carter will be re-released on PC, free to existing owners of the game. And after that, work begins on Ethan Carter VR and, simultaneously, a brand new game.
The Astronauts is a Polish studio of eight people that uses outsourced help. There's more detail on everything below.
Ethan remade for PS4
Wait, what about Xbox One - will it come to Xbox One?
"I honestly have no idea," Chmielarz replies. "When Sony presented the game they called it 'console first'; there might be a window there. It depends on a lot of factors - it's a question of what we will be doing at this point.
"Take a look at Gone Home: these guys sold a lot of copies on PC but you don't see a console version of any kind. And it's not because they're stupid and they don't want money: something else is keeping them busy - and I think they tried and it didn't work. I cannot promise anything at this point.
"It might be that PS4 is going to be the only console, or it might be that we will sometime later do the Xbox One version - I honestly have no idea."
The decision to remake Ethan in Unreal Engine 4 came by virtue of UE3 not being future-proof or supporting the newer consoles. "We didn't remake the assets from scratch but we did remake the game, everything else, from scratch," he says, "so that's why it's taking so long. It's not like we change a couple of variables or whatever and it runs on PS4, no - we are making it from scratch on Unreal Engine 4.
He isn't "going all George Lucas on our original creation", and dramatically altering anything, but there are things - both in terms of content and performance - that will change. But overall it should look and feel a lot like the original.
Nevertheless, moving to Unreal Engine 4 means it can't look exactly the same, and also that the game's open-world is better supported. "It already feels better because it's a much smoother experience," he says. "And because of that management of assets it also allows us finally to make a proper save system."
The biggest single change came from player feedback and is to do with backtracking at the end of the game. The Astronauts thought people wouldn't mind but they did, so whereas in the original game there was one shortcut, now there are two.
Fancier visual effects were toyed with but ultimately decided against as they affected the original feel of the game too much. "It's not going to be identical because that's impossible, so it's going to be close to what's on PC - but it just plays better, it just feels better when you play."
And there's plenty of Ethan left undiscovered
The game may be only four-and-a-half hours long but even now, months and months after release, so many of the deeper meanings of the game remain undiscovered, Chmielarz tells me. How many? I ask? "... half?" he estimates in response.
"Ethan has an onion-like structure. If you think you figured out what happened, and even if you have multiple interpretations of it, that's still not the end of possible interpretations of what Ethan Carter as a game is," he explains. "Me and Tom Bissell and Rob Auten spent a lot of time creating these onion layers to the game, but most critics - or almost all of them - did not go there.
"So yes there are still mysteries that are undiscovered. I'm not entirely sure this is about something people did not find physically on the map: it's about the connections they have not made between these elements."
Mind you, he goes on, it's fine to take the game at face value as simply a mystery in the woods. "If you only like the outer-layer that's fine. I don't have a problem with people who don't actually think what the ending meant," he says. "It's fine if they just enjoyed a walk through the Red Creek Valley - that was the whole construct. It's just that people don't even consider that it might be worth digging into a game because games don't do that."
He adds: "I'm more disappointed in the industry in a way that we're not producing enough of these games for people to start looking deeper into the minutes."
The VR of Ethan Carter
"I want it. I really want VR to happen," he almost salivates. "I remember even years ago I wrote about the future of VR - it was a sure thing for me, and I didn't even know about VR at the time. So trust me, I am one of the biggest proponents of VR ever in the history of mankind!
"But," he interjects. "We had these experiments before, we had Kinect, we had Wii, we had Virtual Boy. When tablets were first introduced - when Bill Gates introduced a tablet device - no one cared. Is this it? Is this the time? Is this going to catch on? I honestly don't know."
Nonetheless, he's doing Ethan Carter VR, and as he discovered early on, simply bolting on VR support wouldn't work. "We found out after a heavy week of testing that we would have to make a different Ethan Carter," he says.
Compare first-person shooters ported to touch-screens to shooters made specifically for touch-screens. "And the difference is even bigger when it comes to trying to make a VR game," he says. "With VR it's a completely new ball game. The end result is that you really are going to have to design for VR."
Ethan Carter VR "will feature some significant changes that VR design requires", then, "but the story stays the same".
As for which VR platforms, The Astronauts currently only has Oculus Rift kit, not Sony's Morpheus, not Valve's Vive. "So it's as simple as this: right now we're supporting Oculus."
A Brand New Game
What irked him about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was a glass ceiling - an invisible barrier - he believes short games like his have when it comes to more widespread success. No one objected to the game - on the contrary - but it didn't blow up in the way other games do.
"You see a game, and I will not name any of the titles, but you see a game that is clearly a buggy mess that someone has put together in six months and looks like crap, plays like crap, but is an open-world survival simulator and it sells five times better."
If people want it, go for it - let it be successful. That's not the problem.
"I have more of a problem with our choice of a game for Ethan, for the establishing of the studio, because we were unaware of the glass ceiling thing that these shorter games actually face, despite the price.
"I was really hoping for the future of The Astronauts as a studio that actually specialises in these movie ticket experiences - something lasts three, four, maybe five hours but you can consume it in one go. I don't want that glass ceiling - I don't want it."
With the next game things will change. "I'm in the research phase," he says. "The studio agreed more or less what it is, where we're headed." He can say now that there's going to be "more game" in it - more gameplay systems - and that they're aiming for a "really long" open-world experience this time.
"It's about still being able to tell something about the human condition, and maybe convey deeper emotions, but I'm very interested in doing that through the language of video games."
He points me to a graphic novel called Adamtine by Hannah Berry. "She wanted to tell a story that it was impossible to tell in any other medium," he says. "I want to do the same with video games in our next game. Ethan is a little bit like that but I want to keep pushing and pushing.
"This time we want to create a world in which you can actually be much longer. We are aiming for a really long experience this time, and an open-world experience.
"Of course considering the core team is eight guys it's not going to be Jerusalem or 19th Century London," he laughs. "But it's about basically knowing the space." Think of the difference between how much attention you pay a single-player level compared to how you know a multiplayer one. Both may have taken the same time to create but your relationship with each is completely different.
"We want open-world exactly because of that," he says, "not because it's fashionable but because we want the player to know the space, to feel like they actually learn something about this space."
The new game may also involve the player being violent, whereas in Ethan Carter you only ever witness violence. "This might change," he mulls. "So we have things like that in mind."
He's spent the last half of the year researching themes and he has a setting in mind, not that he'll let it slip, partly for secrecy reasons and partly because it simply may change. "In about three/four months I'll be done with the core design and I will start production."