To take a studio from obscurity to prominence once is impressive. To do it three times is extraordinary.
This is the feat managed by Adrian Chmielarz, the co-founder of Metropolis Software and People Can Fly. These two outlets became renowned for globally successful titles including Painkiller, Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgement, before being acquired by big-label publishers: Metropolis by The Witcher studio CD Projekt Red and People Can Fly by Gears of War creator Epic Games.
But having twice made the leap from indie to triple-A, Chmielarz and his two People Can Fly cohorts were soon yearning to return to their origins.
During our triple-A years at People Can Fly we often fantasised about going independent again,” Chmielarz recalls. It's just how we are wired. We do our best work when we have full creative freedom.
One day we had a discussion with Epic about the future of People Can Fly and it became clear we had different paths in mind. In the end, Epic renamed People Can Fly to Epic Games Poland and now uses the studio to help with big projects like Fortnite, while we started The Astronauts. It was a win-win for everybody.”
It's still early days for The Astronauts, but the studio already looks set to follow the path of Chmielarz's past accomplishments.
Its first title, narrative-driven mystery-thriller The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, launched on PC last year to an ardent critical response surrounding its photo-realistic visuals and non-linear storytelling. A PS4 launch is slated to follow later this year, after the game was revealed at Sony's 2014 Gamescom conference.
Ethan Carter is a first-person title but, unlike so many of its peers, features no shooting or action beyond interacting with puzzle elements.Chmielarz says that its success highlights a growing trend among gamers for atmospheric, story-focused experiences.
Even if you could describe Ethan Carter's 250,000 copies sold on PC as niche, you couldn't do the same to the narrative-driven Telltale games like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones,” he states. And note that the success of those games doesn't come from the use of established licenses: Activision's shooter The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct and the Game of Thrones RPG both flopped.”
Recent years have seen many triple-A firms increase their investment in more complex titles and begin to consider narrative quality as important as gameplay or graphical prowess. But Chmielarz sees smaller outlets as having an inherent advantage when it comes to weaving interactive tales.
Gamers love a good story,” he comments. But what they are looking for is storytelling that is told in the language of video games, and that's what some indie developers deliver because they are not as afraid of experiments and often can't afford cutscenes anyway.”
He continues: Such games then show people how potent their beloved medium is, which ultimately results in the public expecting more from triple-A.
Indie games are affecting both the triple-A space and, generally, the public. You won't find a triple-A version of Dear Esther or Gone Home, but you will find the certain philosophy behind these titles in parts of triple-A experiences. Take The Last of Us, for example, with its famous giraffe scene or the shop scene in the game's Left Behind DLC.”
"If someone has real trouble imagining our next game as a book or a movie, then we will have done our job right."
Adrian Chmielarz, The Astronauts
Chmielarz's career has helped to shape the games industry, and now it seems that Ethan Carter's approach to narrative is similarly helping transform the way that both creators and players approach storytelling.
So what will The Astronauts reappear with next?
Our next game is going to be more of a ‘game' than Ethan Carter, but will still tell a meaningful story,” Chmielarz reveals.
And it will tell it in a language that's exclusive to games.
If someone likes that game but has real trouble imagining it as a book or a movie, then we will have done our job right.”