Inside the mysteries of upcoming grimdark roguelite Witchfire
“I genuinely don’t think anyone outside the studio understands what Witchfire really is. That’s expected, we’re not really showing a lot, are we? But that will change soon and I think people might be surprised with what they’ll see.”
Adrian Chmielarz, creative director at and co-founder of The Astronauts, hopes that the new trailer for Witchfire that hit tonight during the Summer Game Fest will be part of that journey of discovery.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s still a dark fantasy first-person shooter with guns and magic. But I think the way we went about it is relatively unique. Hopefully, we chose wisely, and players will like it. We’ll see soon enough, September 20 is not that far away.”
Where the last few trailers for Witchfire were very combat focused, the Summer Game Fest trailer shown tonight starts off a bit slower in a bid to underscore some of the more explorative moments of the game.
“I think (the last few trailers) gave the wrong impression that Witchfire is a non-stop action fest,” Chmielarz said. “It is not. Sure, some fights will be incredibly intense, but there are also periods of quiet exploration, planning, thinking. It is much closer to Souls in that regard rather than, say, Doom.”
In the trailer’s opening seconds, we see more of the landscape and settings for the game then enemies or battle. But that changes halfway in, with the trailer showing off a mix of enemies and frenetic combat as “the witch hunt begins.” The trailer wraps up with news that the game launches in Early Access on Sept. 20.
It’s been a nearly seven-year journey for the team of ten developers at The Astronauts. Witchfire started life as a sci-fi survival title before evolving into the title it is today: a dark fantasy roguelite first-person shooter. In it, players take on the role of a Preyer, an immortal witch hunter crafted by the Church using pagan magic to hunt and kill an infamous witch with the help of a gun and spell.
That journey from sci-fi survival to grimdark shooter brought with it changes just as significant as its shift in setting, tone, and genre.
Most recently, the team decided to shift the title from arena-style to open-world combat. While Witchfire is not a fully open world game, it does now feature what the studio calls open world levels. That means it will be up to the player to decide how and in what order to explore a given area. The change to this new approach from one that was more akin to something like Killing Floor led to significant work and the decision to push the date for Early Access to this year.
“It was the right choice for the game, but it is a pain, oops, I mean, a challenge to design around,” Chmielarz said. “Not just a technological challenge like how to handle the extra number of enemies, but also purely a gameplay challenge like pacing or the highly increased number of opportunities to cheese encounters.”
But Chmielarz said that the decision didn’t just make the game better, it “made it a different, much better game.”
“I strongly agree with (psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s) self-determination theory that puts emphasis on intrinsic motivation driven by the need of autonomy, competence and relatedness,” he said. “As you can imagine, opening up the world heavily improved the feeling of autonomy, and now also offers more avenues towards competence. I could not be happier with our decision, even if it did delay the game by, like, a year or so.”
Some of the motivations that the work Chmielarz and the team at The Astronauts are doing on Witchfire tap into a surprisingly eclectic mix of inspirations and design concepts.
For instance, Chmielarz told Unreal Engine last year that the game was being designed as a roguelite for people who hate roguelites.
In our more recent interview, he noted that to him, roguelikes and roguelites are about the emotions heightened due to the fear of losing what you worked hard for.
“That is definitely present in Witchfire,” he said. “Many other typical elements are present, too, like randomized encounters. But on the other hand, we did come up with a couple of pretty fresh things in our designs. We’re not ready to reveal them yet but to give you an idea, we attempted to solve the unsolvable: a game with RNG for variety but also one that allows the players to master encounters.”
He added that Soulsborne games are easily the most inspirational creations for the team and Witchfire.
“The games of FromSoftware are one of the best things that happened to gaming in the last few decades, and obviously, we are not entirely free of their charm,” he said. “Everything else inspires us on a smaller scale. We studied the gunplay of Destiny because Bungie has that one thing nailed. We read Berserk to understand how fearless a story can be. We returned to Painkiller to see if there’s still something to its Black Tarot. And so on and so forth, there’s always something we discuss and learn from, be it what to take and evolve or what to avoid.”
The game’s story – a topic of much interest for fans of the team that also created the narrative-driven game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – is another point of fascinating discussion.
The Astronauts was originally formed so that Chmielarz and the rest of the team could focus on creating narrative-driven games, like The Vanishing. But it was that 2014 horror adventure game – winner of a BAFTA and still highly regarded among fans – that also opened Chmielarz eyes to the fact that the studio’s efforts may need to be a bit more broad.
“I was happy with how The Vanishing of Ethan Carter turned out but I realized that despite our best efforts, this was not a template,” he said. “You couldn’t just take this game’s structure and tell a different story. I knew what the next step could be and how to evolve the narrative genre but it was and still is a super costly and super risky vision. So we started to look in a different direction.
“Or maybe it was just the beginning of a new cycle for us. Because previously, after I designed an adventure game, the next project was always an action one. After Teenagent it was Katharsis, after The Prince and the Coward it was Painkiller, after Come Midnight it was Bulletstorm … So maybe it was always inevitable that after the story-driven experience like Ethan, the next project would be another first-person shooter.”
Ultimately, he said, the directive of the studio is also tied to the inspiration for its name: The Astronauts.
“Any world we want to visit, we can. Actually, that’s why we named ourselves The Astronauts. To emphasize the journey into the unknown, the adventure of discovering new worlds.”
So the work of story-telling in Witchfire seems to be taking a page or two from authors like J.R.R. Tolkein and Ernest Hemingway. It will also expand during Early Access, which is initially more focused on gameplay and general atmosphere rather than lore and story.
“I can’t quite say it yet that I like the way we’re selling this world to the players,” said Chmielarz. “I can tell you, though, the two pillars of our approach to the world design. The first one is taken from Hemingway, particularly his Iceberg theory. Basically, the idea is that while we don’t reveal it all to the player, we have to know everything there is to know about this world. No shortcuts, no questions unanswered. So, for example, while the players might not learn why is it that only witches can use magic, we, the creators, need to know this and have the entire backstory ready.
“The second pillar is Tolkien’s ‘distant mountains’ approach. Let me quote him directly. In one of his letters, he said, ‘Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.’
“As you can see, there’s a bit of that Hemingway’s Iceberg in his approach, with the conviction that some mystery needs to remain as such. But it’s also clear he believed having a ‘history in the background’ makes the world that much more believable and interesting.”
While we don’t yet know what that history in the background will be, we have gotten a few tantalizing tastes of it in the form of a short story written by Chmielarz and some excellent art prints created by different Polish artists. Both can be found on the game’s website.
“The thing that excites me the most in video games is the idea of experiencing different worlds,” Chmielarz said. “To be a space pirate, a detective with supernatural powers, or a Church’s witch hunter. It doesn’t matter to me if the game is focused on the story or on the mechanics – I need its world to feel like a real place.
“So even though Witchfire is obviously a shooter first, we invest a lot in its world and lore. I believe this enhances the experience even for the people who claim they don’t care about the stories in games at all.”
With just a few months to go before the Witchfire hits Epic Games Store in Early Access, Chmielarz and the team are focusing their efforts – in part – on something he has often said is incredibly important to a game: The beginning.
I asked him if the opening for Witchfire lives up to his own expectations and if it touches on some of or all of the four key elements of a well-designed game: autonomy, mastery, competence, and relatedness. A perfect opening, he’s written, is like what can be found in Return to Monkey Island.
“Good question, but I just started the work on the onboarding, so I cannot answer that yet,” he said. “One thing is for sure, it is absolutely crucial for us that we nail the opening. It’s funny because I believe that tutorials are overrated and can be distracting and irritating, but I also believe in proper onboarding.
“One of the authors I respect a lot is Celia Hodent. Let me quote from her book, The Gamer’s Brain. ‘And even if some hardcore players complain about tutorials and tell you that they don’t need them, UX tests usually reveal that they misunderstand or completely omit important elements of a game when it lacks proper tutorials, and they can view a game negatively because of this.’
“Witchfire is a gamer’s game, so our onboarding is going to assume you have already played some shooters before. But we will still curate those opening minutes a bit, to make sure the cognitive buffer is not overloaded when you learn more about the world and the game’s mechanics.”
Witchfire starts Early Access on Sept. 20, but you can wishlist the game on Epic Games Store right now.