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Narrative Design


In 1999 Ethan Wake's 4-year-old daughter, Emily, died on her birthday in an accident when playing with her father's unsupervised weapon while her father was drunk at home. Due to his violent past and previous charges, his wife, Helen, is convinced that Ethan murdered the girl and testified against him in court, which sentences him to 17 years in prison. A few years later, he was sent to a psychiatric ward due to the mental outbreaks and symptoms of schizophrenia, where he spent the rest of his serving time.

The game is set at an unspecified time after he leaves the hospital. Living alone in an old house, he is still haunted by guilt and regret of the past, intensified by his mental condition, and suffering from constant nightmares. 

After the prologue, Ethan returns to 1999 on the night of the accident in his old apartment. The familiar location and objects reimburse his guilt that manifests in the form of hostile entities such as the zombie police officers (his old violent self) and blind nurses that reminds him of his time in the psychiatric ward. Occasionally his ex-wife (voiced by Csilla Pap) taunts and threatens him, reminding him that she never believed Ethan.

Ethan encounters his zombified daughter, Emily, in the subway and is forced to shoot her, eventually leading him to the psychiatric ward. The ward represents his fragmented mind; each patient stands for one of his personalities developed due to his schizophrenia. After collecting the five items from each patient and solving the puzzle, Ethan enters the last room, where a hanged man representing his suicidal thoughts confronts him.

In the epilogue, Ethan is in his bedroom again, waking up from the nightmare. Soon, however, he is assaulted by delusions and paranoia and dies from a heart attack.


My goal was to present the narrative during gameplay exclusively in the first-person camera to make it more intimate and personal.

I opted for a minimalistic storytelling method to create a sense of mystery to encourage the player to progress and explore the narrative. The game asks the player to fill in the blanks, which, depending on the player's imagination might be far more disturbing than anything I can come up with and leaves room for personal interpretation. 

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A child drawing shows a decapitated head of a kid, with the two parents being separated

Environmental storytelling was used as the primary narrative device to tell what happened with Ethan in the past. The player is never told the story explicitly; instead, subtle clues and notes are presented that the player has to piece together. For example, when the player puts the 4th candle on the cake, the happy birthday sign is covered in blood. Later a newspaper can be found which details that a 4-year-old girl was killed by her father, Ethan.

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Bloody birthday

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News article about the incident

Additionally, audio cues such as radio broadcasts contribute to the ambience while also containing clues to the story, similar seen in Visage (SadSquare Studio, 2018). As the player learns more about the backstory, it implies that the broadcast is relevant to the player's character.

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I voiced the radio broadcasts. After recording, I used Audacity to tweak the sound to achieve an old radio effect.

Ethan also makes comments during the game to provide context to the current events without being specific, leaving room for the player's imagination. These subtitles are triggered when the player enters a new area or interacts with an item.

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Ethan enters the apartment 

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Ethan encounters Emily

The first story draft contained a simple rescue mission story. Ethan would wake up in the middle of the night in his apartment during a zombie outbreak. He had a fight with his girlfriend earlier that day, so she moved back to her parents. After he unsuccessfully tries to contact her several times, he decides to find and rescue her. The game would have ended with Ethan finding his then-zombified girlfriend with a choice given to the player to kill her or let her kill Ethan. I planned to use letters and notes left by her girlfriend as the main narrative device, accompanied by voice lines when Ethan tries to leave voice messages on the phone. 

Eventually, the focus shifted to the puzzle and psychological horror elements, so I decided to take inspiration from similar indie horror titles to rewrite the story. While the player would still control Ethan, I wanted to explore the protagonist's regret and guilt combined with surreal and dreamlike imagery. The idea of attuning to past mistakes and trying to move on was a direct influence from Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001), where the main character experiences trauma, and its story ends tragically. Similarly, I wanted to portray Ethan as a flawed, broken man who made mistakes in the past and is still haunted by his memories. 

At first, Ethan's mental conditions and his schizophrenic personality had a more significant role which changed when I decided to shift the story to be more personal.  However, some aspects of this version remained in the game. The hospital level features five patients, combining the first letter of their name spells out Ethan. The player can find a room presumed to be a projection of the psychiatric ward room where Ethan spent his years locked up.

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A description of the patients in the hospital

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Hidden Message in Ethan` room in the hospital

While I always planned to offer him a tragic fate similar to other horror titles such as the Silent Hill series (Konami), as the default ending, an alternate ending was also in development. In the alternative version, Ethan would wake up to his wife's voice in the same apartment, realizing it was all just a bad dream. To unlock it, the player must collect several memory items (kids' drawings, and pictures). Due to technical difficulties, namely saving items through multiple saves points and level progression, I decided to cut from the final version.

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