Exploring imagined environments is a not so secret pleasure of mine. Ambient designs, implicit narrative, experiential interactions – I think these are the fundamentally unique experiences games can deliver to us. So when I heard of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by The Astronauts, I was excited. Being in a place – such a beautiful place too – that primarily focused on letting you exist in a place sounded like what I’d enjoy. I’ve played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and, while it didn’t quite deliver exactly what I expected, its unique approach and beautiful ambience are well worth experiencing for yourself.
Paul Prospero is an eminent psychic detective, called to the rural town of Red Creek Valley to investigate the vanishing of the young boy Ethan Carter, at the boy’s behest. Upon arrival in Red Creek Valley, Prospero discovers a number of bizarre and brutal murders, all linked to the mysterious Ethan Carter. Using his supernatural power of psychometry, Prospero works to get to the bottom of the mystery, and perhaps save Ethan Carter from whatever fate he is enduring.
Much of the story is told through watching re-enactments of scenes that you find, retelling events in time as they occurred. After solving a puzzle you are rewarded with some kind of story cutscene that plays out the events related to the puzzle. You will also find notes scattered around the environment, all related in some way to the world you are inhabiting. Occasionally things get embellishment through one of Prospero’s sporadic, brief, deliberately dramatic monologues. But much of the story is told through the environments themselves – environments which reflect the nature and content of the scene of a puzzle or mystery. It is a little heavier-handed in places than I appreciate, but it’s a story told deftly and confidently, and its telling fits in with its themes.
While the story sets itself up as a supernatural murder mystery at the start, it’s really a tale of childhood imagination and escapism – one where innocence is interrupted by paranormal drama. Ethan Carter himself represents narrative escapism from rural malaise, something otherworldly come to invade a stagnant life of drudgery. And his situation is something to identify with at the heart of the murder mystery fluff. I cared more about Ethan Carter as a character than I did about solving the various murders of extraneous characters, and his personality drives the story. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, then, is aptly named, as the town of Red Creek Valley is defined by Ethan Carter’s lack of presence.
In many ways The Vanishing of Ethan Carter reminds me of Gone Home, in that it is about exploring an imagined place that is defined by the presence of an absence. That is, perhaps, the highest praise I can deliver to a game like this – it’s like Gone Home.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter diverges from the purity of Gone Home’s environmental storytelling, however, by adding in things to do beyond walking and looking. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, as a paranormal mystery game, requires the player to solve loosely demarcated but distinct and unique puzzles.
Paul Prospero interacts with the world through highlighting and experiencing locations, that in turn lead to other items and places. Each place you examine provides inherent context for the puzzle, as well as opening up further interaction options. Essentially, it’s a variation on find the clue, but with each clue cleverly integrated into the world. Occasionally you have to find an actual item to use on an object, but there is no inventory system – one is not needed with how simple item use is integrated into puzzle solving. Each puzzle is completely different to the one before, giving delightful variety and freshness to each problem, and all adding to the narrative weave of Ethan Carter.
There is an issue, and it comes down to the balance between obtuseness and replayability. Ethan Carter dumps you in its (gorgeous, wonderful, amazing) world with no tutorial or hints on how its mechanics work. For example, there is a mechanic where you interact with a puzzle object and word clues pop up. Looking around directions either push apart or coalesce the words, and making them overlap perfectly points you to the physical object of the clue in question. The only problem is this mechanic is not introduced in any way – you have to figure it out yourself somehow. By the time I’d figured this out, I’d made it half way through the world, missing several puzzles. Additionally, each puzzle is complete-able within a certain zone, although this isn’t clear. To compound matters, subtle cues that indicate a change in zones are really quite obscure, and by the time I worked this out, again, I was half way through the world. The sheer obtuseness of it lead me to miss most of the early puzzle solutions. Until you learn these cues and learn its navigational and gameplay language, you’ll be so far into the game that backtracking is just not a desirable option.
To top it all off, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is completely linear. The conundrum, then, is that learning all the subtleties of how the game communicates location and puzzle cues is perfect for subsequent playthroughs, yet the game’s linearity of plot and gameplay lends itself to single playthroughs. For a single playthrough game, the communication of gameplay is too slow and gentle to appreciate initial content and eliminate time-wasting backtracking.
Don’t misunderstand – I do appreciate how gently the mechanics are introduced. The feeling of joy when you figure out how the game works is delightful, and the lack of hand-holding is refreshing. And I can’t see the game’s plot being as affecting as anything other than a linear story. I just wish that perhaps there was a way to experience the entire game’s puzzles fresh while understanding how the game communicates.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is undeniably visually stunning. It is pretty. So so pretty. This is entirely down to The Astronauts’ use of photogrammetry. Objects and textures are, quite simply, the best I’ve ever seen. Better than Crysis. Better than Battlefield. Better than real life. Scanning and rendering objects into virtual worlds is a new tech that is becoming more mainstream, and Ethan Carter shows us how it’s done. Combining object and texture tech with the rural, autumnal setting, through the prism of attentive art direction creates a game space that is a delight to be in. Technically, however, the game is still an Unreal Engine 3 creation, and sometimes the older tech base shows its colours, holding it back a little in the lighting and post processing departments. Overall, though, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s object and texture work is far and away the star, making any of the foibles of UE3 fade away. It is completely, uncompromisingly stunning.
Ethan Carter complements its stunning graphics with a quiet forest ambiance and a gentle, restful soundtrack. It’s suitably, predictably ephemeral, the exact type of soundtrack you’d expect for this kind of contemplative experience. That’s not to downplay it – lonely piano meanders and aching strings offset the frequent lightness of silence beautifully. It works together perfectly, unsurprisingly. Voice acting is perfectly functional, but not exemplary.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a beautiful, atmospheric, sometimes impenetrable experience. A triumph in world building, Ethan Carter delivers on its slightly esoteric premise with rich story and atmosphere, wrapped in some of the most gorgeous graphics I’ve ever seen. That the mechanics aren’t well introduced in the first play and the mystery can only be experienced once is its only significant flaw – one that should not prevent you from enjoying the two or three hours it takes to witness just how beautiful a world The Astronauts have created.
Reviewed on PC. Review code supplied by The Astronauts.