The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PC)

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the first game from The Astronauts, a new studio formed by ex-People Can Fly members. While that developer may have been best known for gory, action packed titles like Painkiller and Bulletstorm, what The Astronauts have created is something very different. This particular game is a first person adventure that places an emphasis on narrative and exploration, with emphasis placed on the player figuring out the mechanics and what they are supposed to do. It’s the type of experience that most will likely still be thinking about for some time after the credits roll, and an impressive first outing for this new studio.

Prior to the release of the game, the few trailers that were released didn’t show much of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter aside from the environments and a disturbingly violent scene that stood out amongst the beautiful landscapes. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to play through the game for myself, it’s easy to see why the pre-release material didn’t provide much insight into how the mechanics work. As you’re told from the very first screen, this is a title that doesn’t hold your hand. The first scene has the player emerge from a tunnel into the woods, where they are learn they are controlling Paul Prospero. Prospero not only has a cool name, but he’s a detective with some supernatural abilities. Paul has come to Red Creek Valley after receiving a letter from a young boy named Ethan that suggests he may be in trouble, and arrives to find some startling discoveries. While there is some initial narrative from Paul, the player is essentially let loose into Red Creek Valley to explore the environments and figure out what it is they are supposed to do.

It took me a little while to figure out how to approach this review, as so much of the enjoyment of playing through The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was discovering how the mechanics work and exploring the world. So many games give some freedom but still spend a lot of time explaining how each of the gameplay elements works. This isn’t the case here, as the only indication players have that they can interact with particular objects are text prompts that appear when you are close to them. What you initially discover while exploring Red Creek Valley is that a lot of gruesome murders appear to have been committed in this sleepy village, and hoping that figuring out what caused them will lead you to Ethan, you must look for clues around the bodies to solve the puzzles. Using Paul’s supernatural intuition, once you have an idea of what happened you must piece together the events in order to gain further insight. What’s neat about the way this is handled in-game is that everything feels fairly intuitive but there is a bit of a learning curve. Right from the initial screen you begin to discover murder scenes, but the game doesn’t tell you how to solve them or what you need to do to progress. Instead, you must explore and see what you can interact with and then piece things together yourself.

The minimalistic approach was instantly appealing to me, and what’s great about the layout of the game is that the narrative plays out in a non-linear fashion. You can choose to solve the first murder scene you stumble upon using clues from around the nearby area, or start free roaming the environments as you please. This amount of freedom works extremely well, though it is worth noting that if you miss something along the way it may be necessary to backtrack later on. The initial learning curve comes from figuring out how to use your supernatural abilities to solve the puzzles, and exactly what items you need to track down. Admittedly The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does get significantly easier once you’ve solved one puzzle though, as the majority of the others play out in a similar fashion and use the same mechanics. There are some additional puzzles involving swapping out rooms in a house through the use of portals and a slider/maze puzzle, but for the most part the emphasis is on discovering murder scenes and solving them. You feel like a proper detective a you piece together just what’s happened in this abandoned town and head closer towards Ethan, and each step closer is genuinely engaging.

You’ll notice that I’ve gone to great lengths to avoid mentioning both how specific mechanics work and the actual narrative within the game. The reason for this is that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of those titles where explaining just a little bit too much could ruin the entire experience, and it’s best to come into this one with as few pre-conceived notions as possible. Much like how the developers present players with some abilities but don’t explain how to properly use them, the narrative works in a similar fashion. As you solve each puzzle, more of the narrative is revealed, and since you can solve them in any order it is your job to piece together what is happening in Red Creek Valley. There is a bit of a supernatural and horror feel at times, and even an event completely out of left field early in the game that almost made me drop my controller (you’ll know what I’m talking about once you play for yourself). The Astronauts have also added to the horror angle by adding in one of the most unexpected jump scares I’ve experienced in a game in some time.

But it’s not all dread and gruesome murder mysteries in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. What I will say about the story is that it does a great job of exploring a dysfunctional family relationship, which has more layers the deeper you dive into the game. There’s also a sense of wonder and mystery to the entire experience, as you explore a stunning town that has been reclaimed by nature and is now a decaying ruin of what it once was. Wrap this in just the slightest hint of psychological horror and you have a gameplay experience that’s compelling from beginning to end. It’s also worth mentioning that the way violence is handled in this game is very visceral and designed to make you uncomfortable. I find this interesting, as it’s become commonplace for video games to be filled with ultraviolent moments and often we have become desensitized to them. But because the violence happens so infrequently in this game and is so graphic when it does occur, there was that much more of an impact and it left a lasting impression on me. In fact, there are a lot of elements from the narrative of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter that I’m still thinking about days after having completed it, and it’s making me want to go back for another run through.

Although this is a game that I found myself fully absorbed in for its entirety, there are two things that bugged me. First, despite the initial wow factor of the large environments that were begging to be explored, the world in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is much more static than I had hoped. The majority of what can be interacted with ties directly into progressing in the game, and while there are papers and stories that can be picked up and read I found myself wishing for just a few more things in the environment to interact with. Given the mystery angle, perhaps a few red herrings like in L.A. Noire to interact with and discover could have helped to alleviate this, as there ended up being too many buildings and other areas that simply felt like empty space. Additionally, towards the end of the game players are given a drawing that shows them all of the different things they should have done to trigger the ending sequence. If you haven’t found all of them it’s back to exploring, and the developers have added in a fast travel option. But the fact that the game explicitly tells you what’s required to see the ending feels contradictory to the rest of the experience, which encourages you to figure everything out for yourself. For me, it broke the immersion a bit right at the end, though thankfully this was the only time this happened.

What you’ve likely noticed if you’ve been following news of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is how good it looks. The Astronauts have used a photo scanning technique that allows them to get near photorealistic environments, though rather than simply using them as is they have added artistic effects to make the world a bit more stylized. It looks stunning, and I spent just as much time walking slowly to take in all of the sights and sounds as I did solving puzzles. When it comes to environments this may be one of the best looking games out there, and it’s well optimized to run on a decent range of computers. My rig’s about three years old at this point with a Radeon HD 6970 as the graphics card, and while the fan was going full blast during some sections the framerate was consistent and I didn’t notice any stuttering. Compared to the environments the character models don’t look quite as good, but given the supernatural tone I think it was an artistic decision to not have them be hyper realistic like the environments. I tend to be one of those people that doesn’t really care if games have the prettiest graphics, but have to admit that this is really one of the major selling points to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and it’s an impressive technical achievement for the studio.

Audio is available in either English or Polish, and while I played through the game in English for this review I’m interesting in doing a run through with the Polish voice actors to see if it gives the narrative a different feel. Dialogue is fairly spread out, and you’ll mainly hear it either from observations Paul Prospero or while reconstructing murder sequences. Voice acting from independent studios tends to be fairly hit or miss, but The Astronauts were able to cast some actors and actresses that were able to enhance the narrative, and the performance as a whole drew me into the experience. But it’s the background music that stands out more than the voice acting, as the soundtrack perfectly matches the overall feel of the game. The songs flow seamlessly and match the mood a particular scene is going for, and there were some beautifully haunting arrangements that enhanced the exploration of the environments. Sound can sometimes seem like one of those throwaway elements in games, but The Astronauts have really used it as a key element and it works to their advantage.

There is so much more I want to discuss about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but doing so would spoil the experience. Although I do feel it could have benefited from just a little bit more interactivity in the stunning locales, this game had me glued to my seat for the almost five hour run time and is one of the best things I’ve played in 2014. It’s a great example of how to hand complete control over to the player and let them figure things out for themselves, while also providing a compelling narrative that gives you that incentive to keep moving forward and discovering new things. Combine that with a stunning graphical engine that I hope will be used for even more ambitious projects down the road, and you have an impressive first showing from The Astronauts.

http://store.steampowered.com/app/258520/
http://ethancartergame.com/
http://www.gog.com/game/the_vanishing_of_ethan_carter
http://www.nordicgames.at/index.php/product/the_vanishing_of_ethan_carter
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on Green Man Gaming

 

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Verdict9.5

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