Version Tested: PS4
Available On: Steam, PS4
Developer: The Astronauts
Publishers: The Astronauts
Genre: Walking Simulator/Narrative Adventure Game
Official Site: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Official Site
Release Date: September 26th, 2014 (Windows), July 15th, 2015 (PS4), September 12th, 2015 (Redux Version/Windows)
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the sort of thing that among certain circles might not be described as a video game. It is a brief, surreal, and lonely tale with a heavy focus on storytelling and questioning. I feel that it, and games like it, deserve to be called games, but that is another topic on which an entire article could be published.
Suffice it to say that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter falls into the category of games recently being called walking simulators. Many people use this term as a derogatory title, but, at least in the case of this game, it is an accurate one. You play as paranormal detective Paul Prospero. After receiving a series of letters from young Ethan Carter, which eventually turn dark in nature, Prospero heads to Ethan’s village, to discover what has been going on there and attempt to rescue Ethan, before it’s too late.
In exploring this village and its outlying regions you will do a lot of walking, but it is walking with a purpose. In order to not only find Ethan, but in order to find out what has been going on in this village you will have to follow clues, and you will have to solve crimes. In addition to being a handy observer, Prospero has something else going for him, an additional tool for coaxing out the mysteries of the town. He has the paranormal ability to look into the past, to communicate with it. So once you manage to piece together all the various clues of a crime scene, you can then interact with the environment, allowing you to slip back through a paranormal portal to an earlier and in-between time. From here you are able to piece together the chronology of events and then watch as the fruits of your sleuthing labors unfold before you. This is how you experience almost the entire story, by first finding the scene of some incident, piecing together what occurred, and then ripping a hole through reality to view it as it more or less happened.
From the beginning of the game to its final scene, there is a lot of in-between time, periods where you will be doing not much but trekking from one event to another. In such moments, you have time to reflect upon what you have witnessed, time in which to consider just what exactly has happened here, to this town, and to these people. As you walk through a forest, field, and dilapidated structures, the atmosphere of the game builds as the eerie music ebbs and flows around you like wind through the trees in this cold and glowing countryside. In giving the player this breathing room, this downtime in between peak story moments and puzzles the developers clearly demonstrate that they are aware of their strong suits.
This is where the game shows how truly beautiful it can be, and in more than just a visual way (although the game is very pretty, especially the landscape views). Towards the end, continued walking can start to get a little samey but by actively building the game to incorporate such slow periods the developers are encouraging questioning of both the game and its story. This resonates heavily with the themes present in the game’s narrative.
It is at this point I start to run into some issues in attempting to review The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. This game is relatively short (a typical playthrough will be somewhere around 5-7 hours in length) and because it is so heavily dependent on its narrative to remain interesting I feel that if I tell you much more than I already have put into this review, I will begin spoiling the experience for you. What I can disclose is this game tends to build its narrative in multiple ways, many of which are often subtle and restrained. The mood and atmosphere are set up to do just as much work, as meaningful storytelling devices, as the parts that appear more obvious. A general feeling of melancholy is evoked as you wander the countryside, intermingled with occasional tangents of paranoia, awe, wonder, and fear.
To give you an example: any time I would find myself right next to a major body of water I would take a moment to look around. As I looked around, everything was usually very still and silent, everything except for the squelching of the water against the stony shoreline. As I took my little breather, I would inevitably feel a rise in the hair on my neck, and I would begin to feel that instinct common to all animals; dread. Everything was so quiet. Was I being watched? Was that really just the sound of the water moving among the shallows, or was that squelching of some horrible unknown thing rising from the depths? I would quickly turn my in-game avatar around, have him look each way, and then quickly leave. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter can bring up powerful emotions in you quickly, simply, and without much warning. So while I can’t tell you much else about what actually happens in the game I can and will leave you with some tantalizing tidbits about it. The story of this game could be described as a murder mystery, a paranormal drama, a meditation on the nature of reality, and a Lovecraftian novella in video game form.
I have one complaint about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter that comes from much of the game’s marketing material and online descriptions. They all say that this game has an open world. It has nothing of the sort. The only way this game could be more linear is if it all took place in one long corridor. There are a few separate paths you can take, but everything leads from the point where you start the game to the point at which you finish it. There are several events that take place in the game that you could potentially miss if you do not explore beyond the most obvious paths (And make sure you do check off the main trails. My favorite moments from this game were the ones that I could have missed.) but that does not make this an open-world game. That term means something very specific when it comes to video game culture, especially since the whole open world and sandbox style of game has become so extremely popular in the past few years. Honestly, I question the necessity to mislabel the game as open world as it does not detract from the experience in the slightest.
In short, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a small, interesting little game that presents a curious and sad story. This game will definitely not appeal to everyone. To a few, it might overstay its welcome, but for those who find themselves intrigued by this sullen mystery in this lonely, lifeless land they will find a tale that is well worth their time.
- Gameplay: Walking, solving minor puzzles, clue finding. Slow but appropriate.
- Graphics: Very pretty, nice visual effects and impressive landscapes.
- Sound: The sound design does a good job of making you feel both watched and alone. The music is very well made as well.
- Presentation: Everything fits together into an intriguing mystery story. It is a pleasure learning what is truly going on.
- Unique and restrained multi-layered story touching on many dark, sad, and lonely topics.
- Great moody atmosphere.
- Impressive graphics.
- Solid music and sound design.
- The gameplay might be a little simple, slow, and non-interactive for the action-minded.
- If you come in believing that this game is open world like some places have stated you will be sorely disappointed.
Trent Katzenberger is a writer, youtuber, gamer, nerd, and just all around a strange sort of guy. He loves trying new stuff and creating odd things.