The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is another one of those games that plonks you down in the middle of a beautiful landscape and just lets you sort of get on with things. Of course, in this game those "things" involve dealing with the scribblings of an imaginative young chap -- the titular Ethan Carter -- and puzzling out a chain of murders and odd happenings that start as soon as you start wandering about the place.
I don't really want to go into any story details at all, such would be the danger to disrupting one's initial experiences of the game, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game that's really all about stories. The game begins with a disclaimer warning the player that this will not be a game that holds one's hand, and it's an apt observation. At first I'd worried that framing the game so might have an adverse effect on me, but that certainly wasn't the case.
Things take a rapid turn for the dark and macabre. Although you're pretty much free to wander wherever and deal with things in any order you like, the game's opening scenes are designed to intrigue, and there's nothing quite like a pair of bloodied, severed legs on an abandoned railway to do just that.
Certain objects and scenes require further examination, occasionally missing pieces of evidence may need to be retrieved and put back in the places where they're supposed to be. You find yourself stepping into the shoes of paranormal detective Paul Prospero, whose ability to sense things that are out of place helps the scavenger hunt for the weird and creepy somewhat. Prospero's internal monologue floats up onto the screen in fits and spurts when you interact with potential clues, the shorthand of his deductive reasoning appearing in Sherlockian fashion.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is not really an investigative game in the same way last month's adventure starring Baker Street's finest might be considered to be. Instead, The Astronauts have opted for something a little more exploratory. As much as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is about the plight of a young boy obsessed with creating his own stories, it's also about players fashioning their own in a beautiful, if lonely, landscape steeped in grim, mysterious history.
Where this game succeeds where others might have failed, though, is in creating a world that begs to be inhabited and scrutinised. I wanted to fire up the game just to spend more time in its world. Anyone who's ever been to Scotland -- specifically somewhere like Skye -- will understand that sometimes you come across vistas that just make you stop and stare, the crisp waters of a loch framed perfectly by rocky peaks and rolling hills, perhaps. There are plenty of moments like that in this game. Red Creek Valley is rife with a quiet beauty -- the natural magnificence of a location where you are the only person for miles around. It makes for a game that's steeped in loneliness, a feeling that's only magnified by the nature of your investigation -- following in the footsteps of others, piecing together events from the scraps others have left behind.
It's a game that allows great space for contemplation -- of the story, of the world, of the messed up things that we're capable of doing to one another, of families, of being a little bit weird. That last one is key -- something that unfolds only as you begin to realise what is at work. Ethan Carter is a figure with whom it's easy to identify, particularly if you are/were someone with an incredibly active imagination; one that others might not always fully understand or appreciate.
The trouble is, that is leaving much of the heavy lifting to the player in terms of exploration and discovery, the narrative runs the risk of failing to have much of an impact on a beat-to-beat basis. The twists and turns are not framed particularly well, nor do they carry much weight when they arrive. Worse still, there comes a point when the game reveals a narrative map of sorts, shows the cogs behind the curtain, and then demands that you finish off every last investigation before you're allowed an ending. It's perfectly possible to miss things and skip over scenes you don't quite fully understand, but ultimately the game will send you back to those places even when you've reached the final area. There's also a climactic action sequence involving undead spectres that can kill you, and a huge Lovecraftian twist that can be accessed completely out of sync with the rest of the story. The gauntlet of death is frankly annoying rather than chilling, it feels like a section put in just to appease a checklist of sorts.
It also annoys me that for a game all about exploration, there are invisible walls everywhere. To increase frustration, the walls themselves are inconsistent -- there are places in the forest that look like they should be accessible even without a jump option, but they're not. Similarly, some banks you can run down, others see you smashing into invisible barricades. It makes sense to not be able to get past massive rocks, but invisible boundaries just ruin the sense of immersion that the games tries so hard to achieve (and succeeds in doing so) in other areas.
That all said, I really enjoyed this game. For every negative I have about the way the narrative is handled, the lack of hand-holding is refreshing and rewarding for the most part. The mood becomes genuinely unsettling the deeper down this rabbit hole we go, and Prospero's investigation is truly compelling. The ending spoke to me on a personal level too, as I imagine it would with many a creative person. I'd never have pegged the folks behind Bulletstorm to craft something like this, but it's brilliant and subtle and imaginative and thoughtful.
- Wonderfully detailed world to explore and experience
- Lack of hand-holding means we get to tease the story out for ourselves
- The ending and the realisation that comes with it is beautiful
- Superb, understated, well-written narrative
- Incredibly atmospheric
- The illusion of freedom is clumsily smashed towards the end
- Autosave system is tethered to linear chapter completion
- Instead of adjusting the finale to match open-ended success and failure, the game demands you backtrack and do everything
- The mine maze is rather frustrating and feels anathema to the rest of the game
The Short Version: I'd never have pegged the folks behind Bulletstorm to craft something like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but I'm very glad that they did. It has a few niggling issues, but ultimately this is a brilliantly subtle, imaginative and thoughtful game.
Developers: The Astronauts