The Vanishing of Ethan Carter puts you in the shoes of seasoned occult detective Paul Prospero. Prospero has gained notoriety for solving cases that defy rational explanation with the aid of otherworldly abilities, principally the ability to relive the memories of others. Although there are scant details as to how he has found himself on his current investigation, Prospero has come to Red Creek Falls in search of answers about a boy named Ethan Carter. Red Creek Falls appears to have been a once prosperous town that has since come upon hard times. It has been cut off from the outside world with its main train line having fallen into ruin. As Prospero, you will investigate the town that has been all but abandoned, piecing together clues as to what occurred and reliving the memories of those passed.
You will immediately be struck by how good this game looks and sounds, and this is integral to the game’s appeal. The town itself it set in a wooded valley and as you wander the vast expanses you will see an astonishing level of detail that is heightened by superb sound design. I would stop to watch the grass swaying as a gentle breeze blew through the trees that creak softly overhead as the river babbles below. A minimalist, haunting score punctuates your lonely journey; there is a palpable sense of isolation and dread that hides just behind a veil of serenity. The beauty of your natural surroundings are juxtaposed with the ugliness of the humans that once inhabited Red Creek Falls, and a sense of foreboding and unease permeates the landscape.
The story here is excellent and well-told through both the physical setting and the various scenes you investigate. It is certainly not a conventional tale, but is creative, immersive and thought-provoking. The game does not hold your hand at any point (it even warns you of this at the start), but rather allows itself to be discovered. This mostly works in the game’s favour, allowing an air of mystery that drives the player’s thirst to know more and to pry deeper into the happenings at Red Creek Falls. The game generally does a good job of leaving a trail of bread crumbs for you to follow, keeping you guessing as the mystery unravels but giving you enough to go on such that the next course of action can usually be determined. This mostly extends to the various puzzles you encounter throughout your investigation as well. Each of these has a consistent logic that can be learned from the game world, and are not too obtuse as to be frustrating, but still clever enough that some thought is required.
Although I praise the game’s willingness to let the player figure things out for themselves, I do take issue with some of the gameplay design in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I found one mechanic in particular to be quite obscure, and I think the game would have benefited from giving the player better clues in this regard. If you don’t want to know this mechanic and prefer to discover it for yourself (as the game intends), skip to the next paragraph, although I think it adds nothing to the enjoyment of the game figuring it out on your own. An integral mechanic involves investigating objects which in some cases will cause words to float in front of your face. You then have to move the camera to align these words which will then show you where the thing of interest is to be found. I wasted a lot of time initially trying to find things I knew I needed, which was essentially like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Pathfinding is also an issue at times as the world is quite vast and you are always on foot. Even if you know where you have to go, it is not always straightforward finding it. If you don’t know where to go, you will wander aimlessly around the countryside waiting for something to trigger. I was reminded of the recent playable trailer (PT) for Silent Hill at times, which I despised with a burning passion. While the Vanishing of Ethan Carter never truly stumbled into the pit of frustrating randomness as in PT, it certainly stared over the edge of that precipice from time to time. To the game’s credit however, it does give you all the tools required to solve its mysteries, and for the most part simply being observant will get you out of trouble.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a great game that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone. At the moment it is available on Steam however there is a PS4 release rumoured for June. It weaves an original and interesting tale about isolation, imagination and the occasional ugliness of humanity. The game allows for the player to develop their own interpretation as to what the events mean and after the credits roll you’ll probably want to go for a walk to fully process it all. Games like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter are incredibly important for videogame culture and the advancement of compelling storytelling in games. It is proof that a good game holds as much worth as a good book or film, and that great stories are able to be told and in many ways enhanced through the unique participatory nature of our medium.
Reviewed on PC