I’d like to preface this review by stating that I had to play The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on low (although not “lowest”) PC settings. I’m not divulging this out of some sort of “GamerGate” honesty drive, nor because I feel that such information is necessarily relevant in order to gain your “trust” as a reviewer – I’d like to think I’m experienced enough at this point to know when a game has issues and when my PC has issues. No, I’m informing you of this because Ethan Carter is absolutely stunning to behold, even when played on my handicapped rig. So gorgeous is it, that it’s the sort of game reviewers love to review purely because it means we can take tons of juicy screenshots and fuss over which ones are postcard-perfect enough to include in our review. That’s not to say that The Astronauts’ slow burning supernatural thriller is all style and no substance, quite the opposite in fact.
Ethan Carter comes from the decidedly modern breed of games known as “First Person Narrative Exploration Games”, or “Walking Simulators” if you’re an idiot. The quality of these games varies wildly, often because a lot of game designers know how to build a game, but not how to craft an engaging story that isn’t full of navel gazing and vague gibberish. Ethan Carter dodges this bullet immediately, by setting up an enigma that one can’t help but follow. Paul Prospero is a supernatural detective who, upon receiving strange letters from the titular Ethan Carter, decides to visit Red Creek Valley, and investigate the mysterious disappearances of Ethan and his family. This set up is interesting enough on its own, and is only enhanced by Tom Bissell’s tight script and the team’s expert blending of story and gameplay.
By examining crime scenes, Prospero uses his own supernatural “sixth sense” to commune with the dead and recreate the chronology of events that have taken place. These sections offer up a fantastic way to keep things interactive whilst slowly drip feeding exposition, all without the need for audio logs, omnipresent narration and/or heavy streams of text. This means that Ethan Carter‘s narrative flows naturally, and always has the player piecing together new titbits of information.
Outside of the game’s gripping central story, Ethan Carter also excels at giving the player subtle asides to character backgrounds and story elements unrelated to this central arc – something that worked wonders in Gone Home. In fact, the game shares an awful lot of positive similarities with Gone Home outside of sharing the same loose genre. What both games do so well is craft an engaging story filled with interesting characters, despite the fact that most of said characters have already “vanished”. To create such a mystifying narrative that revolves around a seemingly abandoned and lifeless setting is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s this use of negative space within a story that sets games like these apart from AAA narrative driven games.
In a sense, Ethan Carter actually suffers from over-ambition. Re-tracing the townspeople’s footsteps/murders isn’t the only thing Prospero does in the game; he must also complete other quasi-puzzles and tasks to further the game’s story. In theory, this is a great idea, since the pace of the story can be dictated by the player. In practice, however, things don’t always work out so well. While some puzzle sections are well landmarked and easy to spot, others are so off the beaten track that they can be frustrating to find. Similarly, whilst the tasks themselves become an absolute joy to complete half way through the game, they at first feel completely alien and detracted from any sense of the world “logic”. Also, an open, outdoor space does not lend itself to item finding in the way that Gone Home‘s cramped household did, which means finding the solution to a task can result in foraging through bushes for a while.
Once you reach the game’s final area, it becomes clear that there are distinct puzzle sections that you might have missed, and thankfully you can fast travel back to them in order to finish them off and reach the game’s climax. In this way, Ethan Carter oddly provides the player with too much agency over the story, because it can mean that the whole thing is completed in the wrong order, and with completely jagged pacing. I do understand that this type of ambiguous gameplay is ideal for some gamers, and if that’s the case, then Ethan Carter is a fine example of a game that will never hold your hand, even when you want it to.
There are also a few other minor issues regarding voice acting and character models. While said elements aren’t exactly bad, they pale in comparison to the sheer might of Ethan Carter‘s beautifully designed and rendered world. Red Creek Valley shines as one of the most gorgeous game locations in recent history; every house a creaking and mysterious hovel, every river a sparkling chute of glistening rocks and water. Accompanying such astounding visuals is an understated, but no less gorgeous soundtrack, one that perfectly reacts to the player’s location and the tone of each particular event being investigated. The entire of tone of the game’s look and sound is tinged with enough noire, sci-fi, fantasy and Americana to feel like a genuinely well thought out piece of visual fiction, rather than a cheap, nasty pastiche.
A few issues aside, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an ambitious and beautiful narrative driven game about the power of stories. Far from being filled with self-indulgent guff, Ethan Carter draws the player in with its intriguing tale of murder and monsters, and when one finally becomes as adept at solving mysteries as Mr Paul Prospero, the game becomes an absolute joy to play.