What are stories? Conventional wisdom will tell you that stories are something along the lines of people describing a series of events with beginnings, middles, and endings. Usually, they tend to be interesting and sometimes they’re even factual. In fact, if we really want to boil stories down to their basics, they’re just the relation of events, real or imagined, to another person. It is one of the fundamental ways in which we communicate with one another. Though everyone tells stories, some people find it to be a necessity. For those individuals, writing novels, directing movies, developing games, become compulsions. Stephen King probably hasn’t written 85 novels, novellas, non-fiction books, short stories, and assorted other works just for the mountains of money (though I’m sure that didn’t hurt his productivity). I’d hazard a guess that he feels a need to write that can’t be satisfied. Maybe I’m going a bit too far out on a limb to guess at what motivates King’s prolific writing, but I know that I write short stories to clearly articulate ideas I have trouble sharing in casual conversation. That’s part of the reason why I write for a living, too.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was reviewed on PC.
Maybe it is that background that helped me latch onto The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. In many ways, Ethan Carter is about stories and why we use them to make sense of the world around us. In a much more obvious way, Ethan Carter is a young boy who has gone missing. Before he went missing, Ethan was writing to the detective Paul Prospero who decides to investigate the strange circumstances around the boy’s disappearance. As the game begins, Paul arrives in Red Creek Valley with a mind to solve the mystery of the missing child. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more going on in Red Creek Valley than a simple kidnapping or runaway when players discover the severed legs and body of a murdered man. Things only seem to grow stranger from there, though I won’t go into more detail in an effort to preserve the mystery of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
Paul Prospero has a keen eye for crime solving, aided in part by an affinity for the supernatural. Examining evidence and reconstructing crime scenes allows the detective to visualize the events leading up to the murder and provides hints as to where the next piece in the puzzle might be. This element could have been very gimmicky, and in a way it is, but it worked in making me feel like an investigator. It helped me buy into the mystery. I think that’s the most important part of enjoying and understanding Ethan Carter; you need to be able to accept the central mystery and ponder over the bizarre set of clues that are scattered throughout the beautiful scenic landscape of Red Creek Valley.
The Vanishing of Ethan carter is a deliberately slow burn. The walking speed is realistically sluggish, though there is a button that allows for sprinting for players that are in a hurry. The pace invites those with more patience to observe the effort that indie studio The Astronauts put in to make the environment come alive. Birds send lonely, mournful cries across the wide waters of Red Creek, ringing out against a backdrop of trees that have shifted colors in preparation for winter. The audio and visuals complement each other perfectly and can change on a dime if the situation calls for it.
As players progress, it becomes very clear just how wide of a range The Astronauts have in terms of the kinds of games they could deliver in the future. Beyond superficial qualities like the way everything appears and sounds, the level design on display is also of a very high caliber. Though Ethan Carter is in reality rather constrained and linear, it rarely feel that way. A thick illusion of openness pervades the experience. Environments are cleverly designed to draw players toward their next objective in a number of subtle ways. Sometimes a unique tree will draw you down to the left or an unusual building will compel you to abandon the train tracks that you’ve been following. At several points I found myself thinking that there were entire unexplored areas, until I deliberately backtracked to satisfy my curiosity and found that they contained nothing but more wilderness. The slow pace of Ethan Carter also allows players time to consider the implications of the various situations they come across. Are they real? Is something beyond mortal experience casting a malevolent shadow over Red Creek Valley? What does it all mean, both in the context of the game and as an outsider looking to take meaning from it? While some of these questions are resolved by the time the credits roll, others are not and those are the ones we need to answer for ourselves.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter resembles games like The Stanley Parable or Gone Home that present an environment for players to explore and investigate. The core mechanical difference between the three is that Ethan Carter contains a number of simple puzzles and murders that require some thought and interaction. Some of you might remember that last year I wrote about my experience with Gone Home. While I applauded that it was trying something unique in the gaming space, it ultimately failed to resonate with me, despite the amount of effort that The Fullbright Company put into crafting the experience. It fell short because the solution to Gone Home’s mystery seemed obvious and the story one that, while not common in games, didn’t strike me as particularly compelling.
I feel the opposite about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. It is a layered tale full of unexpected twists, wonder, suspense, and horror. When I finished I had to pace around the room thinking about what had happened for a good twenty minutes. For me, the experience rang true and I felt the payoff of having heavily invested myself into a narrative that had decided to end in a bold fashion. Without spoilers, it takes real creative guts to end a video game the way The Astronauts chose to bring Ethan Carter to a conclusion. Will there be people who respond to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter the same way that I felt about Gone Home? Absolutely. Like Gone Home before it, Ethan Carter stands almost entirely upon the strength of its narrative and will illicit different subjective reactions from players. As for me, I thought The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was some of the finest storytelling in video games.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a must play for anyone who fancies themselves interested in video games as an artistic medium for stories. A rich, finely crafted environment awaits, full of surprises and riddles waiting to be solved. Players looking for action or mindless fun should seek out other games. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could be called many things, but I don’t know that I could label it as a “fun” experience. It is enjoyable, certainly, but not fun in the traditional sense that many associate with video games. I don’t know that I’ll be playing it again in the near future, but I do know that I won’t be forgetting my time in Red Creek Valley anytime soon.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is currently available on PC and will be coming to PlayStation 4 sometime in 2015.