Ethan Carter is a young boy who’s seemingly aware of the supernatural. He’s a fan of paranormal detective Paul Prospero and so when he goes missing under strange circumstances, it’s up to Prospero to discover where Ethan is and what happened to him. Or so it would all seem.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, developed by The Astronauts and published by Nordic Games, is one of the most interesting narrative experiences of 2014 and certainly one of the most beautiful. The semi-open-world adventure title may be relatively small in its physical environments that players explore, but it packs a big punch in its mysteries for players willing to put forth the effort to solve them all.
The first-person game puts players in control of Prospero as he begins his journey in the abandoned, decrepit and lifeless township of Red Creek Valley, where generations of Ethan’s family resides. Players travel along a linear, but partly open path, discovering clues and crime scenes along the way. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter takes place in just a few acres of land, nearly all visible at a distance from the beginning, and its only characters are Ethan’s family. This experience is an intimate one, despite the vast and gorgeous landscapes in the background.
Finding clues is one thing, but piecing them together is another as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter employs dated and cumbersome mechanics for players to complete the game’s number of sequences. Some of the game’s 10 main scenes involve solving a murder and figuring out how that particular sequence played out chronologically, using detective Prospero’s ability to see the dead. Others involve simply finding something although at least in a few instances, the game doesn’t inform players that there’s even something to be found.
The design decisions built around players literally piecing together the game’s narrative helps enhance the sense of wonder and discovery, but can also deter players away during their first run through the story, to the point where they can lose interest in backtracking to discover more. Simply put, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has a difficult time balancing objectives and mysteries with its otherwise linear design.
A flawed checkpoint system that often pulls players too far back upon continuing a game instance and a one-way fast travel system near the game’s conclusion add an extra layer of unnecessary grief. It’s not uncommon to find clues to a murder scene, only to not complete it and return later to having to re-find the same evidence. It’s odd and emphasizes a slight lack of polish, that when coupled with the limited interactivity with the invisibly walled-off environments and a lack of a player model, makes it clear that from a technical standpoint there’s a lot of room for improvement in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
But the game isn’t about that. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter succeeds where a lot of similar game titles fail, in delivering an story-driven experience that’s at times is eerie and scary, and absolutely engaging and immersive. And while the game can be discouraging, once players wrap their head around the essential mechanics, going back through the key locations will make them much easier with the exceptions of two or three sequences which deviate from the standard clue-finding formula.
There’s a sense of urgency and delight that comes from completing everything the game has to offer, which overcomes the mediocre voice acting of the game’s cast. Uncovering the mysteries surrounding Ethan Carter’s family using the protagonist’s paranormal abilities is simply a rewarding experience and one that’s worth toughing it out. While it’s all too tempting at times, we encourage would-be players to avoid reading guides and walkthroughs online until they get to the end.
Play it all the way through and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter gives just enough to make what players see make sense, and help them go back to finish the overall story and pickup story elements that passed them by. There’s enough beautiful – and at times, outlandish – imagery and story to overcome the game’s problems so stick with it. By the end, the narrative wraps up beautifully.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a sometimes confusing, often grim, experience but one that encapsulates one of 2014’s best video game stories. And by the end, players will want to know what’s coming next from The Astronauts.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is currently available PC and release for PlayStation 4 in 2015.