The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an incredible atmospheric experience. The open-endedness, music and gorgeous environment create a sense of discomfort and unease that fit perfectly with its mysterious narrative. Many might say that it is more of a ‘Walking Simulator’, than a ‘proper’ game, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter very nicely fits into the “Games as Art” archetype, held back by only a few questionable choices.
The story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (hereafter abbreviated TVoEC), on the surface, is quite straightforward. You play as Paul Prospero, a Supernatual Private Investigator who has been contacted by Ethan Carter, a young boy who shares certain gifts with you. Prospero has the ability to sense the supernatural and the events around people’s deaths, which form the principle gameplay element ofTVoEC; piecing events surrounding murders back together. Of course, you can sense there is mystery at foot, and I won’t spoil anymore of the story here (though I will talk about the ending at the conclusion of this article).
The very first thing you see when starting up a new game of TVoEC is a stark black screen, onto which white letters appear promising you that the game will not be holding your hand. This is not an idile threat as the game is very open and offers very little direction to you. You are naturally lead along certain paths (a mark of good level design), but it is very easy to wander off in different directions.
The Astronauts have created one of the most immersive game worlds I’ve ever taken part in. Red Creek Valley, its train tracks, decrepit houses, and its graveyards all feel real: undeniably creepy and a little cliche, but real. The environments are gorgeous, and combined with a phenomenal musical score created by Mikolai Stroinski (an interview with MIkolai will be published tomorrow), TVoEC is a triumph of creating and sustaining an atmosphere. You’ll get to see a lot of Red Creek Valley in the game, since you’ll be walking…pretty much the entire time. Some people might balk at the slow pace, but in this type of exploratory narrative it is a good choice in design. Having to take in this environment, and think about the decaying town makes your imagination go to work. What caused this? Where are the people? What is going on? The human imagination is always going to creat creepier things for itself than any designer could, so relying on it is a good decision.
As mentioned, the main gameplay element is solving the ‘puzzles’ of different murders or… anomalies. It’s a core concept that is reused over and over throughout the game, but there is enough variety in setting and style that is keeps the mechanic fresh.
What I don’t think has worked is the fact that the puzzles are an all or nothing affair. You have to find all the pieces of each scene and put all of them in exactly the right place before you can move on to the next stage. Then, you’ll need to arrange the events that led up to the murder, accident, or other horrible event in the correct order before the puzzle can be officially deemed solved. Sometimes, you’ll find a murder weapon, and have to place back at its original location. In one instance it took 10 minutes to find out where a bloody rock went before being able to complete one of the first scenes, even though every other piece had been found and returned correctly.
This feels a little out of place in a game where you are playing a private investigator: murders are not clean cut, nice affairs and you don’t always get all the answers. Investigators are often forced to use their imagination to fill in the missing gaps or make deductions and educated guesses. It’s hard to understand why TVoEC would not have embraced this, and let you partially solve things without meeting 100% of prerequisite puzzles. Give us a benefit, or a bigger picture, for solving the entire thing, but if one puzzle is tripping me up, let me works with 80%.
This design decision is most evident in the mechanics of the ending of the game, though not the narrative.
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Essentially, at the end of TVoEC, you need to have completed the dozen or so episodes to fully understand Ethan’s situation and story to be able to release him from his state of imprisonment. This means that is you never completed that very first puzzle, you best start jogging.
It is the one game design decision I can not stand in TVoEC; it is jarring, it makes you back track and ruins the pacing of the story. It makes some sense from a narrative stand point, but end up coming across as a hhindranceand an annoyance.
Upon realizing that I did have to back track through the game, I put my controller down. That’s not a good thing for a game to make you do, however I endured. I completed everything, and went back to that little basta…I mean, poor tortured child; Ethan Carter.
I’ve read and heard others say that the ending of Ethan Carter is a cop-out, but I disagree. In the end, you find out the you, and everything you’ve experienced, are creations or reinterpretations of the truth via the mind of Ethan Carter. They are all meant to help him deal with an un-supportive family life, and possibly a Lovecraftian monster living under the town (I was a little unsure if this power, called The Sleeper, was Ethan’s creation, or was part of what gave Ethan his powers). You finishing the game by putting all of Ethan’s stories together, and by making it to him you end up being his own way of letting himself go.
Yes, you aren’t in control of things, Yes, you are an imaginary P.I. created by the mind of a child. Yes, this game ends in the death of that child.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good narrative. Everything lines up, and when you look at the entire picture, why wouldn’t Ethan imagine his own savior?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may have some major faults which have a severe impact on its pacing, but these can be excused if what you are looking for is an atmospheric experience. There have been few better combination of gorgeous visuals, haunting musical scores, and the threat of the unknown. Don’t play The Vanishing of Ethan Carter if you are looking for explosions, gun fights, or anything fast-paced. TVoEC is a slow, building experience, where the confusion and curiosity build with every step you take.