The first thing you see upon starting The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a quote: “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” It’s a bold, self-confident statement, and it’s emblematic of the game itself; there’s a refreshing degree of trust given to the player in Ethan Carter, especially compared to many other adventure games of the modern age. The decision also manages to avoid unnecessary frustration due to Ethan Carter‘s relatively limited interactivity. It also serves as a bit of a snobbish remark, one of the few indications The Astronauts give that links them to their past work at People Can Fly (a studio known for it’s gonzo, high-intensity shooters Painkiller and Bulletstorm). The quote is an almost comical juxtaposition of “hardcore-gamer” sensibilities, for a game that shares a lot in common with so-called walking simulators, but Ethan Carter proves itself with its extremely effective use of world-building.
You play as Paul Prospero, a detective that deals with quite a lot cases of the supernatural sort. Prospero talks in some brief narration at the start of the game about how he received a letter from Ethan Carter, a boy no older than twelve, detailing some unsavory events at his home. It doesn’t take long for you to confirm his story: there are a number of crime scenes to examine throughout the eerily quiet mountain town. These scenes typically follow the same premise: reconstruct the area’s shifted evidence and then figure out a timeline of events. It’s a fairly simple task, but Ethan Carter makes the whole process more mechanically interesting. For instance, looking at a suspicious object will prompt a set of questions to swirl around it (as a representation of Prospero’s musings), occasionally pointing you in the direction of a missing item if necessary. Reconstructing timelines are also done smartly, having the player “tag” the order of a certain scene represented within the environment; upon succeeding, the full set of cutscenes play out in the proper order.
It’s perhaps a slight premise to build a game around, but it ends up succeeding due to just how engrossing the world of Ethan Carter is. On a purely aesthetic level, Ethan Carter routinely stuns through its melding of rustic architecture and gorgeous scenery. It may just have the best-looking forests in a game, with a combination of sharp textures, beautiful lighting and fuzzy particle effects providing an almost dreamlike, storybook quality. Despite this, the forests of Ethan Carter can’t help but feel eerie when placed against the rust of its man-made structures, decaying due to the desertion of all human life in the area. It’s evocative stuff, and it’s paired especially well with the quiet ambiance of the soundtrack.
The whole setting creates a mildly-unsettling atmosphere that makes the mere act of taking in the sights pretty enjoyable. The world of Ethan Carter has several notably different areas, but its world flows together so well that everything feels terrifically well-linked together. And it’s not like there’s nothing else within Ethan Carter‘s world to find; there are a handful of puzzles hidden in the environments that are oftentimes clever and rewarding. They also offer up the majority of the scant plot information, giving a lot of important background to the proceedings. The writing is at it’s best here, with the in-game text playing off the puzzles in an interesting way. They’re also conceptually varied: one might emphasize Ethan Carter‘s supernatural elements in an interesting spin on a memory game, while another might push its disquieting atmosphere into outright horror.
What may be The Astronauts strongest move in Ethan Carter is the decision to relegate as much of the storytelling as possible to suggestion through the environment. The dialogue of Ethan Carter, while fine, isn’t really up to snuff with the rest of the game. It relies too much on a premise that leans heavily on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the like without really feeling distinctive. Fortunately, the climax of the game provides a pretty smart re-contextualization for every event prior that manages to be surprising and smartly foreshadowed, and provides some arguable justification for quibbles with the writing.
It’s a testament to the overall quality of Ethan Carter that my main issue with it was mostly unintentional: this is a buggy, buggy game. Over the course of its short three hours I was forced to restart the game three separate times, not to mention semi-frequent graphical glitches. This wouldn’t be more than a minor issue if it meant only sacrificing a few seconds of my time, but Ethan Carter curiously decided to leave out a manual save feature, forcing me to replay minutes of progress fairly frequently. It’s frustrating for a game so focused on immersion and atmosphere to have such a lack of stability.
Fortunately, this doesn’t harm the strength of the experience too much. Ethan Carter manages to convey a lot through its hands-off approach, particularly in its depiction of a ransacked mountain settlement. Ethan Carter is a unique achievement, as nostalgic as it is forward-thinking.