If nothing else, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an art-piece come to life, encouraging you to take an endless amount of screenshots to capture the beauty laid out before you. But that’s not all there is to it, there are stories to be told, murders to investigate, and a boy to be found. This is one of the best fully-realized game locations in recent memory. So that is appropriate that by game’s end, one way or another, you won’t forget it any time soon.
An early disclaimer from developer, The Astronauts, is displayed just before you set foot in the game world, claiming that it “doesn’t hold your hand”. A bold statement, but it sets the tone, and discoveries are to be made by you, and you alone. There’s no minimap, waypoint objective, or breadcrumbs to guide you. It’s all about using your eyes and wits to find what’s going on around here.
The town of Red Creek Valley is essentially Anyplace, U.S.A. There’s no distinct landmarks or attributes that place it anywhere specific. So your time here feels familiar and yet at the same time something unknown for you to explore. This town is full of dilapidated buildings and structures. It’s any wonder anyone still lives here. This grim, dark beauty of a town is one that you can’t stop gawking at. The town is also completely open to explore at your leisure. There’s no gated progress. Any investigation you conduct can be abandoned and you can move on to any location that you desire.
You play as detective Paul Prospero, who came here because a boy named Ethan Carter wrote a letter asking for his help. Upon your arrival, it is clear something sinister has come over this town, and Ethan is no where to be found. But the artifacts left behind carry stories that will reveal clues to his whereabouts. After a short walk, you happen upon first of many gruesome scenes: blood spatter, a body torn in twain, and… a rope? While optional, you’re compelled to learn more about what happened here, hoping that it gives insight about Ethan and his family. Paul’s supernatural abilities give him this insight, which is why Ethan requested his presence.
You’ll click on objects of interest that reveal what might have happened in the form of words that materialize and then coalesce into a singular thought. Clicking that thought will open up a portal that hints to where a missing item might be. This is where you’re able to employ your own thought processes to find it on your own. Paul lacks a proper inventory, but as he investigates surroundings, he’ll read notes, collect items, and will automatically place those items where they originally sat. Touching the body of the deceased also opens a portal, and when all clues are found, the portal then engulfs your screen. And now you begin to form the chronology of events that caused this crime – which is never a difficult task. Put them in the right order, and you’ll be taken back to see the entire thing unfold.
Towards the later parts of the game, I found myself beginning to run rather than walk. I felt a sense of urgency as the ending drew near. It didn’t make sense that my character would walk at this point. I pushed on and reached what I thought was the conclusion.
But then the story derailed. I had reached the end, but the game had now grabbed my hand, (which it said it would not do), and began guiding me to what it wanted me to do to finish the story. It turns out that my wandering had led me astray. I had inadvertently skipped some things that I was completely unaware of, some of them being off the beaten path. It turns out, the murder scenes don’t have to be solved at all, but what the game wanted me to resolve wasn’t clear in explaining either. One thing was for sure: I had to backtrack. The sense of urgency was gone. I was now being penalized for not doing something I wasn’t aware I had to do. This is the most “videogamey” part of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
A late game investigation (one of those that I had missed), goes for a drastic shift in tone and style by delivering a jump scare, and a completely different way to play. I had spent three hours in the game at this point, and nothing remotely close to this has happened before. I haven’t even seen another corporeal being before this moment. The town created its own form off terror by keeping you in isolation from everyone and everything, making you a passive character in all of this. I didn’t need to be hiding from a wandering creature who is able to kill me.
It doesn’t help that the game has a confusing auto-save system too. It never tells how or when it saves. So it’s a gamble if you need to stop playing for whatever reason. In my experience, I had been in the middle of investigation, turned off the game, and when I returned – it was all reset. I didn’t lose much progress, but I don’t see why I could have manually saved so I could pick up exactly where I left off.
I can’t say that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t come recommended, it very much does. There’s a great collection of stories worth hearing, some fun detective work, and gorgeous vistas to take in. I’d temper your expectations that I may have set, as my frustrations and issues I had may not come to pass for you. The game starts off so strong, but unfortunately collapses under the weight of its own freedom. But it does manage to come together in the end for one of my favorite endings in a long time.
A Steam code was provided by PR for review purposes