The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the first video game from indie developer “The Astronauts”, a small studio created by the three founders of “People Can Fly”, Andrzej Poznanski, Adrian Chmielarz and Michal Kosieradzki. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first person mystery game about a supernatural detective named Paul Prospero who sets about locating a missing boy/the titular character. While controlling Paul, the player follows along a trail of clues while utilizing his supernatural abilities to track down Ethan while unravelling whatever mystery has been set upon the in-game world while the game incorporates elements of popular weird fiction and noir stories over the course of the game’s 3 hour journey.
Let me say, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is visually stunning and steals your breath away within the first few steps inside the game’s world. It’s immersive, smooth, meticulously detailed and absolutely gorgeous. The use of lighting within the environments is remarkably well done and the game never misses a beat when it comes to captivating the player’s attention. The fact that the game does not require the player to shoot their way through while solving puzzles only adds to the game’s various atmospheres as very few things are as intimidating in games as exploring a dimly lit corridor inside a mine without the security of some kind of weapon. Regardless of whether or not an enemy is present, the construction of each scene and how it interacts with different sounds or lighting conditions is quite frankly the strongest point of this game.
However, I wish I could be just as positive of the story as I am towards the visual environments. As other reviews of the title have pointed out (most notably Kotaku) this game gives the player a disclaimer, reading “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand” and it is quite literal when it tells the player that. I found myself having traversed at least half the map before I had a good handle on how I was supposed to go about solving the mysteries contained within each scene, some of which are more obvious and simple than others but not always immediately apparent. The method of gameplay progression is something that needed to be made the slightest bit clearer early on before leaving the player in the woods. Literally.
In such an open environment it’s also quite easy to miss some of these scenes entirely and the execution of some of these mysteries can feel somewhat clunky.
The murder mysteries seemed simple enough, tracking down murder weapons and creating a timeline of events is a task that is almost instinctual for anyone who has had the chance to sit through an episode of at least one of the never-ending forensic crime shows that bombard our television screens these days. Although the visualization of these crimes, after a chronology has been successfully constructed, feels pretty jarring to bear witness to. The characters would jump around to different areas of the local environment and it would break cohesive structure of the events. It was a good opportunity to capitalize on what could have been an immersive, cinematic experience which would have accented the game’s environments, narrative tones and themes perfectly but instead we get these clunky fragments that show us a series of events in a way not befitting the rest of the game. It feels like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is making sure you properly explore every nook and cranny of the map instead of trusting you to do that for yourself. It’s something that definitely plays to the detriment of the game.
The player involvement in relation to the story is also left to be desired, while the game is not inherently Paul’s story but that of Ethan’s, his impact on the unfolding events ceases after his opening monologue stating his intent upon arrival. (spoiler) A lot of people, including The Astronaut’s own Adrian Chmielarz, have written about the game’s ending and have discussed problems they’ve found with it, only I don’t think there’s any real problem with the ending at all. The conclusion is fine, it fits the tone and themes of the story just fine – it’s even foreshadowed early on if you look closely enough.
The problem is that the overall story of Ethan Carter has moments where it reaches the verge of becoming both equally creative as well as immersive as the environments, only to pull back in order to make sure Prospero stays an observer. Paul Prospero has nothing to lose because there’s no personal involvement; there are no consequences for his snooping around and no threats looming around the corner. It basically renders the main story as being entirely optional and turns the game into a nice Sunday stroll with a few bodies that just happen to be littered around.
That said, I don’t hate The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, in fact, there are so many things that I absolutely adore about. I was always eager to explore the game world and I especially loved the developer’s nod to the Cthulhu Mythos while reading Ethan’s short stories but it’s not enough to detract from the key issues surrounding The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The main characters all seem one-dimensional, the main story doesn’t have enough of an impact on the main player and vice versa. The story comes so close to being strong but sacrifices itself for the impartial existence of the protagonist, however everything outside of that; the environments, the short stories, and the exploration made for an experience that I would highly recommend.
- Have I mentioned the beautiful environments?
- Seriously, look at those screen caps.
- I’m not sure how many more times I can use the term “immersive” to describe this game
- A fun homage to Weird and Noir Fiction
- Weak story structure
- Somewhat clunky gameplay mechanics