IF YOU HAVEN’T FINISHED THE GAME THEN
INSTEAD OF READING THIS ANALYSIS JUST GO TO THE REVIEW I MADE:
THE VANISHING OF ETHAN CARTER REVIEW
Trust me, unless you’ve actually played through it completely then the below theories won’t just be spoilers, it will be boring since you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about!
Let’s jump right to the end. Or to the beginning? One thing that I found strange at the time of playing this game was the focus on the time of the clock when Ethan was seemingly suffocating at the very end. I did a bit of research online to see if anyone else had found this strange and I discovered a forum post on the subject. It pointed out that all the clocks throughout the game had two different times. On one side it was 7:00 and the other side was 7:04. The first clock you see at the train station and another clock in the pumping station. They both read the same times. Finally in the last cut scene when Ethan lays down in the bed after the house starts on fire the clock reads 7:00. After they show the father and mother trying to get buckets of water to put the fire out they show Ethan one last time. The clock then reads 7:04. I think this is intended to indicate how long it took for Ethan to inevitably suffocate from smoke inhalation.
There are clues like this scattered all through the game. Looking closer at Paul Prospero’s name we can see references to literature such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Masque of the Red Death about man’s futile attempts to stave off death. The ending of this game could be interpreted in many ways I think. This said I can reveal straight away that I am of the belief that Ethan does die and the camera flying away at the end of the last cut scene is meant to represent his soul. I will elaborate more on this later.
My interpretations of Ethan’s stories:
This story is revealed in the forest outside the tunnel where the game starts. When we find all the traps the world switches into a grey dreamworld. The ground is covered with skulls and bones here. Next to a tree we find a story written by Ethan to his granddad. It’s about an old man who drinks sap alone. One cool fall night someone sets fire to the forest and the man escapes it by “covering himself in sap”, but the fire spreads to the village. “When he returns to the village” the story continues, “he found all of the villagers’ bones. The old man sat down and cried. Then he found more sap to drink”. A voice over is then heard.
“Ethan, I told you – – you can’t be here!”
“But Gramp – – I wrote something for you.”
“That’s real nice. Thank you. Just leave it. I’ll read it later.”
The world switches back to reality and we can see that this specific part of the forest is littered not with bones but with bottles. The interpretation here is fairly straight forward when we then find a half burnt piece of a newspaper article describing a fire that caused a home to burn down. In the fire Gayle Carter died. Gayle’s husband Edwin Carter told the investigators that he fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand and that was what caused the fire yet according to Ethan’s story his granddad Edwin was in the forest at the time. Either way Ethan’s story now seems to be about his granddad who was an alcoholic and who drank in secret. The place in the forest seems to have been his drinking spot that Ethan had found. The various shifts between dreamworld and reality where we see both bones and empty bottles littering the ground seem to represent Edwin’s drinking problem and his guilt over the death of his wife.
We discover this story in the very strange and surreal space ship sequence of the game. It’s a story about a fanged beast chasing after lights in the forest. In many ways I think this is the strangest of the stories. After finding the note we hear another voice over, a conversation between Ethan and his brother Travis.
“Get out of my room Travis!”
“Stories, stories. Always with the stories.”
“I read the ‘Fangs’ one. I liked the beast. At least he gets to leave this goddamn place.”
We then get back to reality and find a old worn out, vandalised magazine. One way to look at this is seeing Ethan’s brother as the beast with the fangs chasing the light. It’s the most obvious interpretation. While Ethan is daydreaming about escaping this world into space Travis comes to tease his brother. Another way to see it is that the “chasing of the light” is a reference to Ethan himself. Which would make Ethan the monster. In the story the beast with the fangs is not portrayed in a way that makes him seem like a bully, he is actually the one being intimidated by the trees and the lights. Is it representation of Ethan dying? Possibly. I haven’t been able to figure this one out fully. If anyone out there is actually reading this and has any ideas, do tell me! Especially the last sentence of this story makes me think that I probably have no idea what these “fangs” are really supposed to be and what this story is truly about. It reads: “As the ground disappeared, the beast realised it would never use it’s fangs again.”
Untitled story – Carter house
This story can be found in the house with the interior puzzle. Here we find a secret alchemy lab and a short tale without a title written by Ethan. It’s about a magician who made potions that let him see the future. Villagers wanted the potion so they could see the future too, but the magician said no. The people burnt the magician’s house down. The magician escaped to a fireproof room and was never seen again. We then hear another over voice conversation, this time between Ethan and his uncle Chad. Chad accuses Ethan for spying and tells him to stop leaving his stories around because they are freaking people out. The alchemy lab equipment turns to a moonshine still as the dreamworld turns back into reality. We now find another two-sided piece of a news paper article. On one side we read about a moonshine still discovered by firefighters in forest. The police was unable to determine who it belonged to. My guess here is that Chad was the owner. In Ethan’s story about the sap and the old man, the old man was said to have been in the forest (not at home with a cigarette in hand) when the fire started. Was Edwin the one who accidentally started the fire but told the investigator a different story of how it happened to protect his son Chad from getting into trouble? But in this untitled story “people” are said to have started the fire, not Edwin.
Untitled story – Witch’s house
This is one of my favourite parts of the game. As we walk up into the forest behind the houses we hear the voice of the witch. She tells us that people come here for many reasons. They want to ask her questions about the future. But she can see the future so it is the past that interests her. She says that if you want to find her house, you must answer the questions she asks of you. The witch’s voice then goes on to ask these very strange but interesting questions:
“Who would you rather see die: your mother, your father, or your best friend?
Do you feel there is vanity in charity?
Is cheating truly unfair to others?
Does sin come from the heart or the mind?
Does death bring peace or suffering?
Would you rather be a leaf or a root?
Is betrayal caused by inequality or injustice?
When you close your eyes, whose voice do you hear?
Would you prefer anonymity over notoriety?
Do you feel victory when your words cause pain?
Do you admire thieves for their bravery or their greed?
Do you take that which you know you will not return?
Do you love for yourself or for others?”
We then hear a voice over where Ethan’s mother Missy ask her son to “stop living in his head” and “do something real” amongst other things. When we find the witch’s tent we also find another one of Ethan’s short stories. It’s one about the witch, a woman and her son. The witch told the woman she was to have a child. The woman cried so much that she lost her beauty. The child, unassumingly understanding that he was the cause, asked the witch to make his mother beautiful again. The witch told the boy she had lied to the mother about her child. The boy vanished and the mother was beautiful again. Next to this story there’s a note from Ethan’s mother Missy to Ethan. She is apologising for her temper, “I know I have a snake’s tongue” she says “but you need to get your head out of them clouds, OK?”. What I found interesting in this was that when I now listened back to this sequence in order to write this post I realised something I didn’t when I first played the game. The voice of the witch asking the questions is also the voice of Missy, Ethan’s mother. The reason I didn’t pick up on this at once is because the voice is slightly altered when she speaks as the witch. I’m pretty sure this is the case though, what it means I’m not sure. The mother is not only the beautiful woman from the story, she is also the witch. Ethan feels so imperfect in her eyes. Her voice is probably the one he hears when he “closes his eyes”. Before we read this story we heard the witch (Missy) speaking about knowing the future. This seems to be a running theme with this family. Her and her husbands brother Chad were in Ethan’s untitled stories the magician and the witch. Why? What was the connection there? One possible but far fetched connection is that Chad and Missy had an affair and Ethan didn’t really find the moonshine distiller when he was “snooping around”. The scene at the cemetery between Missy, Dale and Chad could suggest that Ethan has a subconscious awareness that Missy thinks Chad is more of a man than his father ever was. Another theory is that the witch too drank Chad’s potion that made her see the future in which case this might simply be a reference to Missy having a problem with alcohol as well. In the story the boy, meaning Ethan, disappears and his mother became beautiful once again.
“The curse of the Sea-Thing”
Dale is a unsuccessful inventor that’s why we find the letter about the patent in the mines. In the mines we have to search the bodies of 5 dead miners. It will help us solve the puzzle opening the gate that will flood the world. After the gate opens, the ancient sea-thing comes out together with the flood. In the dreamworld that follows we are back outside the mines but the whole world is under water. Here we find the last of Ethan’s stories. It’s about a miner (presumably Dale) who stabs others to prevent the ritual of summoning sea-thing who would flood the world. The sea-thing cursed the miner to wander around the mine forever and prevent others from summoning it.
I assume the sea-thing is Dale’s contained or failed creativity. Like Ethan, Dale is made to feel ashamed of his private world. This is clear in the message we find after leaving the underwater dreamworld from Missy to Dale. In it we read:
GET YOUR SHIT OUT OF THE BASEMENT. BRING IT TO THE GODDAMN DUMP.
I am sick of stepping over your lifetime of failure on my way to the washing machine.
I’m not kidding. Either you move it or I burn it. – – M”
The mines can been seen as a way to represent Ethan’s father’s industry and inventiveness – underground and secret. Just like Ethan his father Dale wants privacy in his own world of creations. In the over voice conversation after reading Ethan’s story we hear Dale ask Ethan to please not tell his mother where he is. It’s also worth mentioning that on the back side of the story about Gayle who died in the fire there was an article about the owner of the Vandergriff industrial fortune. Apparently he died from a mining accident. If we wanted to make the Carter family even more messed up we could suggest that the man was betrayed in the mines or “stabbed in the back” as Ethan’s story suggests, by his workers. If Dale was the person who betrayed him this way then he is the cursed miner that is doomed to live in misery.
Let’s now go back to the death of Ethan. In the last scene where Edwin comes to Ethan in the old Vandergriff house Ethan says he found Vandergriff’s diary. He also says that in it he found out that for ‘the sleeper’ to wake someone has to suffer. He shows his granddad frames on the walls with the bones of humans stored within stone. Ethan says these are Vandergriff’s victims. Edwin locks Ethan into die and turns to one of the frames. He speaks to it and says “Gayle, it has to be this way… The Sleeper must not wake.” This suggests some deeper undiscovered story, a connection between Vandergriff and Ethan’s grandmother Gayle though I think this connection is unexplored in the game itself unless I missed something. Edwin goes on to say:
“Burning the room won’t matter Ethan. The sleeper is inside us now. We all have to die. Even you. Even me.”
Edwin then peacefully sits down to die in the flames. This could suggest ‘the sleeper’ representing not only the lack of presence caused by Ethan and Dale’s dreamy creativity but alternatively it could symbolise death itself.
Now Ethan dies. These long stretched out 4 minutes of suffocation has been turned into hours of stories. Ethan’s stories. The ones no one would listen to. Stories about all the horrible things a child knows. The children of the families are often the ones that knows all the secrets that the grownups are keeping from each other. We tend to be less subtle around children because we assume they don’t understand anyway. Especially in a dysfunctional family like the Carter’s one would hope that the children will grow up to forget all these childhood horror like memories. The abuse, the anger, the substance addictions, the possible affairs and deaths. Often the defense mechanisms in the child will have them forget at least some of it but often that is not the case. Often that is wishful thinking. So was the choice to close the door and let the flame take Ethan his own? Did he want to die?Did he want to vanish so that his mother would be beautiful again? Does death bring peace or suffering? the witch asked. Well. Maybe it brought peace. There are so many ways to interpret this ending. If ‘the sleeper’ is death itself and it has chased Ethan through all of these stories then it indeed seems suiting for the story to start the way it did. With Paul Prospero, walking through a tunnel towards the light.