Review of: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
What is it? A first-person mystery adventure
Play it on: PC and PS4
Reviewed On: PC
Price on steam: £15/ $20
Release date: Out Now
Developer: The Astronauts
Link: Official site
If you’ve already played through the game continue to my in depth story analysis to discuss theories!
“This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand” is the first thing we see after hitting play. It’s a message from the developers, a disclaimer. The statement is definitely true. There is no user interface, no maps or tools to help you along the way. We are only given a very basic introduction to the story as the game starts. We are then expected to discover how things work and what we’re supposed to do on our own. There is no tutorial segment explaining sprint or crouch. There aren’t quest arrows. We now have, to on our own piece together the events leading up to the vanishing of Ethan Carter in order to solve the mystery of the boy’s disappearance and several other gruesome murders.
We start the game introduced to the character we play as the detective Paul Prospero. This character is as much a mystery to us as Ethan Carter or the ominous ‘Sleeper’. What does become clear from the start is that Prospero posses not only excellent observational skills; he also shares some sort of supernatural connection to his environment as well as to Ethan. This is something we use as we follow the trail of bread crumbs that will hopefully lead us to the missing boy. As we touch objects and reconstruct crime scenes Prospero’s connection to the events of the places he visits grow stronger. Eventually as we piece together the clues we get to unlock the past and view it first hand through ghostly images of Ethan and his family members.
The feeling of immersion experienced was definitely something special at least to me. In most games mechanics such as tools and UI has that separating quality. It’s a filter, a wall between you and the game, between yourself and a sense of full immersion into the character you play. The music and the visuals in this game is absolutely stunning. As you walk over different textured surfaces you can listen to the sound of your own footsteps changing. This bequeaths the player a deeply captivating experience of exploring Red Creek Valley.
As there are no maps to help the player find it’s way it is easy to end up slightly lost. Unless you are so carefully that you comb through every corner of your surroundings (making the play time a lot longer than the suggested 3 hours) it is quite possible, even likely, that you will walk right past entire story elements without noticing them. Personally I like this. It’s a fresh approach to the video game medium of narrative storytelling. There’s nothing that forces the story upon the player. It’s up to you how much of the story you want to dig out. It can also be discovered chronologically or you can go back and discover missing pieces in the wrong order. This awkward searching through Red Creek Valley, the uncertainty of whether you missed something or not, adds to the feeling of realism in the otherwise paranormal experience of exploring Ethan’s and Prospero’s story.
Playing this game I felt the story seemed brutal enough to have the player get to know the boy Ethan, connect to the character, just for us to eventually find him dead somewhere. As I got closer to the end of the unnerving trail of dead bodies leading to Ethan the uncertainty of whether or not I would find the boy dead or alive kept me on my toes. I was never quite sure if one of the bodies I just found was him.
At times the story does seem very far fetched and it did have me loose motivation to continue at least once. Sure, it is a mystery adventure game and I liked the supernatural elements it enclosed. Sometimes however I must confess I was slightly confused and unmotivated by the seemingly strained story line. “Why am a chasing a supernatural, ghost astronaut through a forest?” and “What’s Gnaiih, the massive tentacle sea monster got to do with Ethan and his family?” are questions you might find that you’ll be asking yourself if you do decide to play this game. There are many side stories that are seemingly unconnected to the main narrative thread. However I guarantee you, reaching the end of this game this will all make sense, despite how bizarre this might seem. Each side story requires you to do something different to solve the puzzles. They each become a means of telling you Ethan Carter’s story of childhood alienation, a story which has the potential to resonate deeply with it’s audience.
I must say that the more I think about these strange side stories in hindsight, the more they make sense to me even though they were bewildering at the time. As I don’t want to spoil this game for anyone who wants to play it I won’t continue on these thoughts here but I will make a part two bonus post discussing spoilers.
Personally I loved this game. I can however understand why others wouldn’t. To enjoy it as much as I did you need to like the realism this slow paced game has to offer. For me it also helped that I deeply appreciated the heavy story and enigmatic symbolism that the narrative encompassed. If you are willing to dig deep enough into the story The Vanishing of Ethan Carter touches upon many themes that has long been central to narrative storytelling. Questions about death, childhood, isolation, family, imagination and escapism are explored in a most ambiguous way. But more on this in my analysis!