The first thing that greets you upon beginning The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a sentence. “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”
It’s a sentence which sets the tone for the following 4 or 5 hours perfectly. The debut title of Polish development studio The Astronauts, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter gives you no prompts, preferring instead to provide you with plenty of freedom, allowing you to roam around the world as supernatural detective Paul Prospero freely in the hope that your natural sense of curiosity is motivation enough for you to discover and solve cases in whichever manner you deem appropriate. I don’t want to divulge too much about the story, because to do so would be to ruin it. But the basic premise is that you play as a private detective investigating the disappearance of a young boy who considers himself to be your biggest fan. Of course, what starts off sounding simple soon becomes more twisted as you progress with plenty of revelations, lies, and hidden truths uncovered until you finally reach the finishing line.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is not a long game, but it is a well-paced game. There’s no filler, no content making you think that it was inserted simply to pad out the runtime; instead, the game has a purity which is refreshing in an age of endless collectables and campaigns undermined by an artificially elongated number of missions.
I’ve never really played a game like this before. As a big fan of RPG’s, I’m used to hints telling me in which order to do things, or a small minimap to lead me in the right direction; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter offers none of this. It start off by simply placing you in its world and gives you nothing except a path through a forest to follow.
Of course, simply following that path would be too easy; as linear as its opening is, The Astronauts is a studio that isn’t afraid of asking the player to eke out its game’s mysteries themselves, instead of handing the answers to them on a plate via non-stop cutscenes and in-game prompts. It’s not long before you’re allowed to explore, and while this open-ended design might sound intimidating on paper, in practice it’s liberating and allows you to appreciate the fantastic world that’s been crafted all the more.
As it turns out, I missed one of the first puzzles entirely – which meant that I had to work my way back through this vast open-world towards the end of the game in order to finish it. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is filled with moments like these: times when you suddenly realize you missed a small detail and need to backtrack. It’s not as annoying as it sounds; if anything, it reinforces just how eager many modern games are to hold your hand and point the way. In short, The Astronauts not only respects that players are intelligent enough to work things out for themselves – a notion that is increasingly rare in this day and age – but it also manages to craft a world which feels so real, and is so stunning to inhabit, that you honestly won’t care when you realize that you’ve missed a crucial clue and need to backtrack across the map in order to progress.
One of the first things that struck me about the game is just how incredibly beautiful it is. For a game crafted on a relatively modest budget, The Astronauts have delivered a title which feels as though it was crafted on a budget more often afforded to a developed ten times their size. When I sat down to write this review, I found myself searching how to convey just how stunning the game is. I wanted to try to put you in the moment as I explained the emotion I felt when I first made my way out of the forest and onto the bridge which overlooks the entirety of Red Creek Valley; sadly, I’m not eloquent enough, and words don’t do justice to the beauty of the game – so in the end I took the easy route, and decided to give you a few screenshots so you can see for yourself.
The graphics are – on the whole – flawless. Even in the blue-hued celestial realm of the spirits, the game looks stunning; although I’ve completed the game and despite the absence of any of the extraneous content which typifies other games these days, I could gladly return to it and play for hours simply roaming around the environment. A stroll from the tunnel in which you begin the game to the cluster of houses on the other side of the lake was one of the most relaxing journeys in a game that I’ve ever experienced, simply because it felt like I was actually traversing a real world. The Astronauts built the environments referencing real-world photos, and the result is a feeling of authenticity to the world you explore that puts most games to shame. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the kind of game that makes you hammer your screenshot button every five minutes and wish you could stick the results on a postcard and mail them to all your friends saying “wish you were here.”
I’d be lying to you if I said it was always relaxing, however; There are moments which really do make you feel uneasy. The tension experienced while wandering around the mining tunnels – playing with the lights out and my headphones in – got me so worked up at one point that I had to stop for a couple of hours in order to collect my nerves again. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter shows a developer that knows how craft tension and suspense, and while playing through the game there are plenty of moments where you think to yourself “I’m pretty sure this place is deserted, but I’m sure I just saw something move in that passageway” – moments which have you on edge for a good portion of the game.
Taking influence from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft also makes for some incredibly bizarre moments during cases, which – although played an important part in the explanation of events – felt out-of-place at times. That’s not to say that they weren’t welcome; but chasing a spaceman through a forest, to come across a ship that transported me to outer space seemed slightly off-beat and didn’t really fit in with the other events in the story.
The puzzles in this game are also very well-crafted and thought out. Very rarely does a game have me scratching down notes in order to work out exactly what is going on. Each case requires extensive thinking time and an awareness of what is happening in the scenario in order to work out how exactly each crime went down.
One of my favorite puzzles – and one which took me a good half an hour to work out – took place in an abandoned house. Upon entering through a portal, I needed to work out which door led to which room, in order to piece together the former layout of the building. I won’t ruin how exactly how it works, but know that it had me gritting my teeth throughout the whole process. As I mentioned earlier, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has no prompts, which means you have to figure out exactly what you have to do in order to solve the puzzle, as well as figure out the solution. Completion is gratifying, thanks to the effort you go to in order to solve the mystery. This is a gameplay aspect that may not be for everyone, but for someone as stubborn as I am, it was fantastic.
Something I’ve failed to mention thus far is how vast the world actually is. If you chose to, you could simply turn the game into Walking Simulator 2014. To travel from one end of the world to the other would take around 25 minutes, an impressive feat for the debut title of indie developer, The Astronauts. Diverging off of the path given to you and roaming through the forest can lead you off track for a considerable amount of time, but given the picturesque nature of the environment, I didn’t see this as an issue.
Any route you take to reach your destination is an adventure and that’s exactly what Ethan Carter is. The view you see when you walk upon the first bridge – however distant it may seem – can be reached by walking. The majority of the backdrops in the photos I’ve provided in this review, I’ve traveled to in the game. Walking to destinations in some games can be a chore but here, it’s an experience.
The storytelling in Ethan Carter is impeccable and develops well enough to keep you engaged throughout. Although the ending may be a little bit predictable, the character development – along with the outcome of each crime scenario – more than makes up for it. Each case invites new questions to be asked and the eventual outcome of the game wraps everything up nicely. Not only this, but the use of music and other effects only adds to the atmosphere and leaves you with chills as you wander through the world. From emotive, climactic pieces which evoke feelings of wonder as you look over the environment surrounding you, to the dark and sinister tones which greet you as you make your way through the mines, the use of sound is used to outstanding effect and really helps to set the tone when it’s needed most.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a masterpiece in every aspect. Never before have I played a game which evoked such emotion upon looking at the surroundings. The story – although somewhat outlandish at times – is intriguing and is reinforced massively by the use of sound to create a suitably eerie atmosphere. The freedom given to you as the player is liberating and every individual element comes together to create a game experience that will stay with you for a long while after it’s complete.
Here’s to more games letting go of your hand.