The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a mystery adventure game with tinges of thriller here and there. The year is 1973. You play as Paul Prospero, a paranormal investigator who has been called upon to investigate a small town called Red Creek Valley in rural Pennsylvania through an enthusiastic fan letter from one of its denizens, Ethan Carter. Paul arrives at Red Creek Valley only to find that the town itself has been long abandoned following economic collapse of the area. Ethan Carter, the boy who summoned him there, is missing; as is the rest of his family following what appears to be a tragic arson incident. Paul investigates.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s story is easily the main highlight of the game’s package and the focus of the events that play out. From beginning to end, the game drip feeds the player with small bits and pieces of information to slowly paint a picture of what actually happened to Red Creek Family and what the deal was with the secretive Carter family. It’s a story that’s told fairly linearly and left purposefully vague but eventually makes sense and comes to a conclusion.
And while the story itself is quite linear in how it’s presented, there are other facets to Red Creek Valley that are explored and give extra weight to the setting as a whole. Some stories are simple tales of folklore in the region while others are phantasmagorical interpretations of simple events in the news as if retold by an imaginative child. One things common throughout the storyline whether it’s the main one or the secondary ones – they’re all told rather excellently.
There is a twist to be discovered here or there, for sure, but it’s a bit unfortunate that many people who are used to either games or films similar to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might be able to guess it given the tone and atmosphere of the game. If you don’t, it’ll be even more entertaining when the story reaches its climax. If you do, it’ll be hard to believe you’d not enjoyed the journey regardless.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter released on PC some time ago, but has been retooled for the Playstation 4 using Unreal Engine 4. The result is something that is truly breathtaking. From the opening scene in the forest, most players will appreciate just how much effort and detail has gone into creating such a simplistic setting. Trees and grass blow in the wind gently, water’s current is visibly animated and sunlight gleams through the crowded forest to create realistic shadows. Make no mistakes, Ethan Carter is one of the better looking games on the Playstation 4.
The visuals really help to sell the game’s bizarrely eerie feeling of isolation. You’ll visit dense forests, open fields, dilapidated buildings and even some subterranean locales in your quest to discover the mystery surrounding Ethan Carter. Every location feels like it belongs, and every location has been designed and realised with a skill and finesse that makes Red Creek Valley feel like it’s a living and breathing location ripped straight out of the real world and seemingly abandoned. The developers have captured the tone and feel of the location perfect in Ethan Carter, and it cannot be stressed enough how well it sells the game’s tone and atmosphere.
The sound design has similarly been paid great care and attention to in order to sell an ambience like no other. When standing in the forest you’ll be able to hear the wind blowing through the trees. When you’re inside a house the noise will stop, and the occasional creaking of a floorboard will be heard instead. There’s even some points where the game will subtly play Gregorian style chants when in places of worship. It’s this attention to subtle detail that gives Ethan Carter a creepy almost foreboding atmosphere. While nothing actually happens in the game you’ll always be tense and on edge expecting something to.
There is some voice work in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter but most of it is either dialogue you come across in flashbacks or internal monologues from Paul himself. The voice work is passable but the script isn’t exactly demanding of its actors either. It’s merely there to help explain some of the things that the games many text files can’t. For an indie title of this calibre, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does feel notably “big budget” in its work and visual presentation. It’s surreal and dreamlike, and an immaculately presented experience.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter takes most of its design cues from adventure games. There is no combat, most of the game is exploring and reading and solving light puzzles, and the story’s elaboration and explanation is the end goal. You’ll explore locations, piece together clues to solve murders, and maybe even uncover the origins of a tale of folklore or two. But make no mistakes – there’s no killing or fighting in Ethan Carter. It’s purely a passive affair, in that regard.
The game purports to be open world but it rarely lets players venture off of the beaten path. It’s totally possible to miss some storylines, yes, but to get the true ending you’ll have to encounter everything and solve everything available in the game. It’s definitely recommended that you complete all of the storylines that you come across in the game in order, as it tells a more coherent story, so it’s definitely recommended to explore everywhere on your first playthrough.
Your character, Paul, is a paranormal investigator. For some reason, this means that he has power to sense things on the “other side” of life. When you find a body or an object in the game, it’ll initiate a mini-game of sorts that makes you find all the aspects of the murder, put them back in place, and then select the order in which they were carried out. It’s a very simplistic mechanic that surprisingly never gets old across the adventure, but it doesn’t come without its issues.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is incredibly atmospheric. It doesn’t have many HUD elements, and it rarely gives players any indications of where they’re meant to go. It literally drops you in with no tutorials and expects you to work things out. This is fantastic in some aspects as it literally gets you into the game and doesn’t let you go. But at the same time, it can mean you’ll get lost at times and for reasons that feel kind of unfair.
An example of this comes from the game’s opening area, where a murder had to be solved but I was missing a small component. Annoyingly, the thing I was missing was a rock, which, as you can imagine in a dense forest area, wasn’t exactly the most obvious of objects to pick up. It sounds like a minor gripe, and it is, but it is testament to how well built the environments are in Ethan Carter. Nothing stands out and nothing is awkwardly highlighted by intrusive GUIs (unless you’re close enough). But it can lead to some annoying feelings of being “lost” with no idea of what to do.
There are some elements in place to help guide the player but they are done so in a way that doesn’t ruin the mystery of the puzzle although sometimes these err on the edge of being way too obvious. Finding a hole in the wall and seeing Paul think “Fire-Axe shaped recess” was helpful to me as a player but kind of jarring to the game’s atmosphere. Similarly, if you’re looking for an object, there is a dowsing system of sorts that can point you in the general (and we mean very general) direction of an object too.
One of the more controversial opinions throughout the gaming community is whether titles like Ethan Carter are actually games or glorified walking simulators. The answer is probably yes, Ethan Carter could be construed as a walking simulator since it features no combat whatsoever. But it’s slower pace and reveal of its twists and turns suit the game well. It’s definitely not a game for everyone, but it’d also be pretty awful if it tried to implement some kind of combat system.
If there’s anything I could say about Ethan Carter definitively, it’s that I respect its dedication to its slower pace and unveiling of its story as it provides a more cerebral experience that’s is always true to itself. It’s not trying to please everyone, and it’s proud of that fact.
From beginning to end, most players will breeze through The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in roughly four or so hours. It feels like a short experience, but it’s incredibly compelling from beginning to end and not to be underestimated given its brevity. But the game lets you explore its world following the conclusion of the story, and if you’re lucky, you might come across a strange, eerie easter egg to complete your trophy list. Completing all of the stories in Ethan Carter could possibly stretch the experience to six or so hours, but that’s a very conceited estimate.