The Vanishing of Ethan Carter review: disappearing trick

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4
Publisher The Astronauts
Developer The Astronauts
Release Date Sep 26, 2014

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter wouldn't function nearly as well in any other medium.

Its story — a fairly simple blend of horror, mystery and human drama — could certainly be told in a book or a movie. Variations on it already have been. But in any other format, something of utmost importance to the formula would be missing: immersion.

That's not a buzzword I use lightly, but it is key to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. This is a game that pulls you into its world in an almost literal way. Being a part of the unfolding narrative and having the agency to explore it and piece it together at your own pace is essential, building an experience that could only be pulled off this successfully as a video game.

In both its narrative and its gameplay, Ethan Carter refuses to hold your hand

As The Vanishing of Ethan Carter begins, you step into the shoes of Paul Prospero, a psychic detective who has been summoned to a quiet riverside town to search for a missing boy — the eponymous Ethan Carter. Prospero must explore the town and its surrounding countryside, gathering evidence and piecing together what horrific scenes have happened leading to Ethan's disappearance.

In both its narrative and in its gameplay, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter refuses to hold your hand. From the moment you enter the Red Creek Valley area via a dark train tunnel, you're on your own, free to explore at your own pace, with pretty much every area opened up from the start.

The key to actually progressing through the story lies in solving a series of around 10 individual puzzles. But if you want to totally ignore those and dash right to the final area from the start, that is possible. You won't get an ending until you go back and complete each of the puzzles, but again, the game isn't going to tell you where to go or force you to follow a set path.

That freedom was more than a little intimidating at first, but the more time I spent with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the better I was able to read the environmental cues pointing me toward each new puzzle. The open nature of the game was a double-edged sword; it meant that I took my time exploring the game thoroughly and grew incredibly familiar with this beautifully crafted location, but it also meant that I spent a lot of time backtracking at the protagonist's not-terribly-fast pace.

My reward for the backtracking was more than worth it, though. Ethan Carter's puzzles are never terribly complicated, but I found satisfaction in slowly figuring out how to do them. Again, since this is a game that has no tutorials, the puzzles can appear obscure at first. There's never going to be a tooltip to walk you through a solution. So while the answer might be easy, the challenge is in the process of figuring out how to arrive at that answer; and it was a challenge that I enjoyed unraveling each time.

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Prospero isn't completely helpless when it comes to putting the pieces together. He has psychic powers which allow him to relive high-emotion events — with a few caveats.

Let's take an early example from the game: I stumbled across a mangled body near the railroad tracks I was following into town. In order to use Paul's supernatural abilities to see what happened leading up to the gruesome death, I had to set up everything in the surrounding area so it was exactly as it had been prior to those moments. This meant replacing a large rock that had been disturbed, finding a missing railcar crank and driving the railcar back to its resting spot over a dead patch of grass. Then I was able to view several visions of how this murder happened, which I needed to place into a logical order of events to make sense of things.

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Ethan Carter has the soul of a low-budget indie game but the looks of a modern triple-A release

Laid out like that, this is a simple puzzle that doesn't take more than a couple of minutes once you know what to do. But I had to carefully search the whole area multiple times, be hyper-aware of my surroundings and take in every clue — for example, noting that the dead grass must have been shaded by the railcar, therefore that spot was where the railcar belonged. It forced me to really pay attention in a way that doesn't happen in many games.

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It's no surprise that developer The Astronauts would want players to focus on the surroundings. Though it has the soul of a low-budget indie game — no combat, a simple, soft-spoken plot, etc. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has the looks of a modern triple-A release. The game world isn't massive, but it is detailed to an almost absurd degree. This also means it can be a resource hog for many computers. However, it's worth cranking the settings up as high as your PC will allow; every inch of this world has been placed with meticulous, loving detail, and it all added to the sense of place that built as I worked toward solving the mystery.

That mystery is itself wonderful and taut. It's a kind of restrained storytelling that's sure to leave some players frustrated by the matter-of-factness of the answers waiting at the end. For me, I was impressed by an attention to detail that matched the world of the game. Every single piece of dialogue, every scrap of paper, every tiny clue exists for a reason. All of it fits together into a tight plot that left me emotionally drained even as I marveled at its simplicity.

Wrap Up:

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells the kind of story that works best in a game

There's more to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter that I've omitted for fear of spoiling the game's best surprises, but I will say that each of these moments is inextricably tied to the method this story is being told in — that is, as a video game. It is evidence of a kind of narrative that games can do better than anything else, as well as proof that games can work with a story that doesn't need to be overblown or exaggerated — main character's paranormal powers aside. If you have the three or four hours to devote to it and care about the future of games as a storytelling medium, Ethan Carter is must-play.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was reviewed using final downloadable code purchased by Polygon staff. You can find additional information on Polygon's ethics policy here.

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