The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is proof that we’re entering a new era of gaming. It somehow conveys the deep immersion of virtual reality without support for the Oculus Rift. Every leaf feels as though it was placed lovingly by Mother Nature. Every path could lead somewhere real and tangible. Ethan Carter is a gorgeous testament to the power of Unreal 4, but it wows with more than tech; its free-form storytelling thrives on the kind of suspense that can only be created by genuine discovery. Sleuthing through the wilds of Red Creek Valley is an iconic experience that will amaze, frustrate, compel and illuminate.
Paul Prospero is a classic Lovecraftian hero for a classic Lovecraftian tale: a man who can see things that are just out of the view of most “sensible” people. He’s ostensibly a psychic detective and well-known enough to have amassed a legion of imaginative fans that follow his reality-shattering adventures. Prospero receives regular letters from a boy named Ethan Carter, whose knowledge of the occult and arcane is disturbing for his age. As the letters grow darker in tone, the detective learns that the boy has gone missing and is inspired to use his considerable skills to uncover the truth of Ethan Carter’s fate. It’s a decision that leads Prospero to the back country roads and abandoned railroad lines of Red Creek Valley, a forest of ominous beauty. From there, he becomes a vessel for the player; a tool for exploring the hidden world beneath the grass, the dirt, and the blood.
This game had the rare effect of blurring out the world surrounding my monitor. I was transfixed by the oppressive atmosphere and mystifying soundtrack, to the point that I’d have to take regular breaks to readjust myself to reality. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t explicitly a horror game – there are no monsters stalking you through the woods – but it induces a dread that’s equivalent to walking through a house you think might be haunted. You tell yourself that there’s nothing around the next corner, but your mind is never quite convinced. There’s a subtle madness to the game that creeps under your skin and stays for days after it’s completed. The weight of its story’s tragedy makes it feel like hallowed ground and at times it can be difficult to tell where Prospero ends and you begin.
I’m sure this sounds like hyperbole; but if you come into The Vanishing of Ethan Carter with the right mindset, it will dig its hooks into you as well.
Oddly enough, there are few traditional mechanics to speak of in this game. You don’t play Ethan Carter so much as you experience it. Travelling along the overgrown trails, you search for clues to unravel the events that lead to the child’s disappearance. It doesn’t take long before you spot the hastily thrown together traps, the blood-stained train engine, or the severed legs on rusted-out tracks. But the mystery isn’t laid out clearly in front of you. Information is purposefully withheld and you’re forced to piece together the disparate elements in your mind. Prospero is aided by his unique vision, but ultimately the game refuses to hold your hand. If you miss a crucial clue, you could easily come to the wrong conclusion. This may be a bone of contention for impatient players, but is actually Ethan Carter’s defining strength. Its slow, deliberate pace allows even more time for the terror to settle in.
This existential horror is bolstered by the game’s intense realism. I’m not one to marvel unwittingly at graphical upgrades, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does much more than demonstrate the power of its engine. Every perfectly placed pixel enhances player participation, conjuring the emotional resonance that makes the game so special. This immersive quality comes directly from an innovative technique that allowed developer The Astronauts to translate photographs into a digital environment.
Red Creek Valley is an amalgamation of real world locations, strung together to create the illusion of wholeness. As such, there are no repeated textures or recycled assets. The forest feels alive and natural, filled with old-growth trees that have retaken the structures of men. The trees don’t look as though they were haphazardly planted by game designers to suggest “forestness”, they seem as though they’ve been there forever. The ruins of old homes, churches, and train stations are lived-in and decaying, occasionally making the game feel like an urban exploration simulator. Lighting, animation, resolution; everything comes together perfectly. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter looks real, but it also feels real; as if it’s somehow crossed the uncanny valley. It’s a difference that really needs to be experienced to be fathomed.
…but perhaps that’s why I spent half my time in the game trying to take the ideal screenshot.
With its rampant attention to detail, Ethan Carter is an open-world on a small-scale. It only takes fifteen or twenty minutes to bound across its quietly disturbing landscape, yet somehow the game manages to convey a scope that dwarfs the massive environments of Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption. Standing on the edge of a stone bridge, eyes retracing my steps along the lakeside cliff face, I was truly in awe of the distance I had travelled. I could practically feel my muscles aching from the journey. It’s a sensation that no other game has accurately represented; at least not in such a richly dynamic fashion. Ethan Carter feels larger than it is, explaining the calls for a “fast travel” option from many of its fans. But the perceived expanse of Red Creek Valley is as charming as it is frustrating and could become permanently soiled if The Astronauts bow down to this demand. Getting lost is part of the fun and backtracking increases immersion. There’s no need to water-down this mentally challenging experience.
This frustration is partially due to the games “level” design: there is none. Ten distinct and interconnected mysteries are strewn about the valley, but there is nothing to notate where one set of clues begins and another ends. The player can move between stages freely, meaning that the story can easily unfold at a truncated pace. If you miss the traps at the beginning of the game, you might not have the context you need to understand the events in the stave church graveyard or the mines. Even after everything becomes clear, you’ll have to sequence together the events in a logical pattern. You’ll have to investigate some of your own theories and interpretations. Ultimately, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter takes place as much in your mind as it does your monitor. There’s a story to be told, but it’s as much yours’ as it is the boy’s.
This is the beating heart of what the game is trying to get at. Ethan is a creative kid who lets his mind wander and race; his head is always in the clouds. These stories save him as his family disintegrates and Prospero bears witness to it all. The conclusion will be talked about for ages, criticized and pulled apart and analyzed for its deep look into our collective storytelling psyche. It will probably lead to more questions than answers, but that’s the way I like my endings.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the culminating masterpiece of a genre that’s been spreading its wings in the last few years: the first-person adventure. There is no combat to speak of, no blockbuster action pieces. Instead, the game weighs on your soul and worms its way into your mind. Like Gone Home and Ether One, the joy is in exploration and discovery; in finding that final clue to solve the case. But this game is superior in its execution and surmounts its predecessors in nearly every category. It will likely leave you feeling a bit hollow and disturbed, but it will also provoke hidden thoughts buried in the back of your head. This is the first game to perfect the essence of the natural world in digital form, but it won’t be the last. In all of its bleakness, there is a bit of light; at least for games of its kind.
Lovecraft would be proud.