Exploration games: “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” (PC)

The Astronauts‘ first-person adventure game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an intriguing mix of supernatural and everyday mysteries.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PC)
(Poland 2014/2015, developer: The Astronauts, publishers: The Astronauts/THQ Nordic, platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One)

Paul Prospero, a private detective who leans towards the occult, receives a letter from young boy Ethan Carter who has mysteriously disappeared in Red Creek Valley where Paul also discovers local murders connected to an awakened evil force during his investigation.

Stranger than reality
The best stories are those when the reader or the audience have to fill in the narrative gaps, with a story that isn’t fully explained at first and with mysteries that are only slowly unraveled, even with some questions left unanswered and open to interpretation. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter achieves this by making the player hunt for clues, but also by mixing up fiction with reality. Being part mystery story about a strange being and horror reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, but also part human drama about alienation, it’s also about the act of writing and creating worlds. Various storytelling techniques and an unreliable narrator make the player question everything he sees and hears. While being meta-fictional in some parts, playing with genres like sci-fi and horror, the game still tells a story that is both creepy and touching.

However, as great as this all sounds, the story remains rather shallow and too confusing at times, with the main character also being uninteresting, although everything somehow falls together at the end. Still, characters one learns about are difficult to relate to and one can’t shake the feeling that the storyline is made more confusing simply to be more mysterious. The player is unnecessarily kept in the dark for too long, as too much story content is mixed up and confusing, which is mainly due to the way one explores the world and learns about individual narrative strands in a non-chronological order.

Lost in the valley
The sheer scale of the game world is intimidating, as one is free to explore and investigate, which also means that one can get easily lost and miss many parts of the story. Without a map and clues that can be overlooked, one often stumbles through woods, caves, houses and other locations without knowing what to do or where to go next. It’s obviously part of the experience to find out things for oneself, but it’s still very frustrating if one finds one clue and the other one is very well hidden somewhere else, which doesn’t have anything to do with investigation or exploration, but the modern version of classic adventure gaming’s pixel hunt.

Fragments of memory
The mix of exploring the world and gathering clues is partly engaging and partly frustrating, which is further complicated by memory sequences that have to be put into the correct order. This can only be done if one has gathered all kinds of evidence, though. If this is successful, one sees glimpses of the past and has to decide in which chronological order they happened. Unfortunately, running back and forth between these sections is anything but logical, because it’s more guess work than deduction, with too many scenes not providing enough information of how they connect.

Puzzles lite
Except for these investigative parts, the game only offers a few puzzles that are usually well implemented in the environment, e.g. finding something to make a train run or opening a door with a key, etc. These are neither original nor are they very difficult, the only problem again only being that one can easily overlook items without having any clue where they could be. There is also one puzzle in a house where one has to go/teleport through doors in the right order, with the only clues being certain camera positions that give a look into the past. While being an interesting idea and working in the surreal world one explores, it’s more annoying and frustrating and doesn’t add anything substantial to the gameplay.

Realism in visuals and audio
The game looks fantastic, especially in the 2015 Redux version that uses the Unreal Engine 4 and is a remaster of the PC version which has been provided by the developers as a free update. The vistas are beautiful due to the way how lights and shadows play and how everything is presented with so many details. Just standing on a mountain trail, seeing a bridge far away and then closing in on it, standing on the bridge and looking back is an amazing feeling as there are simply no loading times. Granted, one pays a price for such graphical fidelity, as processing power of the graphics card and CPU has to work quite hard. But it’s worth it, because the tranquil atmosphere created by such graphics adds to the immersion of actually being in a real place. The sound effects like the blowing of the wind, rustling of leaves, flowing of water, further add to the atmosphere, and the music is both melancholic, sometimes very creepy, but also quite beautiful at times, carrying each scene and filling each environment with the appropriate background sounds. The voice acting is very good as well, even if there are a few parts that are delivered with more gusto than necessary, but that’s mostly because of the script.

A game that’s difficult to define
Going into The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and expecting a traditional adventure game with object-based puzzles is the wrong way to do it. Despite having a few scary elements, it’s also not a survival horror game, either, lacking combat or cheap jump scares. For an investigative thriller, it’s more open than it should be, so one is left with a curious feeling of what kind of game this actually is. Maybe suffice it to say that it’s a narrative experience, one that invites the player to explore an open world and find out what happened on his or her own. Even if the gameplay has obvious flaws and the story together with its characters don’t always hit the right notes, the game still remains an immersive, great-looking, sublime-sounding and quite unique journey to get lost in for four or so hours.

Score: 7/10

Buy the digital version for PC on
GOG
Steam

Buy the collector’s edition upgrade for PC on
GOG
Steam

Buy the digital version for PS4 on
the PSN store

Buy the digital version for Xbox One on
the Xbox store

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon UK
Amazon USA (import)

Official website

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About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
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9 Responses to Exploration games: “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” (PC)

  1. Hannie says:

    The atmosphere in this game is fantastic. It was so eerie without getting fully into horror (with the exception of the dark mine but). Unfortunately, the actual story and puzzle solving fell flat to me. It’s not a bad game by any means, but as far as narrative adventures go, I personally enjoyed Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home more.

    • nufafitc says:

      Couldn’t agree more. I guess the problem with following the story and solving the puzzles was that the environment was so big and one simply overlooked too much, which was frustrating.

      I still have to play “Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture”, but personally I thought “Gone Home” was a bit overrated. Didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me, both gameplay and story-wise. Maybe I’ll try “Tacoma” :-).

  2. Hundstrasse says:

    I played this earlier this year, and I just thought it embodied both the best and the worst of the (if you’ll excuse the phrase) walking simulator genre. I suspect if you like them then you’ll love it and if not then you’ll hate it. Personally I enjoyed the experience, but would struggle to recommend it unless I really knew the person liked this method of presenting a story. Nice piece!

    • nufafitc says:

      Glad you liked the review, thanks!
      Yes, I think this isn’t an exploration game that is easy to recommend. I think I would have enjoyed the game better if I wouldn’t have been wandering around in the woods and looking on the ground for anything that resembles a clue ;-).

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