Of course, that’s a rather unfair way to introduce any game by describing it as being similar to Dear Esther, because while there is much that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does indeed share with Dear Esther it also involved rather a lot more interaction than the in/famous walking simulator. Developed by The Astronauts, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, is one of those story-based “experiences” set in the fictional Red Creek Valley and following the protagonist, the supernatural detective Paul Prospero, who is investigating the death of one Ethan Carter. The first thing one does have to say about it is actually pretty much my summary of the entirety of Dear Esther in that it was really rather lovely. However, there is also much more to Ethan Carter which makes it that much more enjoyable and thus far more easy to recommend to anyone at all. It also was re-released rather recently (in mid-July) for the PS4 and so now is actually a rather opportune time to review it.
Unlike with some games, we will not be providing any video Let’s Plays or My Thoughts On Ethan Carter, because of how linear and story-based it is. It has long been our opinion that games like this are best experienced by playing them (or at least that’s how WE like to experience them anyway) and we recommend that if you get the chance you do play it instead of watch it.
For starters The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is genuinely an absolutely fantastic work of atmosphere and story. From start to finish, the game really nails the atmosphere and pacing, drawing the player into the small and confided world of Red Creek Valley as you explore and investigate the story of Ethan Carter. Combining a truly breathtakingly gorgeous display with haunting and emotional music, both of which struck me alone with how high quality they were but combined and suddenly you truly were transported to this distant and lonely valley.
It’s a core tenant of game reviewing these days that “gameplay > graphics” and this is something with which we agree. After all, if graphics were the most important part of a game then we would never see gems of the likes of FTL and Darkest Dungeon, games which do not use the latest in high-def 3d rendering. However, sometimes I feel that people can be a mite snooty about graphics and say it is not worth mentioning at all, and in games such as Ethan Carter, this is most definitely not the case. The game is just so genuinely beautiful at times that I actually had to stop what I was doing and admire the scenery. It succeeded as well as any kind of excellent gameplay in drawing me in simply by showing me exactly what the creators envisioned.An interesting note to make is that Wikipedia describes Ethan Carter as a horror game and this is actually definitely not the case. A story driven and atmospheric experience, yes, at times eerie, spooky and slightly disturbing, yes, but horror it is not. I use this as a preface for this next paragraph just to ensure that you know I am aware that the game is not a horror game before I say that the atmosphere of the game is so impressive that when the creators clearly decided that the player was in need of a bit of a fright they were more than capable of creating an almost heart-stoppingly tense and scary segment. The rest of the game was not a horror game, but the very fact that they so seamlessly dipped from “eerie” to genuinely frightening ought to be a good indication of how well the Astronauts paced and displayed their game.
This particular segment actually was involved in a secondary part of the gameplay in which, through simple exploration, you may find small puzzles to complete which help unlock a little of the background of the story whilst also providing you with a short story ostensibly written by Ethan himself. The primary part of the gameplay which you have to complete in order to progress, one must investigate various murder scenes, piecing together clues and various small scenes in order to discover the truth behind each one, meanwhile slowly building up the bigger picture of the overall plot.Of course, because the game revolves so heavily around its story I can’t really reveal anything, even the basic concept, without actually revealing too much about the game. The death of Ethan Carter is something you are informed on right at the very start but beyond that it is really something one needs to experience for oneself. That said, I would like to say that I thought it was really rather well written and (again) excellently paced to slowly provide more and more information as it built towards the conclusion of the tale.
As you are investigating the death of the title character, a child no less, and there is that constant creepy feeling (backed up by the supernatural puzzles) one ought to be forgiven for playing “spot the twist” for the entirety of the game, which I am afraid I am entirely guilty of. However, despite doing this, the ending was still nothing that I had predicted and overall came as something of a surprise. I would say that despite the heavy emotional leanings of the game, I was never hit too strongly by anything from the game, just before it seems like I am raving too much about it. That said, it was definitely a rather sad conclusion to the game one which seemed very heartfelt.
Beyond this there is actually rather little else one can say about the game, except with regards to what little “gameplay” there is, which comes mostly in the form of puzzles to intersperse the exploration and wandering around. I have to admit that I was actually rather impressed with the puzzles, or at least a few of them. I also have to say that I think they always came at the right time, that there was always a perfect mixture between walking and then actually doing things so that one never really became bored with either part.
It is something I will say though that while a few of the puzzles were fairly straight-forward, a couple of them really do stand out in my mind due to how unique they were, particularly one involving setting out the correct layout of a house you are exploring, while exploring it (sounds weird, but trust me). The primary sections of the game involving the murder scenes were a little more straight forward, mostly following a pattern of “find each important thing” and then “set the events in order”. Nothing too strenuous there. However, I would say that the first time I came across one of them I was utterly stumped with how to progress because I couldn’t figure out how to get passed sections with swirling words (again, sounds weird, but I doubt there is really any way I can accurately describe it that wouldn’t take another whole paragraph on its own).
At times, unfortunately the story did tend to get a little caught when I felt that I was having to retrace my steps numerous times, but this was primarily due to my own compulsive exploration of every nook and cranny before progressing rather than any flaws with the design of the game. As well as that the game did, unfortunately, come close to falling into the trap of being labelled just another walking simulator like Dear Esther (hence the original comparison) as it comes close to only dealing out exposition when you stand on some very specific spots. However, thankfully, it manages to just elude this with the inclusion of the odd puzzle and because it isn’t incredibly specific where you have to go before hearing more of the story, you just have to make progress, which is enough for me.
Rather bizarrely, I can’t make my mind up about their inclusion of a spring function in the game. Obviously at times it was a great help for me because, as I’ve already said, I would wander off the beaten track until I was finally told that “this is the edge of the map, please turn back, the story is that way” (and if only it had done so with the voice of Stanley’s narrator rather than great walls of stone or water) and so then I would turn around and have to run all the way back to get to where I had been. On the other hand, once I was aware of the presence of a sprint function I actually tended to use it to get everywhere, which felt somewhat sacrilegious as it did not really allow one the time to soak up more of the scenery and atmosphere of the game. It feels like the sort of game one should take ones time with, even if only to get your monies worth!
I also want to add in another mention of the music, just because of how much I really did like it. It’s nothing I could really pick out and hum now, these sort of “melancholy, somber” tunes rarely are, but it was still actually rather hauntingly lovely and never once grated on my nerves or became repetitive, or any of the other possible troubles that one can get with the music of indie games. That alone deserved some kind of applause and so I will sit here and clap for it just on my lonesome.
Overall, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter provides a slightly chilling but memorable experience, to the extent that it makes you wonder why more games haven’t tried to go the route of a supernatural detective investigating a ghost story, because that phrase alone is enough to make my spine tingle with intrigue. Despite the short nature of the game, as these things tend to be, I think I can only recommend it, if only for its lovely world, music, setting and that atmosphere which really does stick with you for many hours after you see the end of the credits.