“The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” is a ghost story. Or maybe it’s a game about the mind’s powerful ability to fool itself.
In both execution and play, however, it’s a tale about what’s missing. It’s a search for a boy, one whose family appears to have a mysterious and murderous history, and it unravels with a patience and exploratory nature that will challenge players and test the narrative conventions of gaming.
With traces of pulpish sci-fi and hints of hard-boiled noir, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” makes clever use of the interactive medium. There is no designated order to the game; its puzzles are random and need to be stumbled upon. Players are set free, dropped in a gorgeous, photorealistic world and told essentially nothing.
They are, in fact, given a warning. “Ethan Carter” states at its outset that it will not be holding the player’s hand. No tutorial, no helpful prompts telling players where to walk or what goals need to be completed.
This is a wise, daring choice on behalf of the small Warsaw-based team the Astronauts. “Ethan Carter” — available now for PCs and, eventually, for the PlayStation 4 — is the extremely rare game in which the player controls everything, including the pace and even what story is told. It’s a massive departure from most mainstream games, in which the player essentially follows a script and command prompts.
While not necessarily a long playing experience, one can spend hours simply maneuvering the main character, a tough-talking paranormal detective named Paul Prospero, around the mystical town of Red Creek Valley. The game’s success is nearly 100% reliant on the inquisitiveness of its players, meaning how effective the game is or isn’t will be almost entirely dependent on the horrors one is willing to imagine.
The game isn’t violent. One walks, looks around and, with luck, discovers puzzles to try to piece together the events that led to a number of murders. A young boy named Ethan knows the secret of Red Creek Valley. Maybe. He’s a loner, a writer with an imagination for the macabre, and his own family is concerned that his grasp on the supernatural oddness of Red Creek is a borderline insane one.
Is the boy telling the truth? Or his is madness shaping the minds of everyone around him, turning Ethan’s troubled beliefs into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy?
Paul, the protagonist, believes him. A specialist in matters of the occult, Paul solves murders by collecting evidence and piecing together the order in which the events that led to a gruesome death occurred. Get it right, and he’ll have a vision that will give players a subtle clue about where to walk next — or where to backtrack.
Each player will likely have a different conclusion — while there are certain cases that need to be cracked, it’s likely that not everyone will encounter every aspect of interactivity in the game.
This is freeing, albeit potentially overwhelming. The inability to save the game at any moment is definitely frustrating, meaning there will usually be a retracing of one’s tracks.
Spending 10-plus hours with “Ethan Carter” this month made me question the expected tenets of game design. Too often interactive entertainment feels passive, with players given rather explicit orders — go here, talk to this person, kill that guy, press “B” repeatedly. Yet “Ethan Carter,” action-less as it may be, isn’t passive at all. Not knowing what to do, where to go and when to do it necessitates that one, well, play with the game.
There were moments I directed Paul to comb every square inch of the screen, despite there being no traces of blood or evidence. Music cues will offer guidance. The audio gets weird — monstrous, even — when Paul comes across a skittish astronaut and is lifted into space. There are all sorts of left-of-center turns like this throughout “Ethan Carter,” but what is happening and what is simply a glimpse into Ethan’s mind is not always clear.
Tonally, think of “Twin Peaks” or, more accurately, the old Steven Spielberg serial “Amazing Stories.”
The first half of the game reminded me heavily of Season 1 of the David Lynch series, as one will encounter gruesome deaths — severed legs at an abandoned railroad, for instance. Something devilish seemed to linger, as bellowing orchestral music had Paul avoiding traps laid out throughout the forest.
Yet as “Ethan Carter” continues, the game manages to get more magical even as one comes across more deaths. As the bodies pile up, one starts to wonder if Ethan has driven his own family to commit these heinous acts. But credit the environment of the game universe for tempering the mood.
At one moment, I had Paul standing on an abandoned rail platform for perhaps half an hour looking for clues that didn’t appear to exist. The music suddenly shifted to something rather nostalgic and dreamy, the sound of an old Hollywood romance, for instance. I simply walked and took in the details — a clock that stopped at 7 here, and another that stopped at 7:05. Maybe that meant something?
Probably not, but the hopeless romantic in me wanted to linger, picturing the hands that had been held on the benches and the couples that had been reunited as the train pulled into Red Creek Valley. None of this had anything to do with Ethan’s disappearance or the bodies mutilated around the forest. It was simply another story, told by the combination of images and sound, and existing in my mind only because the game wasn’t reminding me it couldn’t.
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