THE VANISHING OF ETHAN CARTER
Console: Playstation 4
Start Date: November 3, 2016
End Date: November 12, 2016
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter puts the player in the well-worn shoes of Paul Prospero, a “paranormal investigator” who has travelled to the small town of Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin, to search for the eponymous Ethan Carter, a young boy who has gone missing.
The first screen you see when you load up the game is this…
…and holy moly, they aren’t kidding. You have absolutely zero guidance at any point in the game, just a large mountainous area to explore and Prospero’s cryptically noir-ish quips to keep you company.
The game’s lack of guidance is its greatest strength, as well as one of its few weaknesses. It might be a bit hypocritical for me to say this, especially after bashing Uncharted 4 for the exact opposite reason, but I kinda wish Ethan Carter had a teensy bit more hand-holding, especially at the beginning. Obviously giant on-screen arrows directing me where to go would pull me out of this “narrative experience”, but so does the concept of this detective arriving in this town without an address, a map, or any sense of where he’s going at all. Although this is annoying and distracting at the outset, however, the sense of exploration it creates soon becomes the game’s greatest asset. So this is really just a minor quibble.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could be described as a “walking simulator” in the vein of Gone Home or Firewatch, but its strong focus on puzzle-solving makes it feel a bit closer to something like Myst. There are about ten intricate puzzles hidden throughout Red Creek Valley, and simply finding them is as much of a challenge as actually solving them. The strongest puzzles were the “murder mysteries”, where you stumble across evidence of a crime and must recreate what happened by seeking out environmental clues.
These segments were the game’s strongest, and honestly, this might be the best example of “detective” gameplay I’ve ever experienced. Starting off with nothing to go on, and slowly piecing everything together using nothing more than your own observation and wits, is immensely satisfying.
Aside from these crime scenes (of which there are at least three), the remaining puzzles offer a ton of variety. My favorite – and the one which frustrated me the most – was one in which you had to rearrange a bunch of rooms in an effort to recreate the correct layout of a house. Thanks to the PS4’s video-capturing capabilities, here’s a video of me trying to solve this puzzle for 15 minutes:
If you made it all the way through that video, you might be wondering what the fuck’s going on at the end there. Well, the coolest thing about this game’s puzzles is how beautifully they are integrated not only into the environment, but also into the narrative. You see, Ethan Carter is a creative kid who likes to write little stories, and many of the puzzles are actually manifestations of these stories. Ethan seems mostly inspired by early-to-mid 20th century pulp fiction, and his tales run the gamut from fantasy, to noir, to sci-fi, to (my favorite) Lovecraftian cosmic horror…
So how and why are these works of fiction coming to life around poor Paul Prospero? Well, I’m not gonna spoil that. Play the damn game.
If you need another reason to play it, here’s one: Holy fuck is this thing beautiful. This might have the best graphics I’ve ever seen in video game, and that’s coming from a guy who’d just finished Uncharted 4. I mean, just look at these views:
Un-fucking-believable. The best part is, that level of beauty and realism maintains even if you get really close to an object. Even when your camera is inches away, the textures on each rock and plant and wooden beam are stunning. In fact, only once during my entire playthrough did I encounter a crack in the game’s graphical perfection. It was when I approached a group of trees from a certain angle, and it was so amusing that I had to grab a video of it:
Pretty trippy dippy, man!
I downloaded The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on sale for $6, but its regular price is significantly higher – $20 on both the Playstation 4 and on Steam. This might seem pretty steep for an experience that is likely to be completed in 4-5 hours, but the beautiful visuals, outstanding puzzles and compelling narrative make it totally worth it, in my opinion.
Finally, because I’m a narcissist, here’s a gallery of all my Playstation trophies from the game:
Beyond: Two Souls