The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game inspired by “weird horror fiction” and it sets you loose in a small open world. You explore at your own pace, in your own way.
In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, players take on the role of main protagonist Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective who travels to Red Creek Valley to uncover the mysteries behind a letter from a boy named–you guessed it–Ethan Carter. The game tells a rather simple story that never really goes anywhere until the very end and then consequently stops immediately. The protagonist’s inner monologue provides a lot of the exposition and insight into the world. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed with the lack of traditional storytelling throughout most of the game, but this isn’t a visual novel; it’s an interactive experience.
The game will have players interacting with the environment. Some will stumble across a crime scene and recreate it by, for example, finding the murder weapon, putting it back where it was before the attack. Rearranging the world around you into the way it was before the crime is the key mechanism here, which works hard to make you feel like a detective. Supernatural elements are key to the gameplay, as once everything has been put in place, you can watch the crime unfold before you. It’s a fascinating, if a bit simplistic system that I found baffling at first due to some of its unintuitive nuances and a lack of a tutorial. The game prides itself on not holding your hand, but the simple mechanics aren’t difficult to grasp because they aren’t difficult, just a bit clunky.
It’s impossible to not immediately mention the incredibly impressive photo realistic graphics. The consistently unsettling environments do a great job of immersing you in the experience and keep you on the edge of your seat, even when nothing’s happening. Red Creek Valley’s forests and foliage, churches and graveyards, mines and tunnels are among the locations that make The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s setting a wonderfully well realized place. It’s all weaved together into a single realistic environment. Loading screens are non-existent and help make the world seem connected and real. Immersion is the key to the experience and every aspect of the game, from the eerie soundtrack, to the minimalist interface work toward this goal.
Aside from the technical prowess and beauty of the photo-realistic graphics, it’s the little details that added the most to the impressive visuals. Butterflies fluttering through the air, grass blowing in the wind and other small nature-fueled visuals adds to the realism of the setting. This provides a gigantic evidence of developers having put a lot of love into Red Creek Valley. At times it can almost be a sort of spiritual experience. Walking through a calm, desolate town, listening to the birds and thinking about what could have happened here. It’s all eerie and soothing at the same time.
Deadly traps and placed around the starting area, but are harmless to you. When triggered, they simply activate and inform players that there are more in the area. This is done through context and the “Sense” ability. Along with giving your main character, Paul Propsero, the ability to see crimes that have already happened, it gets him into a lot of strange situations and is the delivery method for Ethan Carter’s many letters and stories. These creepy pages left by Ethan tell chilling tales that have an impact on you that’s unexplainable until you experience it for yourself. The soundtrack is stunningly detailed and the mesmerizing environments add to the profundity of Ethan’s sad, lonely stories.
By the end the places you visit and the things you see are put into context and given a whole new meaning. While the characters and story are quite shallow, the game’s focus on immersion and atmosphere is commendable. For a preview of the type of experience the game provides, read the prequel mini-comic that introduces you to the characters, story, setting and atmosphere of the game.