There are few places as bad for playing video games as an actual video game expo. The crowds, the noise, and a busy schedule usually make immersion fall flat on its face. Nevertheless, when I played the opening section of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by Polish developers, The Astronauts, I was blown away. It had me hooked right from the start, completely making me oblivious to the noise all around, and at the end of the day, I was more than ready to declare it “most impressive game of the show”. Now that the The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has been out for a while, it’s time to see if those early impressions have indeed been representative of the full game.
As Paul Prospero, supernatural detective, you’re summoned to the remote Red Creek Valley with the task of finding Ethan Carter, a boy who has gone missing. It doesn’t take long for you to realize that there are sinister forces at work, and something strange is afoot. Dead bodies turn up, and you have to find out what exactly happened. Thankfully, your supernatural talents allow you to recreate the progression of events and let you relive the murders. Upon starting the game, you’re told that it is “a narrative experience and does not hold your hand.” And indeed, you’re thrown out there without any explanation of how stuff works in Red Creek Valley. This is actually really rewarding: when I successfully used my uncanny detective powers for the first time, it led to one of those rare moments where you feel absolutely brilliant for figuring out something relatively simple. It’s also the reason that this review aims to be free of spoilers.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might just be the best looking game released in 2014. It is stunningly beautiful and Red Creek Valley has such an amazing sense of place that really contributes to the overall atmosphere. Using photogrammetry, an intricate technique that allows you to create a 3D object out of scanned pictures, objects in the game correspond to real world counterparts. This leads to increased authenticity and no repeating textures, especially for inanimate objects. The game’s characters look less real, but that’s hardly an unknown issue in video games and the valley is the real main character of the game, anyway.
There are some breathtaking vistas and claustrophobic interiors, and even though you won’t meet or interact with anyone, the valley feels alive. I vividly remember one particular location: a small, abandoned church, doors ajar, darkness looming inside. By now I was aware of the fact that there are no enemies to fight and there wouldn’t be anything bad happening to me while inside the building. Despite all of that, I was reluctant to enter. I slowly inched my way forward into the darkness, and when I was done exploring the place, I ran outside as fast as I could. That church gave me the creeps, and it was all due to how well it was presented and how real it felt. The soundtrack by Mikolai Stroinski deserves to be mentioned as well. It fits and complements the game to a T, adding layers of mystery and intrigue, and changing from serene to eerie in a matter of heartbeats. As far as presentation goes, Ethan Carter is indeed one of the most impressive games released in 2014.
One minor annoyance is the sound of your own footsteps. The game world has been brought to life so very carefully, and yet there are only ever three or four kinds of sound you make on different terrain. In a game that’s all about atmosphere and immersion, this feels a bit too videogamey. It’s a minor quibble, for sure, but one that kept annoying me until the very end. A couple of smaller graphical glitches also appeared, such as grass growing right through stone, but those were exceedingly rare. There was, however, a fair bit of framerate stuttering due to texture loading. I was running the game with everything on max, 2x MSAA and 4x anisotropic texture filtering (system specs below), and there was some slight stuttering now and again. Nothing too bad, but definitely noticeable.
I take more offense with the way some parts of the game are structured. A couple of puzzles just feel shoehorned in. Since your primary interaction with the game world consists of recreating murders and basically observing things in a rather hands-off way, everything else stands out to the point of being immersion-breaking. In particular, there are two mazes of sorts that just don’t gel with the rest of the game. While I understand the need to offer some variety and give the player something to do, it feels a bit out of place. Especially the second maze, which introduces a fail state all of a sudden after hours of “safe” gameplay, stands out like a sore thumb. Depending on your personal preference, your mileage may vary here, but I certainly could have done with less puzzles and a stronger focus on compelling and consistent storytelling.
Speaking of storytelling: the game throws so many weird things at you, and for the most part, that’s very good. It keeps you guessing and often re-evaluating what you saw in order to make sense of the events. But it also makes the ending feel, well, almost mundane. There’s actually nothing wrong with it, and The Astronauts obviously went with something that tries to tie all those loose strings of plot together. But it’s not exciting, either.
However, reducing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to its final five minutes is just unfair. Instead, the good writing is to be found elsewhere. Sometimes it’s in the events that unfold, other times it seems to be carelessly tacked on after those events conclude. In just a few fleeting moments, the story of Ethan and his family is told. Everything else feels almost like a distraction. There’s nothing haphazard about it, either. This is masterful storytelling, and some people might just walk by without taking notice. But then, it makes your own story almost feel like filler. Paul Prospero himself is merely a tool to get the narrative going. He’s little more than an empty shell, and his deadpan one-liners are very much in character, but they can feel out of place sometimes.
It’s the experience as a whole you’ll be remembering: Red Creek Valley, those spooky buildings, the breathtaking view, and that wonderful music. Truth be told, the story gave me reason to press on, and it imposed a certain structure on this big, open area, but it was never really on my mind while I wandered about and took in the sights. I wasn’t in a hurry to solve the case. Depending on your taste and what you want from a game, that’s either good or bad. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is all about mood and atmosphere, and you’ll have plenty of that in the four hours it takes to experience everything. This might seem short, but it actually hits the sweet spot in terms of game length.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
I stand by my initial impression: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the best games released in 2014. It’s a phenomenal mood piece and it makes me curious about where The Astronauts go next. However, if your only thought is “Where’s the sniper rifle?”, you might want to spend the $19.99 on something else.