Decay. That’s the first thing I thought of as I was dragged through the game’s short introduction by its faceless protagonist: Paul Prospero. Faceless, but not voiceless. The train tracks were less than healthy and the woods we came upon were thick with leaf litter, the surroundings close and mysterious. Before Prospero began to speak, I’d been informed by the game that it would not hold my hand. But it was fine, Prospero sounded sure of himself, sounded like we’d get through this alive, that there was a chance I could solve The Vanishing of Ethan Carter .
A detective story
I’ve played a few detective stories, a few point and clicks, a few puzzle games over the years. I’ve never finished any other them other than one Phoenix Wright (the original) and L.A. Noire . I wasn’t filled with confidence, but a part of me hoped that maybe I’d be able to figure out what was going on without having to resort to guides. When I first played through, I didn’t realise how and when puzzles were being offered up to me, I had to back track after doing more complicated actions much later. But it was fine.
I was solving the game using my own logic skills. And the puzzles were logical, in their own in-game way. It was the first time in years that I was playing a game with puzzles and their solutions had a logical progression that wasn’t easy to guess, but was something you could figure out for yourself if you just looked at the bits of the mystery you had and the overall shape of the events you’d come to investigate. And the way solving them unlocked further bits of narrative worked smoothly, rolling in the weird supernatural, psychic like qualities that Prospero was quietly alluding to for himself.
One particular puzzle, however, did feel a tad self-indulgent on the part of The Astronauts, and if you ever play The Vanishing of Ethan Carter , you will know what I mean. Otherwise, there is a good chance you could end-up solving the puzzles out of order and having to backtrack across huge tracks of the world, not that that is necessarily a bad thing, considering your surroundings.
It’s possible, if you can easily guess the puzzles, after you’ve found what you need to solve, to rush through this game and take little to no time appreciating Red Creek, the locale that The Astronauts have put together. Even on low graphics settings on PC, the game is beautiful and homely (well, homely if you live in the sticks like I do). With its damned lakes, forests, and European style architecture, it almost feels like you’re undertaking a hiking tour to some abandoned corner of the Alps, rather than the scene of what you suspect is something altogether far more grizzly.
The world is indeed beautiful in its own pastoral way. It was immense in its own ways, empty and not empty. And lonely. Incredibly lonely. This has to be one of the first games I have played that really emulates how uninhabited large swathes of the countryside in the northern hemisphere can be. And this loneliness worked in the story’s favour, because there’s only so much time you can spend admiring a lake before thinking that you wouldn’t mind hearing some voices, no matter how dark they were.
“Short” and “sweet” are the two words I would use to describe The Vanishing of Ethan Carter . It’s not like any mystery/detective/puzzle game I have played before and I can’t overstate how satisfying it was to solve the challenges put before me. The story was fulfilling to experience and it’s a quality of narrative that I haven’t experienced for quite some time. I could say it’s too short, but I think if it had been made any longer than it was, it would have been stretching the story out further than it could have gone in terms of drama and pace. This is one game I really think you should give a chance to.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is out now on PC and coming to PS4 sometime in 2015. Our reviewer bought their own copy on Steam.