Posted on October 1, 2014, Phil Hornshaw The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review: Late to the Story
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t the unfolding of one story, but many, interweaving through the experiences of the player to help extract truth from many strange narratives.
As a game, like many exploration-centric, narratively focused titles — it’s a slightly more involved entry into the group that might comprise story driven games like Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable and Mind: Path to Thalamus — The Vanishing of Ethan Carter puts you into a world and lets you dig around within it. Ostensibly the game is about murder: you inhabit the first-person viewpoint of a detective called Paul Prospero, who uses his supernatural talents to solve crimes by dipping a toe into the spirit world here and there. But that’s not all that’s going on in the case of a missing young boy called Ethan Carter, and as you arrive in the remote woods surrounding where the boy lived, you start to uncover more than just a series of gruesome deaths.
So to drop the sometimes-epithet “walking simulator” on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t quite do it justice. The game engages your brain as Prospero, at least a little, by giving you Murdered: Soul Suspect-style cases to solve, asking you to piece together the chronology of events by requiring a search of various areas for bits of important information. More than that, you’re unlocking the tale of Ethan Carter by observing, listening and interpreting — what you make of the story is, in fact, the story here.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter utilizes the medium of games to put you in a strange, often twisting and supernatural world, a depressing, bleak and beautiful landscape. But if there’s a major drawback to the idea, it’s that you never catch up with the story you’re trying to track down. You’ve arrived afterward, and even as you piece together events, you never actually take part in them. In this way, The Vanishing is passive in the same way that Gone Home and other titles are passive; you’re here to listen, not participate, and while what’s being told can be fascinating, the entire experience tends to make you feel like you’ve just missed the actual game.
Paul Prospero arrives in Red Creek Valley, where Ethan Carter lived, and quickly finds that something is amiss. Weirdness abounds: there are strange wooden traps hidden in the nearby forest, infrastructure such as bridges and freight train stations are in a state of near-collapse, and it takes almost no time at all to start finding bodies. Up first: a pair of severed legs on the train tracks. Time to track down their owner.
The entire experience tends to make you feel like you’ve just missed the actual game.
Finding bodies and reconstructing what happened to them is the primary puzzle you’ll solve in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but it’s not the only one. Murdered: Soul Suspect or LA Noire players will recognize the framework of the system — you walk around, locating clues to what happened that surround the crime scene. These are marked with text when you get near enough to them, creating a better investigatory presentation system than LA Noire’s hard-to-pin-down audible tones, and once you find a clue, Prospero will quickly look at it, gather information in the form of bits of floating text, and draw conclusions or leave with questions.
To advance each of these puzzles, you need to find missing objects that are part of the scenario — like a fireax that’s missing from its case in an old administrative building, or an oil lamp that’s left a stain near a box of matches. Track down the item and return it to its rightful spot, then discover all the other clues in the area, and Prospero will be able to use his supernatural abilities to see flashbacks of what happened to the victim.