Folks, I’m just going to come out and say it right here at the top: I love that the first-person narrative adventure is becoming a thing. When I say that thing that I just said, what I’m talking about is any game in first-person view, with a focus on telling a story more than on the gameplay that comes with it. That’s not to say that actual mechanics can’t be an important part of the story, but they take a backseat in this type of game, handing the steering wheel over to setting, atmosphere, and writing. I think my personal first exposure to this type of game was The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther back in 2012, followed later by Fullbright’s well-celebrated Gone Home the following year. There have been some garish missteps in the genre as it has flourished and become something recognizable – looking at you, Master Reboot – but the genre’s sense of identity has continued to evolve through landmark titles in a way that has been quite interesting to trace.
Last year, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter released on Steam, hoping to be another significant chapter in that same evolution. Now, a year later, it has released on Playstation 4, and I’ve finally been afforded the chance to check it out myself. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter plays with the concept of storytelling itself, weaving stories within stories into a multi-layered tapestry that finds a home amongst pine trees and abandoned houses.
Paul Prospero is a private detective, drawn to the mysterious and atmospheric Red Creek Valley by a series of letters from the elusive young Ethan Carter. Initially thinking them nothing more than pestering bits of fan mail, Prospero becomes concerned when the letters take a darker turn, suggesting that Ethan may have gotten involved in something dark, dangerous, and much larger than himself. Red Creek Valley is deserted, populated only by empty houses, dense pine forests, and a vast, deep lake. The mysterious disappearance of the valley’s residents is not easily solved, and it is up to Prospero to unravel the narrative that lies beneath the soil.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells its story through a variety of supernatural occurrences. The player will discover items to inspect throughout the world that will trigger bits of insight into something connected to them. Maybe there’s a rack of tools, with a space for a missing pickaxe. Holding a button will show the player a limited-scope vision of the missing pickaxe’s location, pushing them to find the item and return it to its place. Other times, the player might have to find a set of items in an area to uncover a story left by the elusive Ethan, or a chapter of the larger story surrounding him.
There are a whole bunch of story threads in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and lending to the game’s greater sense of exploration is the fact that a lot of them can be done in whatever order the player wants. These are divided into two basic types. The first comes in the form of investigation, in which the player will find a crime scene and have to pout together the path that led to it. This is done by putting certain objects in the world into the places where they seem to belong, and then examining the center of the crime scene. From there,five pieces of narrative will appear in the area around the crime scene, each one a brief moment frozen in time, all revealing bits of the narrative. The player has to roam the are and mark the order of these moments in order to watch the cutscene play out, and get another chapter of the larger story at hand. It’s a cool form of investigation that works very well, although the last couple of instances of it strangely seem easier to solve than earlier ones. This is understandable, as some scenes are confined to fairly linear spaces, but its something of a shame nonetheless.
The second type of puzzle is actually not a single type at all. As mentioned above, players will find various stories written by Ethan as they traverse Red Creek Valley. How these are actually found, though, brings another taste of the supernatural into the mix. Each story has come alive in its own way, affecting the area around it and creating a series of puzzles that range from finding some animal traps in the woods in order to complete a visual puzzle, to exploring a vast underground maze, uncovering secrets about a cult that once operated there. These are a lot more varied than the investigation puzzles, and some of the most enjoyable parts of the game. Each puzzle has its own theme, and its own take on its surroundings.
Red Creek Valley is an absolutely gorgeous place. This new Playstation 4 version of the game runs on Unreal Engine 4, meaning that the place pops with more realism than ever. As someone who personally lives in the same type of lakeside wilderness in which the game takes place, I was continuously awed by how precise and gorgeous everything looked, from the lighting and shading choices made to the use of haze and color on the water. Red Creek Valley is reminiscent of a lot of areas in Northeast America, and borders on a photo-realistic level of resemblance. A friend who owns a rather expensive gaming PC watched me play the first hour or so of this game, and told me that he didn’t think even his beast of a machine could render some of what was going on on-screen. He spoke with a twinge of fear in his voice.
The story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is not overtly fast-paced, instead taking a sort of sleepy, dreamlike pace that matches the overall atmosphere and tun of Red Creek Valley itself. It becomes fairly obvious what is going on from the first investigation, and so the story of Ethan’s family is less about uncovering secrets, and more about watching how they affect the characters, all of them only seen in those crime scene flashback moments. The game ends with a satisfying and clever twist, followed by a conclusion that is not quite so satisfying, but which is certainly final.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a well-paced mystery, full of stories within stories that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The variety in its types of puzzles is just potent enough that players will be frequently challenged over the roughly 4-hour playtime, but will often have certain standbys to fall back on. Red Creek Valley is a beautiful place to explore, both in visual crafting and in a decent amount of openness, with many of the game’s puzzles discoverable in any order. The storytelling on display here is really cool, taking the core of stuff like the well-known Gone Home and adding something a little more supernatural. There is a vague sense of uncertainty and danger within Red Creek Valley, and the game communicates this wonderfully. Some puzzles seem to get oddly simpler near the end of the linear part of the game’s story, and the end is one half satisfying and the other half frustrating, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter still earns a place among the must-play games in the developing genre of which it is a part.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC , Playstation 4 (Reviewed); Publisher: The Astronauts; Developer: The Astronauts; Players: 1; Released: Sept. 25, 2014 (PC), July 15, 2015 (PS4); Genre: Adventure; MSRP: $19.99
Note: This review was performed on review code provided by The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s publisher. All images captured directly from Playstation 4.