Imagination is a powerful thing and, for the titular child at the heart of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, it serves as both a blessing and a curse. Ethan's imagination provides him with freedom while simultaneously alienating him from his own family. It’s an unspeakable horror that holds him captive as well as a hero intent on rescuing him. It provides both salvation and damnation and, for the player, it serves as the foundation for one hell of a narrative journey.
As I grow older, I find myself straying further and further away from the types of games that used to keep me glued to the television for hours on end. I find myself caring less about never-ending action sequences and extended shooting galleries, and caring more about interesting stories and unique experiences that I can't find anywhere else.
I still enjoy a good romp with the first-person shooters and action adventures of this world, but the game's that really stick with me these days are the ones that focus less on mechanics and more on showing me something magical. Games like Journey or Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons come to mind. They play fine and look lovely, sure, but what really matters in those games is that they genuinely want the player to feel something other than an adrenaline rush.
And that's exactly the camp that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter falls into, a game that launched for PC in 2014 and finally made its way to the PlayStation 4 this July. It's a game that's totally devoted to the story it wants to tell, as well as forcing the player to become completely lost in its mysterious world.
The moment I booted up Ethan Carter I was greeted with a message that states, “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” What could be mistaken as a smug warning actually serves as the perfect introduction to one of the best puzzle games I've played in a very long time.
Filling the shoes of Detective Paul Prespero, this single line of text let me know that this would be a case I needed to solve on my own. There would be no tutorial, no maps or narrative cues pointing me in a certain direction. This was a world full of questions and, using a very limited set of tools, I was being challenged to discover the answers.
Set in Red Creek Valley, a barely-there burg in rural Wisconsin, Vanishing boasts some of the best visuals the PlayStation 4 has seen to date. The landscapes are absolutely beautiful, frequently causing me to simply linger, look and listen to the world around me. But surrounded by all of those windblown trees, swaying oceans of grass and deep, deep shadows, a sense of unease quickly set in.
Something bad happened here; a fact I could have plucked from the air had Prepero's occasional monologues not made it abundantly clear. Helping elevate that unsettling atmosphere is a pitch-perfect soundtrack that sours at all the right moments before fading back into a haunting neutral state.
While the world of Ethan Carter is somewhat linear, it's cleverly built in a way that offers wide and frequently hidden paths between key locations. In a game that encourages you to explore, it gives you plenty of opportunities to (quite literally) get lost in the woods.
I slowly pick my way through plenty of forest, into the remains of ruined homes, along railroad tracks, down into a mine and along a riverbed. The environments are just as unnerving as the story that unfolds around them, telling the tale of a young boy who never fit in where he was supposed to feel most at home. The world doesn't understand Ethan, and that sense of isolation and loneliness bleeds into an environment that feels like its waiting to swallow Detective Prespero whole.
The only real problem with discussing a game like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is trying to find ways to talk about it that won't ruin the experience for other players, so I'll do my best to tiptoe down that tightrope with care.
Three main types of encounters are peppered throughout Red Creek Valley, all of which are executed to great effect. The first of these segments introduce you to the world as Carter sees it; a frightening realm inhabited by sad characters. Each one of these events—told via short stories—transport you into the imagination of the young author in unexpected ways. More than anything, though, they served to remind me that video games can be used to pull off some rather brilliant and unconventional forms of storytelling, and I truly hope to see more developers remember that fact in the future.
The second major sequences involve Prespero trying to solve various mysteries, the nature of which I'll let players discover for themselves. These segments play out sort of like an adventure game, requiring you to search the immediate area, manipulate a few pieces of the environment and then determine in what order a sequence of events took place.
The final major set pieces include a collection of environmental puzzles. As I was warned at the beginning of my journey, the game offered little in the form of support. Instead of simply turning dials to match a set of colors or using the Moon Key to open the Moon Lock, Carter's puzzles require actual thought, exploration and attention to detail. The result is a small collection of brain twisters that left me with a legitimate sense of accomplishment each time the mental tumblers fell into place.
A relatively short experience, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter clocks in at a little over four hours; which will vary depending on how quickly you're able to put all of the pieces together, how much backtracking you need to do and how thorough you are in your exploration. It feels perfect at that length, though, neither overstaying its welcome nor fading away before I had an opportunity to settle in.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the kind of game that makes me seek out other people who have played it, eager to discuss its mysteries, the just-off-center world, as well as the extremely satisfying resolution. It's a game about the power of imagination and, for a couple of wonderful evenings, it certainly captured mine.
This review based on a download copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Platforms:PS4 (reviewed), PC
Developer: The Astronauts
Publisher: The Astronauts