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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review: Lost and Found
Platform: Windows PC
Developer: The Astronauts
Publisher: The Astronauts
Release Date: 9/25/2014
For as many accolades as narratively-focused gaming experiences like Gone Home generate, there are still plenty who find such titles mechanically-lacking. Although there’s definitely an argument to be made here that to ask for more mechanics and systems would not only come at the cost of the immersive storytelling that these games commit to (not to mention to miss the point entirely), it’s not that hard to see where these critics are coming from. Regardless of which side of the discussion you fall upon, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter very much feels like a fascinating response to it.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first-person adventure game that sees you take on the role of Paul Prospero, a pulp-detective in search of answers after he receives some ominous fan mail from a young Ethan Carter. Spurred by Ethan’s invitation, and soon after disappearance, the game sees Prospero trek across the vast wilderness of Red Creek Valley in search of the Ethan.
The majority of the story is told through a combination of stories left behind by Ethan, ghostly Bioshock-esque visions of the past and Prospero’s own internal monologues. The narrative constantly keeps you on your toes and I really enjoyed how it kept you guessing. Additionally, I enjoyed the synergy between the expansive narrative and its open world design. Each area tells a vignette, a snippet of Ethan Carter’s greater story – and while you do have to complete all of these vignettes to reach the end, it’s not uncommon for you to miss one or two on your first run through the game. That said, all this would only be half as effective without the impressive visuals and atmosphere.
The setting of Red Creek Valley is not only one that triumphs in scale but also detail. I found myself constantly stopping to take screenshots of the game and while there are plenty of maps and landmarks to keep you from getting too lost, there’s a lot of fun in just exploring the world. Developer The Astronauts have done an incredible job here. When combined with its stellar voice-acting, writing and soundtrack – there’s a real sense of place to the world.
The major evolution-to-the-formula that separates The Vanishing of Ethan Carter from its contemporaries are its puzzles. In particular, I really enjoyed one particular section that saw Prospero mentally-reconstruct the interior of a burnt out home and another that had me navigate a terrifying underground maze. Aside from these, there are also some more-spectacular segments of the game where you utilize Prospero’s ability to see into the past. These puzzles see you find and connect evidence across a crime scene to put together a picture of what events unfolded. These were by far the most rewarding sequences in the game and I liked how they tied to Prospero’s own backstory.
Though cynics have been quick to brand the emerging subgenre ‘walking-simulators’, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a compelling and well-executed evolution nonetheless. Its stellar visuals are sure to impress, though its at-times-surreal narrative might not be for everyone. In any case, at its low price point, it’s a solid 3-5 hour experience I can easily recommend.