The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter Doesn’t Want Your Opinions
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a masterful harmony between form and function. The Astronauts know what a beautiful environment they’ve constructed and not a bit of it is allowed to go unnoticed. Every mechanic in the game is designed to make you see Red Creek Valley, not just wander through passively appreciating it, but to focus and really see its details.
In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the player assumes the role of detective Paul Prospero, an alliterative name that fits the ethereal, noir personality of the game. Prospero has arrived in Red Creek Valley after receiving a letter from a young boy named Ethan. Ethan Carter is Prospero’s journey to the heart of Red Creek Valley and the steadily unfolding story of Ethan and his family.
Ethan Carter neatly sidesteps an easy classification into either the Horror or Thriller genres.
Throughout the several hours of play time in Ethan Carter, the game rations its story in small scenes that the player must make sense of by organizing single moments into chronological order. For each scene, the player must first track down clues and props integral to the action. In order to find them, Prospero has a “sense” ability that allows him to see an object that is missing, discern its general direction, and see a vision of its immediate surroundings. It’s a perfect implementation that by nature trains the player to notice details and orient themselves within the valley. Once the pieces have been found and placed, Prospero enters into a sort of psychic state that allows him to see individual moments of a larger scene, enacted by the specters of Ethan and his family. By sampling each moment, the player determines their proper order, at which point the entire scene plays out, often delivering more questions than it answers about Ethan’s disappearance.
From a mechanical perspective, I have only small complaints. The controls are straight-forward and generally no-nonsense. You walk with WASD, look around with the mouse, and interact with the E key. Like many other “walking simulators”, the impatient player can hold the Shift key to run. It should be noted that the game also supports controller input but I happened to play with keyboard and mouse. There is one point late in the game which forces the player to crouch in order to progress — something they had no occasion to try at any point prior. I may deserve being called a slow player, but I backtracked from my objective three times before thinking to look through the control menu for a crouch key. I’d never been inclined, asked, or directed to crouch so far in the game, so why now?
For all that Ethan Carter does not shy away from dark themes, creepy atmosphere, and its fair share of bloody violence, it neatly side-steps an easy classification into either the Horror or Thriller genres. Rather than using smoke and mirrors to disturb the player, Ethan Carter relies on isolation to carry its mood. The creepiest moments in the game are made so not by tense music or sudden movements but by their absence. It boasts only one true “jump scare” — which itself feels out of place and farcical for being the sole one of its kind.
Ethan Carter will never force you to pigeonhole your thoughts in a dialogue tree that could never do the subject justice.
If regressing away from a popular mechanic back into the territory it once replaced can be called innovative, then Ethan Carter has threaded that particular needle. My favorite part of Ethan Carter is the freedom of non-expression that it gives the player. The current vogue for narrative-driven games is for a player to choose dialogue for their character in order to commentate on or influence the story. It’s a wonderful development in game writing but its inclusion, even in franchises who never expressed interest in narrative in the past, is becoming expected. At its worst, the dialogue wheel becomes one-dimensional and trite by asking the player to neatly confine their reactions to “happy”, “angry”, and “sarcastic”. Ethan Carter is a game where you never interact with another living person. Without any narrative foil, neither the player nor Prospero are ever asked for their opinion. Even Prospero’s rare internal monologue lacks any real judgment of the horrors he’s witnessed. Ethan Carter delivers a story with dark themes like abuse, neglect, depression, and madness with no dramatic bloodlust, even in its most violent moments. These are all concepts worth discussing and debating, but the game will never force you to pigeonhole your thoughts in a dialogue tree that could never do the subject justice. It’s a story-driven game which only asks that you, as the player, witness it.
#SpoilerAlert: Alludes To The Ending
I have to mention — at least in vague terms — the ending of Ethan Carter. The conclusion of the story feels as if it is scolding the player for believing in its facade. It is not as sinful as the “it was all a dream” trope, but does leave the player feeling similarly dissatisfied. Even though I feel that the ending left me robbed of the explanation I was due, I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent fully exploring Red Creek Valley. After returning for a second playthrough, I will concede that by no means was Ethan Carter’s ending an afterthought or a cop-out. It was woven into the clues around the valley and the setting itself from the very beginning. It only stung because I wanted so badly to take the story at face-value.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is, above all else, gorgeous and intriguing. A few outliers like unexplained crouching and an errant jump scare detract from an otherwise smooth experience — but only minimally so. Its main puzzle-solving task is quickly understood but retains its level of challenge in each new scenario. It brings a refreshing disregard for player participation in the course of its narrative. Although the ending leaves something to be desired, I can’t help but feel that though it was not the ending I wanted, it was the ending that I, and Ethan, deserved.