Note: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of those rare games where even discussing the mechanics in detail might spoil the story. As such, I’ve done my best to recount my experiences while giving away as little as possible.
From the start, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter walks in with a fair amount of swagger it hadn’t quite earned. It opens by declaring “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand,” and after a quick bit of narrative setup (you are a paranormal investigator, and you’re here to help the missing Ethan Carter), it dumps you in the middle of a forest. Even as I sighed at the childish chest-beating, the world around me quickly silenced my cynicism. Ethan Carter had its fair share of problems, but when it came to first impressions, it delivered one hell of a right hook.
I can say, without a trace of hyperbole, that Ethan Carter is one of the most technically gorgeous games ever made. The dreamlike lighting, dilapidated structures and bristling trees are presented in such vivid detail that you’ll often find yourself planted to the ground, soaking in one unfathomably lovely moment after the other. The rare glimpses of other humans don’t quite stand on the same level of technological achievement, but their inferior presentation is a small price to pay for such a wondrous environment.
It’s easy to find yourself bewitched by the sheer charm of the world, exploring the environment with a sense of curious reverence. You’ll prod at the puzzles and clues, grinning from ear to ear when they led somewhere mysterious and altogether unexpected. By doing away with the routine guidance systems and staying silent about what you can do within this eroded village, the game makes you feel like a true genius for unraveling its secrets.
That illusion holds firm for an hour or two until you stumble upon another scene that uses the exact same structure. And the next scene. And the scene after that. Half of Ethan Carter’s puzzles (I can’t talk much about the second pair of puzzles beyond mentioning that they range from clever to downright infuriating) play out one specific scenario endlessly, never deviating too far from their set path or ramping up the difficulty. In fact, the challenge decreases in the latter half, with fewer steps needed and an easily discernible chronological path (don’t worry, it’s not what you think) to follow. Then again, the simplification of a long-solved pattern might be a blessing in disguise; by the time you reach the bottom of the dam, you’ll probably grow tired of the busywork and feel an urge to get on with the story.
Sadly, Ethan Carter’s beloved neck of the woods were built more for admiration than traversal. The leisurely pace works when you’re taking in the sights for the very first time, but once you know where you are going, it’ll take ages to get there. Even holding down the sprint button won’t make much of a difference; the “sprinting” speed feels like it should be the default, and gluing your finger to one button during the last few hours isn’t particularly comfortable. Ethan Carter’s mystery is far too diminutive for the world that contains it, and nothing sucks the wind from my sails quite like extended, uneventful backtracking.
Still, The Astronauts put a lot of care into the plot, which works hard to save the game from the bowels of mediocrity. Players with a quicker wit might surmise its ultimate direction far sooner than I did, but I doubt any skilled clairvoyance would ruin the ending’s impact. Even the less-than-stellar voice acting couldn’t dilute the raw emotion that followed. It wasn’t the reveal I prepared for when I first entered the woods, and it left me contemplating the implications for several nights.
The best summary I can give for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (without treading into major spoiler territory) involves comparing it to a love letter. It might be an overly lengthy, needlessly sappy letter, but there’s something almost childlike about the elements it chooses to champion, and it knows when to tug at your heart strings. It doesn’t quite redeem the sheer amount of time spent doing absolutely nothing, but if you’re looking for a gorgeous game with Lovecraftian themes, you could do far worse than Ethan Carter.
A review code for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was provided by the developer.