Most games are played for fun. Some, however, are meant to be experienced.
Delivering an experience appears to be the main mode of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, an indie “walking simulator” open-world puzzle game developed by the Polish studio The Astronauts. The game begins in a dark tunnel, revealing a beautifully rendered landscape that spreads out before the player as they emerge. It is autumn, and the late afternoon sun glimmers through the rustling leaves. The soundtrack warbles a melancholy tune on flute. But as the game goes on, an atmosphere of unease, thick as molasses, descends. The world is empty and devoid of life; the player, a paranormal detective, chases after the ghosts of victims of crimes long committed. Amid the beautiful fall vistas, dark things lurk just outside the player’s experience, only hinted at by the corpses they encounter on their journey, and the main character’s dark mutterings about the evil things that lurk beyond human ken.
The game winds you up with that feeling of unease that intensifies with every piece of the puzzle in place. I must say, every time I mustered the willpower to play the game, I did so with some reluctance. Only the promise of absolution gained by the imminent unveiling of the eponymous mystery drove me on.
Make no mistake, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has strong horror elements; while there is no combat, no all-powerful predator that stalks and eviscerates, the horror is subtler, murkier, and lurks deep, not acute. It draws from respected tradition – Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, King’s The Shining, or any horror story that lurches out of the catatonia of village living. On top of that, however, the game has a surprising meta-level narrative that is tragic and melancholy, and deftly interweaves commentary on authorship and story creation: that stories thrive on conflict – on the rage, disappointment, and pain of their characters.
Technically, the game is undoubtedly beautiful. Textures are almost photorealistic, everything is nicely laid out, and the art direction culminates in the almost pitch-perfect rendition of a valley in autumn, and a mining town long abandoned. Shot through this beautiful vistas, however, is that sense of unease that produces a kind of discord with the surroundings, limiting (perhaps deliberately) the aesthetic enjoyment of the scene. It’s regrettable that it is relatively static and non-interactive.
The game’s chief flaws lie in its gameplay and design. The game is divided into many discrete “puzzles”, each of which need to be solved as a whole – collecting clues, solving puzzles, and putting everything into its proper place to recreate the scene. Only upon completion of the entire puzzle will the game note the completion – which means you can’t leave puzzles half-solved and log off, because the puzzle will reset when you continue from where you left off. It can be quite frustrating, and takes away from the immersion somewhat.
Another thing is that the open-world design is not intuitive. The player can solve the discrete puzzles in any order, and these contribute to unveiling the narrative. However, this design renders the narrative somewhat unfocused and not very compelling, especially if the player completes puzzles out of the order suggested by the game world layout. It is easy to miss out on a puzzle, item or clue and have to backtrack to complete it, and this also takes away from the experience.
In addition, the game’s puzzle mechanics are a little hard to figure out at first. The game involves you solving puzzles by reconstructing events that lead to murders. To do this, the player must locate items germane to the case that are scattered through the area and bring them back to the crime scene in order to create a resonance by which the player character, a psychic detective, can reconstruct the events of the crime by tapping on the victim’s memories. The system is unintuitive enough that I left the first puzzle unsolved, thinking that the pieces of the puzzle would only be available later, only to forget about the puzzle and backtrack a fair distance to complete it later. Some of the puzzles also fail at internal logic. For example, one puzzle required that I find something in the dark. However, when I found it, it was not selectable – I had to figure out another part of the puzzle first to get light to shine on the object before it became selectable. Apparently, psychic detectives can’t find things in the dark.
Narratively, the game is understated and surprisingly multi-layered. However, production values on the characters and voice-acting were not up to par with the environments. The dialogue was stilted, voice-acting was largely forced and unconvincing, and NPC faces were not rendered with the same level of fidelity as the rest of the game.
Control-wise, the game is unremarkable. The player character is nothing more than a floating camera. There is no weight or heft to his actions; the player feels little sense of presence in the world. As a walking simulator that ostensibly promotes exploration, the game could have done this better. The player avatar’s default movement speed is unbearably slow without that sense of rootedness in the world, and I found myself holding down the shift key to hurry up.
In sum, however, while I’ve listed many criticisms, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is still a great indie gem that accomplishes its goal admirably – to construct an experience through atmosphere and narrative. A nice thing about it is that its meanings and themes continue to unpack even as you exit the game, numb and questioning, after watching that final, ambiguous scene.
I give this game: 4 out of 5 burnt-down houses
+ Beautiful world
+ Surprisingly multi-layered narrative
+ Some well-constructed puzzles
– Other puzzles not so well-made
– Voice acting and characters could use some improvements
– Not intuitive in terms of design