If there’s one thing you can instantly mention as defining trait for this game it’s the graphics. There’s simply no denying that “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” looks gorgeous. The first moment you set foot into the fictional setting of “Red Creek Valley” you will experience one of the most well-designed and realistic sceneries you have ever experienced in a video game. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that this game was done by a small indie company called “The Astronauts” – a name that has quite the ambiguous meaning when you look back at what this game had to offer. But that’s nothing to spoil at this point. So, as with any good story, let’s start with the beginning…
Impersonating “Paul Prospero”, a detective with supernatural abilities, you’ll find yourself within a beautiful scenery placed nearby a small settlement. Your task is to unravel the mysteries behind the eponymous Vanishing of Ethan Carter – the same person that called you in to solve the mysteries abound. Aside from that you won’t get a lot of hints during the game, and there’s not much of an in-game UI to guide you along. Most of the story is told in inner monologues and pieces of information you find inside the vast, highly detailed and fully explorable area.
But the stunning beauty of the scenery is very soon overshadowed by the small dark signs and story pieces you unravel, most of which telling a story of things gone horribly wrong. Most of the population is missing, and the few beings you find are deceased and won’t be able to tell you a lot. Luckily your abilities allow you to reconstruct the cause of death of a person, given that you find all the other evidence involved. After puzzling the pieces together you can put the happenings in order and get hints on where you need to go next. This is also the main mechanic in the game and you will have to use your special gift several times until you unravel the horrible truth behind Red Creek Valley.
Vanishing’s undirected way of storytelling means that the pacing highly depends on your ability to find the next areas of interests and make the right decisions. This is a very slow-paced and classical adventure in both the best and worst sense of the word. Many game elements resemble the old “Myst” titles, with puzzles and solutions that may not always be easy to follow. While learning pretty quickly that areas you encounter usually have the solution nearby, hints are not always conveyed in a transparent way. This can lead to frustration and backtracking, stretching the game’s lenght unnecessarily as there is no fast-travel option or any other means of quick transportation. If you missed something way back and didn’t complete the puzzle you need to walk there yourself, which can take up to 10 min. considering the huge size of the area.
All slow pacing issues left aside, the mechanics and riddles are sound and logical for the most part. Whatever the case, be prepared to bring a lot of patience if you don’t want to resort to reading a walk-through. On the other hand, if you take the time to play this game with the right moodset and a healthy amount of curiosity, you might discover new places and interesting side-stories that you wouldn’t have found otherwise. With the landscape and ambient sound effects being so meticulously put together, walking around and exploring the world is a reward by itself. You’ll more than often find yourself stopping to marvel at a scenery.
If there are any shortcomings to mention in this game it would be the game’s mechanics. Most of your “Vanishing” adventure relies on the “put the evidence back together” mechanic in order to reconstruct the happenings. While this idea is well-implemented and easy to comprehend there is not a lot of variety to it. Yes, the small story pieces are fantastically crafted and also come with a lot of unexpected surprises. But playing as a detective i would expect more of your skills to of use instead of just the supernatural ones. With that said, highly welcome changes in pacing and game mechanics can still be found, but they were too few and far between. As i was playing to the very end i just was left with that unshakeable feeling of having experienced a great story, but just not enough game to go along with it.
Let me conclude this review with a few statements that put the negative points in perspective: “Vanishing of Ethan Carter” is a beautiful work of art. There are so many details to find and theories to craft that each player will get an experience of his own. The game mechanics are all solid enough to hold the game together and keep you interested through the whole journey. Sound and world design can compete with AAA titles, yet alone put many of them to shame. But the pacing and openness of the world also dictate your speed. The overall experience may last between 3-5h, and your mileage can vary greatly depending on your capability to find the important areas soon enough without getting frustrated.
But having finally reached the end you will feel a bit like an astronaut. You explored something completely new, and your experience, paths chosen and memories taken were your own. For me that is a clear characteristic of a great game.
So what happened to Ethan?
The end is pretty obvious in that regard: Ethan dies due to fume intoxication as he is locked up in the secret room as the fire breaks out. The fact that all of his relatives were alive at the end reveals the whole “mystery-murder-story” as a figment of his imagination. All the clocks in the game indicate 7 o’clock, and according to the story Ethan dies (or loses consciousness) at 07:04 PM. We are basically living the last moments his life whilst being a fictive character as well. There are some interesting points in the game that fortify this conclusion:
- All bits of storylines we experience throughout the game are part of his imagination. They are largely fictive, overdrawn and incoherent storylines which are only tied together by his “family” being the actors.
- The clocks standing still at 7:00 PM and the sun not moving at all symbolizes the “time standing still before his death” as you are basically living through 4 minutes of his life.
- Ethan was fleeing from reality most of his time, which explains the many fantasy novels you find in his house and the hidden room which could also belong to his inventive father. Ethan’s escape could also be caused by the fact that he was bullied by his older brother Travis and uncle Chad. His family being torn apart over the Vandergriff heirloom could also play a huge role in this circumstance.
- The “Darkness / Sleeper” that befalls Ethan’s family could symbolize the greed that is caused by the riches lying in the Vandergriff mine, which would eventually cause the family members to attack or even kill each other. It becomes pretty obvious that the whole vast area counts to the Vandergriff heirloom as no other houses or settlements are nearby. The dam is also a sign of self-sustainment, further fortifying the theory that Ethan’s family gets mad during the extended period of isolation.
- “Paul Prospero” seems to be a made-up name, with the last name meaning “favorable / fortunate” due to his unnatural gifts. He impersonates the hero that Ethan made up or strives to be. The fact that you cannot leave the whole area of “Red Creek” also fortifies that you are part of a storyline that you literally cannot escape.
Do you have any own theories about this game? Feel free to share and comment below. I’d be happy to discuss! 🙂