By Brian M. Sammons
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Developer: The Astronauts. Publisher: The Astronauts and Nordic Games. Release date: September 26, 2014. Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an indie horror/adventure game that first came out for the PC and has recently been ported to the PlayStation 4. I missed it when it came out on PC, but I heard some good buzz for it. When I was contacted by some PR people for its PS4 release, the trailer intrigued me. It looked like a good old-fashioned puzzler, with supernatural elements and perhaps a Lovecraftian horror twist. It also looked absolutely beautiful, graphically speaking. Well, I have now played it to completion, so did it live up to my expectations, or did it surpass them? There’s only one way to find out – come with me as we explore the mystery of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
You play as a PI type, Paul Prospero, and come complete with your very own noir-ish narration. What sets you apart from the other gumshoes is your psychic ability to examine a crime scene and literally see how events unfolded via ghostly images of the culprits and the deceased in action. Yeah, that’s one neat trick. Contacted by a 12-year-old boy in need of help, the titular Ethan, you travel to the wooded and serene small town of Red Creek Valley, Pennsylvania. There, you wander the countryside and eventually the town, both of which seem to be devoid of all human life, but not the remains of such life. Along the way, you come across one bizarre scene of murder after another and you must assemble the pieces of what happened. As you go, you uncover the story of how the Reed Creek Valley became a ghost town after the local mine collapsed, why Ethan’s family are out to murder the child, what the boy did to enrage them so, and what exactly does it mean when the visions of the past you see keep saying stuff like, “The Sleeper must not sleep.”
The strengths of this game are its truly beautiful graphics and the mystery at the heart of the story. That mystery is a good one. While not earth-shaking or anything, it works, has a few twists and turns that keep me guessing, and the payoff wasn’t an eye-rolling mess like so many other “You didn’t see that coming, did you?” endings are. Also, the hands-off kind of gameplay here was something I found really enjoyable. By that, I mean that the game designers give you a big, open-ended world to move through and leave you alone to explore it as you will. Now, there are some subtle ways they influence you to stay on the path and I won’t mention them here in case you do play this game. I’d rather you focus on the story and the cool world around you, and not be looking for the little tricks they use, but I will say that they are slight, clever and appreciated.
The main gameplay element are the puzzles. Those usually revolve around finding items, examining them, and figuring out how to use them in the world. Once you get that done, you then see several ghostly still images and you’ve got to figure out how they interact chronologically with each other. If you get that right, then you are treated to an animated scene, usually involving someone dying in a gruesome fashion, which propels the story forward. In addition to that, there are a few other puzzle types, some of a more magical nature, so if you are not a fan of puzzle games, be warned.
As for those Lovecraftian horror elements that I mentioned, oh, yeah, they’re here. I won’t go into too much detail about them, because I don’t want to ruin any surprises. That said, in this game, you do find insanity, murder, black magic, ancient tomes, things that wander the dark shadows that are best not seen, and scraps of paper with “That is not dead which can eternal lie ….” Well, you know the rest – or, at least, you should, considering where you are reading this. So, fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror will get a kick out of this game.
Final Verdict: If your idea of horror gaming is BOO jump scares and shooting zombies in the face with a shotgun, this probably isn’t the right title for you. If you have never played a puzzle game before, I’d highly suggest giving it a shot and seeing if you like it. If you like mood and atmosphere, then this game has that by the bucketload. And if you love Lovecraft, this game is a must. It’s beautiful, weird, creepy, Lovecraftian, changeling, and fun. I recommend it highly.