By Marty Mulrooney
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is, in the developer’s own words, ‘a first-person mystery game focused on exploration and discovery’. Players take control of paranormal investigator Paul Prospero as he journeys to Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin. The year is 1973 and a young boy named Ethan Carter has written a disturbing fan letter, prompting Prospero to set out on a mission to find the missing boy. Upon arrival, he’s greeted by a ghost town abandoned for well over a decade, and a series of local murders that all tie in to a dark family secret. Originally released on PC in 2014, this “console first” PlayStation 4 exclusive is the first Unreal Engine 4 version of the game (the earlier PC version used Unreal Engine 3) and features numerous improvements.
“Ethan Carter I didn’t know. But he knew who I was. When the police won’t help you, and the priests don’t believe you, you call on Paul Prospero. You call on me.”
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t interested in holding the player’s hand, with an on-screen warning immediately clarifying this unorthodox approach by independent Polish studio The Astronauts. Instead, this unique narrative experience is all about getting literally and figuratively lost in a semi-open world… and what a gorgeous world it is. After emerging from a long dark tunnel into piercing white sunlight, you’re left to forage in the woods around the outskirts of Red Creek Valley for yourself.
You may find yourself setting off a series of dangerous man-made traps (although there’s no need to fear – you can’t die… yet), or chasing a mysterious astronaut through long grass, between tall trees and over rocky outcrops. More than likely, you’ll miss these ‘puzzles’ entirely and simply stumble across your first dead body after taking a rather pleasant stroll through the woods. Words written in white handwriting will pop up over areas of interest, new ones forming in their place as Prospero follows a particular line of thought. It’s minimalistic, odd, creepy and utterly captivating.
That first dead body found near the abandoned train tracks offers a great tutorial for one of the game’s key puzzle elements – solving murders. The player must explore the surrounding area, interacting with objects and hotspots that were involved. Once all of these have been discovered, the world suddenly becomes ethereal (and tinted blue), revealing the ghostly outlines of people in the past during key moments leading up to the murder. These moments must be placed in order to unlock a replay of what really happened.
These detective sequences work well, and although there are only really a handful of ‘puzzles’, they’re not all murder mysteries – one standout head-scratcher involves journeying through a dilapidated house (once you’ve reached the town) where each doorway can be altered to change the room on the other side. You need to choose the correct room before stepping through, otherwise you’ll be dumped back at the front door. Yet The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t really about challenging puzzles, or even gameplay in the traditional sense. Instead, you’ll keep playing to unravel the mystery of what really happened to Ethan and his family.
To say any more would be to diminish the bizarre ‘weird fiction’ story being told, but suffice to say the no-doubt polarising ending is well-earned over the course of the game’s approximately 4 hour playtime. It’s refreshing to experience an ending that makes sense despite an at times seemingly nonsensical plot – whether the payoff is worth it will be down to personal taste and each individual player. Despite a lack of interaction and its marmite plot, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter still comes highly recommend to all – exploring the world is a constant delight and the incredible graphics (achieved using a technique called photogrammetry) will make all that walking culminate in an unforgettable adventure come 7.04 on the clock.
8 OUT OF 10