Have you played… The Vanishing of Ethan Carter?

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Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

Watching walking simulators evolve from the waffling emptiness of Dear Esther into remarkable narrative adventures like Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch has been one of my favourite spectator sports as a games journalist. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the better stepping stones on this long and winding road. It has players assume the role of psychic detective Paul Prospero, who arrives in the gorgeous Red Creek Valley on the trail of a missing boy.

As with so many of these games, the environment design is stunning, a blend of verdant forests and decaying architecture slowly being reclaimed by nature. Your relaxing woodland walk is interspersed with moments of mystery and eerie pseudo-horror. Prospero is able to visualise human memories imprinted on the world, which forms one of the game’s central mechanics. Meanwhile, there are multiple set stories to discover, each with a unique puzzle attached to it, such as a dilapidated house whose interior turns into a disorientating maze.

Ethan Carter is one of the few games to be inspired by Twin Peaks in a way that doesn’t simply involve referencing it incessantly. It strikes that tonal balance between luxuriating in a quaint pastoral idyll, then yanking you from your reverie with something dark and inexplicable. I hated the ending, and would have preferred the developers to play their story straight rather than opting for a rather hackneyed twist, but the journey itself is an enjoyable mix of relaxing walkabout and haunting storytelling.

24 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    The core mechanic of deducing a sequence of events through environmental clues picked up through free exploration is pretty close to my platonic ideal of gameplay. It’s a shame that Ethan Carter just doesn’t come together. The ending is awful, as you mention, and the timed mazes and jump scares that show up in the back half just completely ruin it.

    Then the cherry on top is that Chmielarz went all in on a certain regressive movement in our hobby and became the king of indie dev bad takes.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      Chmielarz needs to git gud

    • RuySan says:

      Didn’t know who he was and came across his blog and was actually impressed by how good he his at game design cricticism. Example of his take on Her Story:

      link to theastronauts.com

      So thanks, I guess.

      • Ghostwise says:

        It’s curious how, when it is pointed out that a creator is misogynistic and/or a bigot, someone always pops up to go “OMG this guys is great thank you for mentioning him I shall treasure his work now that you have told me about him.”

        • RuySan says:

          So you’re implying that I’m acting up?

          I’ve read more of his blog and I see lots of great articles (the one about Tale of Tales demise is fantastic) and not anything misogynistic. There’s one where he disagrees with Sarkeesian, but that doesn’t necessarily makes him a machist.

        • RichUncleSkeleton says:

          He probably didn’t realize that Mr. Chmielarz has been declared anathema by the Church of Internet Progressivism.

        • jonahcutter says:

          “Pointed out”, or unfounded accusation?

          I’ve read him. I’ve seen zero evidence of misogyny specifically or bigotry in general. But he does operate outside the narrow, shallow, blindered, speech-suppressing confines of what many social justice peeps consider acceptable.

          • Premium User Badge

            zapatapon says:

            As one more evidence of his open-mindedness, he generally avoids broad sweeping statements, derogatory adjective-loaded prose, and expressions akin to “social justice warriors”.

        • PancakeWizard says:

          I take it the irony is lost on you, here?

      • MikoSquiz says:

        Huh, OK. I don’t entirely agree with his definition of what constitutes a game, but that’s really a very astute and insightful critique.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Dios says:


    the waffling emptiness of Dear Esther

    I’ll never understand why people shit on Dear Esther but praise Proteus…

    • Rich says:

      Dear Esther (enhanced rerelease) was my first experience with a walking sim. It was a good experience (I wouldn’t call it fun) but there were bits that were just too damn slow. I don’t think I’ve ever walked that slow in my life.

    • Sardonic says:

      Never played Proteus but Dear Esther was utterly miserable to me, it was totally devoid of the interesting environmental storytelling that makes walking simulators good to me, and there was just such a wafting arrogance to it.

    • LTK says:

      The nice thing about Proteus is that it hasn’t got a whiff of pretention to it. You just walk around the island, discover things, and immerse yourself in its nature. Dear Esther, on the other hand, took itself very seriously and felt like little more than a vehicle for the narration, which told a story that ultimately left me cold. Give me the undirected, freeform experience of Proteus any day.

  3. Ben King says:

    *SPOILERS* I flipped out with suprise and glee when the space ball erupted out of the earth in the second chapter, but I actually wasn’t a big fan of the “sequence the events” mechanic which showed up from time to time- the second iteration I found myself employing some trial and error to surmount some clues that were more clever than I was, and by that point I was coming to expect a unique puzzle at each chapter. I enjoyed the disparate collection of fantastical tales, and the story framing them up seemed as strong to the individuals making up the whole. I really enjoyed it. Plus it was gorgeous good god.

  4. slartibartfast says:

    *Spoilers Ahead*

    I was playing it until at one point I went in to the basement of some dilapidated house and foolishly ignored a sign saying “Don’t go beyond this point”. I though nothing of it and went right on passed that point. I also thought nothing of it when some kind of zombie thing appeared (I thought it was just a vision or something) and then in the next moment the zombie thing appeared RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FACE AND UNCEROMONIOUSLY KILLED ME.

    I let out an actual scream that had my wife come upstairs to ask what had happened. I thought it was just a walk-em-up and nothing I had experienced up until that point made me think there would be a jump scare. I’m not ashamed to say I uninstalled the game there and then and haven’t been back to it since.

    • MrMetlHed says:

      Yeah, so I played the game in VR as one of my first Oculus games. The eeriness factor was high and when that stupid zombie showed up I nearly fell over and hurt myself.

    • Premium User Badge

      mattmattmatty says:

      Me too. It’s been a while since I played the game, but is there not an opening title card that basically says ‘this game does not have jump scares in it’, or words to that effect?

      Ethan Carter was also the game where I learned my controller had a vibration motor in it. A fun day all around :/

  5. LearningToSmile says:

    I loved the ending. One of my favorites, really. The space sequence is still the high point of the game.

    I’m really disappointed the next game is going to be a shooter.

    • Frosty Grin says:

      I loved the ending too. I’d say it’s one of the very few stories where the “It was all a dream” twist isn’t a letdown. Didn’t really like the core gameplay, but in total it’s one of my favorite games.

  6. JustAchaP says:

    The Varnishing of Ethan Carter.

  7. racccoon says:

    no sorry i haven’t..yet.

  8. eeikka says:

    I found the ending quite satisfying, not that kind of ending what I would hoped for the persons in story but .. well quite refreshingly satisfying.

    May I ask of people who found the ending straight awful, why you found it awful? I’m interested in how people experience stories, so just want to understand more. Was it because of ‘dream solution’?

  9. Urthman says:

    TOTAL SPOILERS

    Maybe I’m just an idiot, but this game suckered me over and over in the best way. You glimpse that space guy and chase him to the ship and you’re thinking, “Wait, so *this* is what the game is really about?” And then it turns out that you got caught briefly in one of the kid’s stories.

    But then I stumbled upon the witch stuff — Ah, this is likely the actual genre of the game, but No! Another story.

    Then I found the Lovecraftian stuff — Oh *this* is what the game is really about. Nope! Gotcha again!

    I think I fell for it every time. Like I said, maybe I was just dumb, but it seemed to me that the game did a really good job of integrating each story in a way that made me think maybe this time I was finding the “real” truth. It could have seemed cheap and annoying, but I thought they pulled it off in a way that made me enjoy being fooled. I always felt like “Oh, I should have seen that” rather than like I’d been cheated.

    And given all that, I thought the ending was fair and just right. The game has been telling you the entire time that you must be some kind of fictional character, since you keep finding yourself inside of the kid’s stories.

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