The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter, the first game from The Astronauts, offers a strikingly beautiful haunting journey exploring the mystery of the disappearance of a young boy. From the developers who brought us Bulletstorm (when they were People Can Fly), it couldn't be a more different game. Here's wot I think:
There is no doubt in my mind that The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter is the most beautiful-looking game I’ve played. It’s breathtaking. It’s call-someone-in-from-another-room to-take-a-look gorgeous. Sumptuous forests, extraordinary vistas, old dilapidated buildings against a mesmeric sunset. No game since the original Far Cry has had me stop and just stare so frequently.
I’m not sure if any game could live up to graphics this wonderful. I’m not sure if Ethan Carter does. I’m not sure.
This is one of those situations where to explain almost anything about the first-person exploration/adventure game is to take away from your experience of playing it. Who you are, what you’re doing, who Ethan Carter is, why in the opening moments of the game you’re discovering deadly traps set in the woods, and then the mutilated remains of a man by a train track – the uncovering of the experience is the experience, so I shan’t talk about the specifics of the story at all.
What The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter does wonderfully is create a place. A vast, curved dam offers a path from the opening woods to a small, run-down town, all above what looks like it might be industrial buildings beside the river far below. The town’s few buildings are extraordinarily beautiful and tragic, abandoned, lost to their past. A church higher up the hill is of extraordinary architecture, with a haunting and noble graveyard, and unsettling crypts. Everything is so meticulously crafted, and so impeccably textured, imbued with sadness and loss.
The autumnal colour scheme drives home these thematic tones of a fading, dying place. It all feels on the brink. Machinery still works, but there’s no one around to use it. House still stand, but are worn, overgrown and dishevelled. There’s an overwhelming foreboding sense of finality, but with former beauty still there to find. Red Creek Valley is a large, sprawling space, albeit explored in a careful order.
I’ll be ambiguous with some of the mechanics too. Your character – a detective of some manner called Paul Prospero - has a degree of psychic ability, meaning that certain items in the world can touched, revealing events from the past. The most important memories, those of the tale behind the vanishing of the eponymous young boy, require you to restore scenes to their original state – perhaps moving a couple of objects – in order that you might reveal a series of ghostly stills. You must then run between these visages, declaring a correct chronology between them, and when correct, watch the scene play out.
Which is, you’ll note, the most gamey-game thing imaginable. And it’s done without a degree of subtlety. Run up to a ghost waving an axe at another ghost, and select it, and a giant “1” appears over them. Maybe the next has the axe in the back of someone’s head (this is made up, by the way), and you give that a “2”. It’s so peculiarly incongruous to the vividly wonderful setting, such a daftly clumsy system. It’s rewarding to solve the sequence, and to see the resulting scene, certainly. But it’s undeniably jarring.
Alongside these are much more subtle aspects, discoveries of oddities in the world, that when “sensed” pull you into brief fantastical settings. Here the game shines far more brightly, while still embellishing on Carter’s tale, and indeed his tales.
Interestingly, you’re able to walk right past any of these elements of the game without interacting with them. And at first, this seems one of the game’s most appealing aspects. At the very start a somewhat arrogant message pops up stating, “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” Ignoring that a linear path through a story requires little hand-holding, and that it absolutely does tell you what to do (“Hold [left mouse button]” etc dialogues pop up throughout), it seems to imply that if you miss elements of the story as you go, then that’s up to you. And this struck me as fantastic.
Sadly, it’s not the case at all, and the very final moment (don’t worry) requires that you go back and find absolutely everything you might have missed along the way before it will finish. Sigh. I, having missed something at the very start of the game, had to retrace my steps all the way back, then all the way forward again. And I absolutely cannot see why. Far better to have simply let me know that there was more to find, and give me the incentive to play again. Also, you can’t save, which is mindless in a game where there’s no way to fail. There are extremely sporadic checkpoints, instead.
Along the way, the game makes some interesting changes of tone. There is a sequence that I will now have to pop on my Shelf Of Shaky Jumps, alongside The Cradle and the Ocean House Hotel. And there are elaborate puzzles, one of which involved my drawing out floor plans of a house on my notepad.
The story it tells, while certainly not original in its delivery, is pleasingly reminiscent of 19th century tales of horror and mystery. The sparse voice acting leaves enough open to your imagination, and prevents it from ever quite tripping over into heavy-handed. I still haven’t quite fitted it all together in my head, and I like that about it.
I feel oddly bad about my praise not being more effusive. The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter feels to me like almost a wonderful short game, missing greatness by its oddly incongruous “I AM A GAME!!!” device of having to play ‘label the events in chronological order’, and that deeply strange choice to let you walk straight past elements, but then force you to retrace your steps to complete them at the end. And it’s always hard to know how much guessing big reveals affects your experience of a story, but I did, from pretty early on.
It is, however, probably the most aesthetically beautiful game I’ve seen, and I can genuinely recommend it on that basis alone. The rest of the game, it’s sombre tale, is well worth hearing, and some of the puzzles are really splendid. But every time you walk out of a door and see the vista spread before you, it’s an effort not to gasp.
£15 is perhaps quite a lot for a game lasting maybe three or four hours. But this is thoughtful, novel, and most of all, a ludicrous pleasure to stare at.