The first thing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells you is that it will not hold your hand. You might assume that this means what follows is a painfully hard slog through hostile environments, but it’s actually a lot more than that. The following review will not spoil any specific puzzles or story events, so feel free to read without worry.
The first and most easy comparison to make with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is with Dear Esther. Both games have the player exploring beautiful environments, being told a story through internal monologue and a focus on storytelling and exploration rather than action. But if the 45 minutes of Dear Esther are a starter in the modern adventure game meal, Ethan Carter is the main course.
As much as the plot can be revealed without spoilers, it follows an occult detective named Paul Prospero, as he searches for a boy named Ethan Carter, from whom he has received a letter calling for help. What follows is an almost entirely unguided walk through gorgeous environments with puzzle items littered around.
Paul has powers of deduction which are hinted to be supernatural, and they form the basis for most of the puzzles. The typical scenario will revolve around one important item or location – often a body – around which are scattered other important items. When the player interacts with them, Paul’s thoughts and train of logic will flash in front of his eyes, and he can focus on his imagining of what may have occurred at the central puzzle location. The more clues discovered, the clearer Paul’s vision becomes.
In truth, the puzzles are often a case of finding hidden objects and attaching them in the right place rather than true tests of logic or skill. This is fine, and perfectly functional as a method of moving the story along, but it would be unwise to go in expecting The Vanishing of Ethan Carter to be Myst.
The mostly visual method of storytelling is nice, and avoids the text and exposition dumps which plague many lesser games of the adventure genre, but it also imposes its own limitations. The story is not linear and can be occasionally hard to follow. It might be a good idea to add some kind of journal – it could even be player-written – to the game’s menu in order to keep track of events so far.
However, it’s easy to overlook these shortcomings when pre-occupied with the truly excellent presentation of the game. Ethan Carter is realistic in the way many games can only pretend to be. It does not eschew the vibrant colours that a beautiful mountain town in autumn might possess, in the same way more recent games may have relied on greys and browns – blues, oranges and greens predominate, and the dusky atmosphere complements the game’s mysterious tone and themes of decline well.
The music is a minimalist affair, with no sweeping orchestras or wailing trumpets, and adds a dusting of magic to the experience. To go further with the music would have been to spoil it, and it’s to the developers’ eternal credit that they did not do so.
In fact, if one had to pick one reason to praise The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, it is that it knows its limits and works brilliantly within them. There has been an unfortunate tendency towards feature creep and overreaching with other Kickstarter titles, and none of that is present here. Ethan Carter does what it sets out to do – explore the realm of videogame storytelling – in impeccable fashion. It is not too difficult or too hard (though perhaps could do with some help available for those not so puzzle inclined) and does not either finish too soon or overstay its welcome. It is a major success story of independent gaming, and should stand as an example of how to do story-driven gameplay right.
With Dreamfall Chapters just around the corner (to follow up the earlier analogy, it could be called dessert) this autumn looks as though it will be a great one for the revived genre of adventure games. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a wonderful shift in the careers of developers The Astronauts (previously of People Can Fly, creators of the markedly different Painkiller and Bulletstorm). We can only hope it is a road down which they continue.