The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an open world first-person adventure, detective, and mystery game released during 2014. Independently developed by The Astronauts, the game was released as a timed PC exclusive but will make its way to Playstation 4 in 2015. Since its release it has gathered a cult following and made a strong impression on many, but it is hard to impress us at GND-Tech. Let’s see if The Vanishing of Ethan Carter delivers.
We apologize for the belatedness of the review; real life has once again interfered and we buy these games ourselves, as consumers just like the rest of you. But we assure you, the wait will pay off.
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. If you’re a kid like Ethan, you write. Plenty do. Ethan’s letter started out just like any other fan mail, but soon there were mentions of things no little boy should know about. There are places that exist that very few people can see. Ethan could have drawn a map. I hadn’t entered Red Creek Valley yet, but already I could feel its darkness reaching out for me. Finding Ethan Carter wasn’t going to be as easy as knocking on his door. I was too late for that. To find Ethan, I had to figure out what this place was trying to hide from me.
This is how The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens: with a monologue from the protagonist that sets the tone for the game. You play as Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective. The game is set in an area known as Red Creek Valley, a truly beautiful yet mysterious place. This monologue is the only real “quest” that the player is given. When starting the game, the game informs the player that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand, and the developers truly mean it.
This is not your usual video game. There are no quest markers, there is no journal, there is no HUD. The player is left without any sort of guidance beyond the first monologue. It is up to you to find Ethan Carter. But of course, the game isn’t just about finding a little boy. The game tells a story: a powerful and tragic one, and it can only be discovered through exploration and interaction; by solving riddles and crimes, by connecting the dots. Paul Prospero is a detective, remember that.
This game is a unique blend of open world adventure and mystery. The open world is 100% seamless: no loading screens, you can go anywhere at any time, and it offers unrestricted backtracking which may be necessary since it is so easy to miss something. Oddly enough there is a lack of wildlife in Red Creek Valley. There is no manual saving, only scripted autosave checkpoints so beware.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter seeks to tell a story through its stunningly detailed environment, and they leave it up to the player to pursue the story. As for the story itself? It’s vivid, it’s imaginative, it’s enthralling. There are twists and turns you will not see coming. It’s a tale about the power of imagination and creativity, which is foreshadowed many times earlier in the game, especially through dialogue from Missy, Ethan’s mother. It’s also full of Lovecraft references. But we will talk more about the story later.
Since there are no quest markers and no HUD in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, it can be really easy to miss things. When they said that the game doesn’t hold your hand, it couldn’t be more true. The gameplay mechanics of this game really only involve movement and interacting with things using Left Mouse Button (LMB). Surprisingly there is a sprint function, but don’t use it too much since the game is all about meticulous exploration. Sprinting is mostly useful for backtracking if you missed something, although I wish that there was more headbob since the player appears to slide around without it. Object interaction is a key in this game, using a feature called Inspect.
In the picture above, I am shown examining blood stains on a rail car. A prompt came up when I approached it saying “Inspect” so I clicked and held LMB to inspect it. A series of words come up which can be seen in the picture, and these words are clues. This object in particular is special: much of the time when you inspect something, words (clues) will show up like in that picture, giving the player something to think about, but then they will go away and the object will simply be “marked” – this object for example would be marked as “Rail car” and it would be unresponsive afterwards. But since this one is special, the clues will come to a conclusion: in this case, the conclusion is “Crank” because the rail car is missing its crank. The word “Crank” appears on the screen in bizarre fashion, moving around constantly until the player looks in the actual direction of the missing crank. Once this is done, a prompt will come up telling the player to hold LMB, which shows the location of the crank (which is always in the direction the player is facing).
This is all part of the protagonist’s “Sense” ability. Remember that he is a supernatural detective. You can sense where these missing puzzle pieces are. Sense is also used to piece together scenes, usually murders. This ability is used right at the start of the game, where you can find many deadly traps around you. After activating these traps, you must use your “Sense” ability on each one. At first, it will lead to nothing because you haven’t pieced everything together yet. It will look like this…
…an incomplete image. But once you’ve found all the traps, you will get a complete image, and then a cutscene will begin. In this cutscene a scenario plays out, and the player watches it. Once it ends, the player will resume control of their character, but he/she will have been moved and the world will have changed slightly. There will be a note nearby: a short story written by Ethan, describing the cutscene which the player just witnessed. The player just witnessed Ethan’s imagination, one of his fictional tales.
This type of puzzle solving, in which the player puts those detective skills to work, are found throughout the game, but in two different forms: the one above is putting together one of Ethan’s fictional stories, and these vary considerably. Each of Ethan’s stories is also about one of his family members and his portrayal of them. This is where the game gets really wild, since you are seeing his fictional tales come to life. Each one has totally different gameplay elements involved, many don’t even use the “Sense” ability. Each one is a unique story with unique gameplay. There are five of these throughout the game, and if you miss one then you cannot complete the game. You will be stopped at the very end, without being able to advance. This is different than other games such as Anna: Extended Edition, which gives you false endings if you miss something. But The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is open world and you can backtrack at any time.
The other form of piecing together clues is solving murders as mentioned earlier. Solving murders involves the same steps that were originally described; using the “Sense” ability, but with a few new steps due to the added complexities of the murder. You will have to chronologically piece together the scene, like a real detective. For example, after finding all the clues to the murder and using the “Sense” ability like in the rail car scenario, rather than a cutscene you will see the pieces of the murder come together.
You see the chronology tags in the above picture? You must tag them in the correct order. Once you have tagged them, regardless of whether or not you did it in the correct order, the scene will begin to play out. If tagged in the incorrect order, the scene will end abruptly and you will have to piece it together correctly. Once in the correct order, the scene will play out and you will see the scene play out in its entirety. Solving these murders brings out a significant plot element, an antagonist if you will, known as the Sleeper. It is revealed that during Ethan’s adventures around Red Creek Valley, he finds himself in the Vandergriff house, which is feared by the local residence. Inside he finds a secret room and awakens the Sleeper, a horrible entity which affects Ethan’s family and puts Ethan in grave danger.
Solving murders unravels the main plot of the game, it brings you closer to finding Ethan Carter and the Sleeper. Piecing together his fictional stories however leads to the large amount of foreshadowing mentioned earlier, and it gives you a better understanding of the type of person Ethan is, and also the personalities of his family members. Piecing together both things are equally important.
Because of the openness of the game, and because of the lack of hand-holding, you must really take your time and explore every inch of the game. Doing so will make it obvious just how remarkably well crafted the world is. It is a slow paced game, and when exploring I am reminded of an expert painter, with every corner of the game world being perfectly stroked and deliberately designed. Every indoor area is uniquely crafted and perfectly made, from the imperfections and rot on the ground to the subtle scratches on certain walls. Textures don’t look repetitive or grid-like. Every place was created with passion. It is one of the most detailed game worlds ever created, and it is one of the absolute best at telling a story through its environment, like the aforementioned Anna: Extended Edition but on a larger scale and in more straightforward fashion.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is not a difficult game, it should be friendly to casuals and even non-gamers as long as you read this review and understand that it’s all about exploration and interacting with everything you can possibly interact with. You must know that you can’t miss a thing, you must remember that you play as a detective and that you have to explore every corner of the world. It’s rewarding, engaging, and definitely worth the time spent. Despite the openness and this type of gameplay, it’s only a 5-6 hour game at most.
When piecing together Ethan’s fictional stories, you learn a bit about him every time. You also learn about his family members, which are always a focus of his short stories. One thing becomes apparent: his family despises his creativity and imagination. They want him to focus on the real world, to stop living in his head. The more you discover, the more you will sympathize for Ethan. His fictional tales are the result of not only his extraordinary imagination, but also the negative way in which his family treated him. These things are reflected upon in his stories and also the murders. Ethan is by far the most developed character in the game, but his family members are surprisingly well developed too.
The story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter encourages creativity and imagination, freedom of expression, but to fully understand it you should also take Missy’s advice early in the game about keeping your head in the real world. There is a lot of foreshadowing and I was able to predict the ending’s twist early in the game, but that didn’t take away from the impact. It’s a beautiful and tragic story with vivid and fascinating twists and turns. The ending, if you manage to discover it, is also open to interpretation, as an homage to the emphasis on being imaginative. There are several conclusions that one can come up with due to the ambiguity, revolving around the fate of Ethan, the meaning of Paul Prospero, and the meaning of the Sleeper.
This game’s stories is one of very few to have really moved me. Not even Silent Hill 2’s story impacted me this much, although perhaps that simply suggests something is wrong with me. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t have the story complexity or depth of a game like Silent Hill 2, but the presentation, the way it’s told, is something to behold, especially as you take the last walk and approach the conclusion.
Audio & Visuals
Due to the emphasis on exploration and telling a story through the environment, along with the minimalistic gameplay mechanics, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is heavily reliant on his audio and visual design. Its art style is realistic for the most part, and it is so far the best showcase of Unreal Engine 3. It is great that we are finally seeing this engine’s true capabilities in this game and others like Thief and the upcoming Batman: Arkham Knight. Expect all of these games to be among the ten best looking games; the two that are actually released (including The Vanishing of Ethan Carter) are already on the list.
The world is stunningly beautiful for its design, detail, and the technical prowess is helpful as well. The vegetation is wonderfully rendered and this game showcases some of the best overall texture quality and view distance, right next to Dragon Age: Inquisition. The lighting system approaches the likes of Frostbite 2 despite the age of Unreal Engine 3 (it has been around for over seven years now). The ambient occlusion is some of the best, just about all objects are rendered with a very high polygon count and 3D mapping if need be. The only shortcomings are some of the distant trees, ones you can never reach, that aren’t made with high polygon models.
But perhaps the most impressive technicality of all is that despite how technically advanced and fundamentally sound the graphics are, the game is easy to run. Unreal Engine 3 is a very well optimized engine, it has recently become my second favorite engine with Unreal Engine 4 being the first. My i7 2600 which runs between 4.0 and 4.2 GHz in games, along with 8GB DDR3 1600 RAM and a GTX 780 Ti, run this game at 1080p on max detail but with 4x sparse grid supersampling at 50-60 FPS. It’s very impressive that I can run these visuals with 4x supersampling (shown in all of the screenshots throughout the review) at such good frame rates, just like my old GTX 680 was able to run Thief with 2x sparse grid supersampling on max detail at a constant 60 FPS. Unreal Engine 3 still amazes me to this day, I can’t wait for games to properly utilize Unreal Engine 4’s capabilities, which unfortunately will take many years.
The sound effects are all high quality and the ambient sounds in particular are very well executed. Wilderness sounds are beautiful, but the sounds inside an abandoned house will be eerie. It is unfortunate that this Unreal Engine 3 game does not use OpenAL as its sound API. OpenAL is unrivaled, being the only modern sound API capable of 3D sound processing, hardware acceleration, and EAX support, to my knowledge. At least The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is said to have good 7-channel surround support1, and I can confirm its virtual surround support is pretty good with X-Fi CMSS-3D.
The voice acting is high quality all around, but it is Paul Prospero’s voice actor who stands out the most as he sounds perfectly fitting for the role. His monologues play at several different points throughout the game. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter also has a beautiful soundtrack, one of the best this year. You will hear new tracks throughout the game and each one is perfect given the situation. It’s beneficial that the soundtrack is also dynamic and based on the player’s positioning: one minute you might be exploring the wilderness and an appropriate ambient track will be playing, but once you set foot in a nearby abandoned house, the soundtrack will stop playing and the outdoor ambient sounds will cease, being replaced by dead silence and creepier indoor ambient sounds.
1“PC Gaming Surround Sound Round-up.” PC Gaming Surround Sound Round-up. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Dec. 2014. <http://satsun.org/audio/>.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was nominated for many of our 2014 Game of the Year Awards. Had it been a different, less stacked year, it could have easily won many awards such as Best Adventure Game, Best Story/Writing, Best Graphics, Best Soundtrack, Best Level Design/Set Detail, and Best Innovation. There is no game like it, it is a unique genre blend, and it wasn’t influenced by the mainstream industry, which is why it is so special.
To understand how our scoring system works, read this.
- Presentation: Simple, straightforward, to the point. No horrible DRM, in fact the game is available on GOG totally free of DRM. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has a launcher with everything you need, lots of graphics options, a full set of key bindings, a minimalistic and easy to use UI. Optimization is outstanding save for certain systems on which it may stutter, a known issue with Unreal Engine 3. If you get this stutter… It’s potentially unbearable, but it seems somewhat rare. 15/20
- Story: This game’s unique design puts everything on the line: if it didn’t have a well-written story, playing it would be a waste of time. Thankfully, the story measures up. Although the abundance of foreshadowing makes it rather easy to predict the basic outcome, the story is nonetheless beautiful but tragic at the same time. The story is about the power that imagination can wield, it encourages people to be creative and exercise their freedom of expression, and because of this it makes a conscious decision to offer a somewhat ambiguous ending. The implications of the “Sleeper” entity and the protagonist himself add to the complexity of the tale. It is an engaging story from start to finish, and it relies heavily on player interaction and gameplay which we at GND-Tech love. Players who rush through and discover little to nothing get what they deserve: no answers. 17/20
- Gameplay: The gameplay involves basic movement and clicking LMB to interact with things, so clunkiness is not a factor here. The vast amount of object interaction and the outstanding use of detective style gameplay are something to behold, and it’s worth noting that all of its gameplay is story-related. My only complaint is that one particular section, the area beneath the mine and the scariest part of the game, could have been executed better. More specifically, there is an encounter with a hostile creature here, and rather than pursuing the player like I believe it should, it simply teleports and catches the player if the player is seen, leaving no chance to outrun it or outsmart it. But this is very minor as it is only a small segment of the game. 18/20
- Audio & Visuals: Beautiful and artistic both in its visual design and soundtrack. Technically speaking, it is very strong in the graphics department, one of the best in fact. So far it is the finest showcase of Unreal Engine 3 and it shows us that this old engine can still compete with (and outperform) today’s more advanced engines. The subtle ambient sounds add to the experience as does the quality voice acting. 20/20
- Lasting Appeal: For a thorough, meticulous player, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter can last up to 5-7 hours. But if a player misses something and finds themselves having to backtrack a great amount, it will last much longer due to its open world design. There is one ending and missing anything important will make it impossible to achieve this ending. It is non-linear and has no quest markers, no hand-holding, giving the player ultimate freedom, but replaying the game will lead to the same experience if the player didn’t miss anything the first time. 10/20
- Overall: 80/100