There’s something very familiar about the picturesque setting of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, even if it’s hard to believe that a place like it could exist. Red Creek Valley is an old mining town with sparse, separated buildings, a church that probably wouldn’t pack the town’s population, and its own complex, if limited, history. If you were to drive through the American Midwest or the South and really search for them, you can find glimpses of places like this: spaces untouched by the city, where the people can’t hope to stop the onslaught of nature. The flora is overgrown in Red Creek Valley, weeds sticking through the spaces in the railroad tracks and leaves littering paths between buildings. These places are so rare that it’s difficult to get through Ethan Carter without stopping to stare at the sun peeking out over the mountains, to escape into another world for a couple of hours.
Without even touching other elements, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by The Astronauts is a beautiful game. From the first second you are sinking into grass, surrounded by nature. With your first step you can hear the crunch of leaves, your shoes picking up dirt.as you walk what seems like miles to even get to Red Creek Valley. There’s nobody around, not even any animals to bite at your heels. It’s almost peaceful, although that’s not taking into account the tension running through your body throughout the game as you try and figure out what happened to a little boy named Ethan Carter while also trying to vanquish the demons that seem to follow all the clues The juxtaposition here can create some mixed reactions from players, especially as they try and figure out how much to truly enjoy the view and what actions to take.
Things take a step away from the scenic and quaint as you travel through the town. Blood trails cover railroad tracks, homes are decimated, and remnants of what happened to Ethan’s family are everywhere. As supernatural detective Paul Prospero, you have to use your psychic abilities to unravel the mystery surrounding the town, falling into the story of a demonic force that feeds off the hatred of others. You can touch objects in the world and see memories associated with it. As you walk around you get pieces to the story, which builds up the crux of the gameplay. Your powers take the form of synesthesia, allowing you to see your thoughts and possible paths towards memories or other objects in bold, floating words that block your vision. It’s strange considering the pastoral quality of the setting. Despite the focus on visuals, the actual game part of the game stands out more than the art in these instances (call them “systems” or “mechanics”, if you like). This is just one of the juxtapositions Ethan Carter offers.
The Astronauts want you to know very early that the game won’t hold your hand (literally, the first message that appears tells you just that) but this is kind of a muddled message. You are presented with control instructions on puzzles, so there is hand-holding. However, I think where this message mostly becomes relevant is in the narrative, which manages to be linear yet able to exist outside traditional chronology (and not counting that some of the puzzles require you to put scenes in the proper order). You can follow the path the developers set out for you, but sometimes it is hard to find and ultimately, it’s not important. You can run into story elements, which are scattered throughout the town, separately from the timeline and still be able to piece it together. A map drawn at the final stop on your journey will help you to find the ones you happened to miss.
For example, I had a feeling I knew where the game was going once I got to the Vandergriffs’ charred mansion, the madness that had possessed the Carter family fleshing out in each vision, the ultimate fate of Ethan becoming clearer. I wanted to get to that final realization, but of course, after looking at the map that was crudely drawn on one of the walls, I missed one of the crucial puzzles and it just happened to be on the other side of the town, back to the beginning of the game. I was able to find it after wandering through the forest, but that was only after getting lost, having to reset the puzzle, and fall into a science fiction story, which wasn’t what I was expecting.
This brings up another point. There is the potential for a lot of backtracking unless you manage to find every scene on the first try. The game is expansive, which gives you some extra time to explore and enjoy the weather, but having to traverse most of the map when you forget something at the beginning is time consuming. It breaks the already slow, hypnotic pace of things and reminds you that you are playing a game, working instead of experiencing. Plus, a sporadic auto-save option leaves you in a tough position unless you manage to sit down and play the game for a few hours. There were times when I lost progress after not realizing the save didn’t take. Considering how it sometimes takes a while to get from one destination to another, or how difficult it can sometimes be to find landmarks in the woods, this can get in the way and once again break up the pace, blowing you off the beaten path.
Despite the tediousness of the almost certain backtracking, I can’t help but love The Vanishing of Ethan Carter for everything else. There’s the aforementioned science fiction story, where you are torn out of nature and thrown into space, brought out of the beautiful world that The Astronauts created just so that you can get lost in it. Besides being a mystery to be solved, Ethan Carter is a storyteller, a kid with an active imagination, an outsider that wanted to escape. As the player, you are given the opportunity to do the same, to look up at the canopies and see the sun peeking through the leaves and wonder for a few hours what truly happened to Ethan Carter.
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston and Gameranx and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.