I’m a sucker for the old "stranger in a strange land" story, especially in video games where you are in possession of the same amount of base information as your avatar from the start as you venture into the unknown. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one such journey: a mysterious adventure that is both captivating and atmospheric.
This upgraded port of last year’s PC version opens with a bit of internal narrative-based exposition from the lead character, explaining his background as a detective for "extraordinary cases" and the mention of the current case being that of the titular missing person. A case that is oddly mysterious enough to begin with, but unfolds into something far weirder. Seconds after that head chat you find yourself walking through a train tunnel towards a forest, and from here the game boldly leaves you to your own devices.
It’s almost instantly apparent that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is stunning to behold. With a world that’s rich in surreal, brooding atmosphere (and is so well-realised in design terms), it’s easily one of the best looking games around. It certainly helps to keep you captivated as you wander around the various places investigating small details you’d normally pass by without a second thought in other games. Scouring the scenery is a key to your ongoing investigation. As mentioned before, the game does not hold your hand and teach you how to play with obnoxious text pop ups and narration, rather it will subtly offer you directions to them by sheer design. Objects and places of interest don’t glow to catch your eye, instead the game coerces you into taking everything in at a leisurely pace, spotting anything that genuinely looks off or intriguing.
This is where the sumptuous beauty of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter plays a part. It compels you to let it all sink in, every nook, cranny and landmark paints the game’s offbeat tranquility with fine brush strokes. It’s the first game on PS4 where I’ve felt compelled to capture my in-game images and save them, because what’s onscreen deserves capturing. I cannot stress enough how utterly wonderful and dreamlike the visuals are, and when you throw in the excellent ambient audio and the chilled soundtrack you’re in for something special. Even the odd framerate dip does little to blemish the audiovisual delights. The only thing that really, truly snaps you out of the game’s trance are the character models, who feel decidedly low rent compared to the scenery they inhabit.
Ethan Carter may not be to everyone’s tastes though. Not everybody is going to relish the thought of wandering about, barely interacting with anything physical for long periods, no matter how pretty it may look. Especially when you can practically walk past parts of the story without ever knowing it. The swaying factor is clearly that lack of help. Even with a keen eye and a logical mind some of the ‘’scenes’’ can be difficult to figure out, and if you aren’t fully invested it could be a dealbreaker. It’s the sort of game detractors ignorantly dub "walking simulators" simply because there’s no combat, and if for some reason the world of Ethan Carter doesn’t get its hooks into you early on, it is probably never going to. It’s an acquired taste, and while that may prevent it from becoming a fondly-remembered classic in years to come, it does at least stick admirably to its own mantra and is a better game for it.
The slow-cooked story is an integral and fascinating aspect of Ethan Carter, as surprising as it is melancholy. Even if it’s a simple tale at its core, it goes way beyond that as time rolls on, taking dips into the horror pool on occasion, with creeping dread and a particularly tense scene midway through the game shifting the pace and expectation at timely moments. It also deals with drip-feeding you parts of the overall story quite well. Unlike many games that heap useless extra information into letters strewn about the place, Ethan Carter’s every note is interesting to read and wholly important to the understanding of the mystery. Any more information than that would spoil your experience.
While not in possession of the longest of running times, Ethan Carter is well paced, even with a bit of getting lost added into the equation. The first playthrough will see you possibly miss out on freely exploring much as you focus on finding clues to each part of the case, so going around a second time, with knowledge of where the clues are and what actually transpired, means you can see the game in a fresh light. From there it’s a steep decline into diminishing returns, but you could easily come back to Ethan Carter at a later date and still glean something from it. It’s a testament to the overall design of the game, and the nature of its story, that it has any replay value to begin with.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter deserves your attention, not just because it refuses to coddle you, nor because it creates an ominous horror atmosphere without resorting to gore and ultra violence. It deserves it mostly because it’s just a damn fine game.