The opening of The Astronauts’ The Vanishing of Ethan Carter offers players a single sentence, “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” And this single statement is, at the same time, the primary fault of the game, and what makes it so absolutely special.
Given only a vague voiceover to kick off the narrative, the player is set in the shoes of a private detective summoned to a small rural community by a letter from a young boy named Ethan Carter. No tutorial, no real objective, just a set of train tracks leading through the woods. If nothing else, the first hour or so of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the finest examples of minimalist game design in recent memory, allowing the player simply to go forth, explore, and discover.
It is not long before the player finds a dead body near the tracks, and from there the strange, yet very enjoyable, narrative begins. Featuring surprisingly simple and intuitive mechanics, the player can investigate the body, piece together clues, and figure out how the murder took place, or, simply walk on by. And that is where the true majesty of Ethan Carter can be found. With nothing telling you what to do, no markers telling you where to go, or objective lists waiting to be ticked off, the player has complete freedom, making the choice to investigate and explore entirely your own.
Many of the elements and puzzles of the game are actually very easy to simply walk straight past, and, as you do, nothing stands in your way to stop you, ultimately making the puzzles you do find, figure out, and complete incredibly rewarding beyond the intriguing bit of story revealed after each. Rarely have I felt as accomplished in a game as I did when I felt like I truly found something in Ethan Carter, discovered something entirely on my own. In those special moments, Ethan Carter stopped being a game designed for me to play, and instead was simply a world for me to explore, a feat the exploration mechanics of only a few other games have ever quite nailed.
Making the experience all that much better, is just how unbelievably gorgeous the game is. Made in Unreal 4, Ethan Carter stands among some of the best looking titles on the PS4, managing to truly take my breath away at multiple moments. The visual fidelity, coupled with phenomenal sound design, save for one scene in which rushing water was simply way too loud, Ethan Carter is wonderfully atmospheric, selling the abandoned, utterly creepy rural setting. Not relying on gore, darkness, or even an overly horror-clichéd setting (such as Outlast being set in an asylum) Ethan Carter managed to put me on edge out of pure isolation and ambiance alone.
As I said, the vast majority of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an astounding experience, allowing the player to explore and discover a world, not simply play a game. Where it falls apart, however, are the points in which Ethan Carter finally does begin to tip more towards being a game, completely removing you from the experience and, sadly, at least for me, breaking the magic.
At only a single point do you ever see another living being while playing. Falling back on jump-scares and a basic carbon copy of the original slender man game, the player is tasked with finding five dead bodies in a maze of mine tunnels, all while a creepy zombie-miner patrols them. If he sees the player, he disappears, then, suddenly, reappears directly in your face, screaming, and you are sent back to the beginning of the area. On its own, the segment is passable, after all, Slender was perfectly scary and worth playing, but as a part of the whole, the segment just doesn’t fit with the rest of the game. Feeling so out of place, the puzzle, in fact, just wasn’t fun, making me actually turn off the game in favor of playing something else until I eventually went back and begrudgingly forced myself through it, my completionist desires driving me beyond reason.
But finally, worst of all, is the end of the game. Not a particularly long game, I reached the end of Ethan Carter in only a few hours, completing all but one puzzle, which I had accidently walked past without knowing it. And suddenly, the fun, beautiful, self-fueled exploration that I had loved so much throughout the game was over, and I arrived at a point telling me I had missed a single puzzle, and to continue I had to go back and complete it.
Up until the end, as I have remarked, there appears to be no objective list, no markers telling you where to go or what you have to do. But just before the end, the objective list is there, the markers are there, and everything I had felt so accomplished in discovering, piecing together, and figuring out, became nothing more than the same old video game quests to be checked off. Not only did it make that last puzzle which I had to go back and do, though just as strange and delightfully clever as the others, a complete chore, it belittled my perceived achievements of discovery up to that point in the game.
While a developer’s desire for the player to see everything the team has worked so hard to create is understandable, it is unfortunate Ethan Carter could not stay as confident in the player as it first appeared. By making everything mandatory, suddenly the holes begin to open up and the lack of hand holding turns from giving the player freedom, to simply being obtuse. Many of the puzzles require finding specific items in sizable areas. If the puzzles where truly optional, the rather easy ability to completely miss a piece, and therefore be unable to solve the puzzle, is excusable, but forcing the player back to run around in circles or break the experience entirely and look up the answer online, is simply bad design.
The first couple of hours I spent with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter were something undeniably special, the game fulfilling needs and desires so few other games even strive to comprehend. The world is majestic, the experiences I uncovered were unlike anything else I’ve played, and it was a pure joy to get lost in. It’s therefore unfortunate the tail end of the game could not maintain the same high standard.