The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review: The joy is in the journey

At a Glance
  • The Astronauts The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

    PCWorld Rating

    The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is all about the journey, and the journey here is spectacular both visually and narratively. This game is something special.

I've been dragging out The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Savoring it. It's rare I get to do that during the fall reviews blitz. Heck, it's rare I want to do that.

But I've been stretching The Vanishing of Ethan Carter as far as it will go—twenty minutes before bed here, half an hour during dinner there. When I get tired of another review game I hop into Ethan Carter for a bit and wander around.

To some extent, Ethan Carter is built for that style of slow, steady consumption. It's a first-person adventure/mystery game that, despite its short (four-hour) length plays out in something of an episodic structure. Or maybe more appropriately, a serialized set of Weird Fiction tales.

Supernatural agent man

Ethan Carter is a game about wandering. You play paranormal detective Paul Prospero, who's been summoned by the titular Ethan Carter to solve a crime in the sleepy American-rustic Red Creek Valley. "There are places that exist that very few people can see," says Prospero in his opening monologue. "Ethan could have drawn a map."

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Ominous, right? That's all the direction you're given. You enter Red Creek Valley by way of a set of railroad tracks, and then you're free to wander the (enormous) area pretty much at your leisure and gape at the scenery. There are a few light puzzles to solve, but most of Ethan Carter involves merely finding those puzzles to begin with. Call it what you will—a walking simulator, if you're being derogatory, or an adventure game if you're into this type of thing.

Red Creek Valley is one of the most realistic environments I've ever explored in a game—both in terms of raw graphics (the textures are phenomenal ) and in terms of how things are laid out. If you've ever been in the backwoods of America, Red Creek Valley feels right. It's the way the buildings show signs of neglect, the way you stumble on a train platform that's long been choked with weeds or the way the rusted-out elevator sounds like it might shake itself apart. This is the America that Bruce Springsteen likes to sing about—in "The River" for instance. An America that's seen its manufacturing, blue-collar past fall out of favor.

And Ethan Carter's small-town America has ripped itself apart, though maybe not without some help from the supernatural. Who knows what you'll find first, once you're turned loose in Red Creek Valley. Maybe you'll narrowly escape the clutching jaws of a half-buried bear-trap, or your pleasant walk will be brought to a halt by a body lying on the train tracks. Half a body, really, considering only the legs are visible. Upon closer inspection you'll find the unlucky man's torso lying a dozen feet away. Did he crawl? Was he dragged? And why is there a rope tied across the tracks?

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Uncover enough clues and you'll eventually be able to use Prospero's supernatural side to psychically reconstruct the events that transpired. Each of Ethan Carter's ten or so mini-stories is scattered around Red Creek Valley for you to uncover as you go, with the order seemingly ambiguous enough so that if you miss one piece you won't totally lose the thread of the overarching story.

There's something special about knowing nothing when you play Ethan Carter. It's the type of decision most games either can't or don't try to get away with, and you know what? Most of the time that's fine. I'm thinking, for instance, of the recent Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments which is at times so heavy-handed with its player feedback that it feels almost patronizing.

That heavy-handedness works fine for Sherlock Holmes, which is a very traditional sort of property. You don't feel so much like an actual detective as you feel like you're sort of nudging Holmes in the right direction, and that's okay! After all, Holmes is the genius. You're just the person in the driver's seat. Still, it takes away some of the "mystery" of proceedings when you can see the rails so clearly laid bare.

Ethan Carter takes the opposite tack, though, and it's better for it.

The quibbles

I love Ethan Carter. It's easily one of my favorite games so far this year.

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That being said, there are some downsides to having absolutely no guidance—foremost that it's easy to miss something. I actually solved what's probably the fourth puzzle as my first puzzle without realizing it, and then was forced to backtrack a long way to get to the beginning again. The developers have thrown in a fast-travel system to ease the pain towards the end, but there's a definite drawback to how large the map is—it can easily take five-to-ten minutes to cross at full sprint.

Also, the game only has an autosave function instead of manual saves. This makes absolutely zero sense, considering nothing in Ethan Carter is particularly time-sensitive, nor is anything win-loss dependent. There are no moral choices you're going to renege on, no different paths to take. In other words, all the already-stupid reasons that developers give for why their game only includes autosaves? Yeah, those don't even apply here.

Now, the game saves after each "episode," so you'll never lose more than ten or fifteen minutes of actual progress (even if you wandered for half an hour before advancing the story). Still, it's annoying to deal with, especially when you're midway through a puzzle and want to stop for the night.

Bottom line

These are minor faults, though, and nothing that should keep you from playing the game. If you're not a huge fan of puzzle-lite adventure games—if you are, for instance, fond of the term "walking simulator"—then yeah, maybe give Ethan Carter a pass.

There's something special here, though. I don't think the ending necessarily does justice to what the developers set up, but like so much of this game it's the getting there that counts, and the getting there in Ethan Carter is spectacular both visually and narratively.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is all about the journey, and the journey here is spectacular both visually and narratively. This game is something special.

    Pros

    • Gorgeous scenery
    • Excellent use of the supernatural and environmental storytelling
    • Annoying save system

    Cons

    • Unsatisfying ending
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