Developed and published by The Astronauts and originally released in 2014, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game set firmly in the “walking simulator” (a name not without descriptive merit but often used with negative connotations) genre: namely, a first-person game which focuses on narrative and atmosphere rather than actual gameplay.
While I’m not a fan of the genre as a whole, I was looking forward to playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter as what little I knew of the game made it sound like an enigmatic, ambiguous, Lovecraftian horror adventure, and I’m a huge fan of such fiction. Was that what I got in the end? Not really. Because although the game references the cosmic horror of H. P. Lovecraft, it also wears on its sleeve other inspirations such as early science-fiction, pulp literature and weird fiction in general (Ambrose Bierce’s famed short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was apparently an influence), and this is fitting as, ultimately, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game all about stories.
You play as Paul Prospero, a paranormal investigator who arrives in Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin after receiving a fan letter from a boy named Ethan Carter, who Prospero sets out to find upon his arrival. Quickly encountering scenes of murder – along with more fantastical events – your task is to uncover the truth behind these crimes and eventually learn the fate of Ethan Carter.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter immediately establishes its tone. The woodland in which you find yourself upon emerging from a train tunnel is wreathed in mist and lit by fading daylight. The foliage rustles gently in the breeze and sombre music plays over the scene. The game possesses a very autumnal feeling, with an atmosphere of quiet melancholy permeating much of the experience, even as you admire the stunning views on offer, the visuals which bring the game-world to life being extremely impressive.
One of the pervading themes which came across to me early on is that of “secrets beneath the surface”, and it’s to the developers’ credit that they were able to convey this theme so effectively. For example, you’re able to explore a mine network far underground, the deepest level of which leads to the most overt of the game’s Lovecraft references, not to mention further usage of another recurring theme: water.
Water is an almost constant presence in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, whether it’s a reservoir, river, lake, or flooding subterranean chamber. This water, as with the overall atmosphere of mystery, is a frequent reminder of that “secrets beneath the surface” theme, suggesting that Red Creek Valley has things hidden beneath its placid veneer. Early on in the game I found myself wrapped up in this feeling as I looked out across the calm surface of the reservoir, wondering what secrets might lurk beneath and what I might uncover as I progressed. While I found myself disappointed with the end result, for a time I enjoyed being immersed in the game’s atmosphere in this way.
Loneliness is another theme present in the game. As you explore, you realise that you seem to be the only living person present in the quiet, isolated, mountainous region that is Red Creek Valley – you never see Prospero’s hands or feet or anything else of his body, making you feel even more like a disembodied spirit roaming a hushed, deserted landscape. This loneliness ends up being linked in a very direct manner to the loneliness which Ethan Carter has felt for a long time.
The game’s narrative – delivered through protagonist narration, text notes, flashbacks, and environmental storytelling, with a few moments of spectacle thrown in – also had me interested early on. It did enough to draw me in and have me wanting to learn more, with intriguing talk of Ethan having woken an entity named “The Sleeper”, and the boy then being hunted by members of his own family as a result. Also, an early standout moment is a sudden chase sequence which builds to an unexpected and intriguing – and initially baffling – climax.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that despite the game occasionally being labelled as such, the focus of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is not horror. And not just because it contains little in the way of overt horror elements. As I mentioned, the supposed Lovecraft influence was one of the things which drew me to the game, so I was hoping for a more subtle and atmospheric horror experience anyway. But the most the game manages is a general feeling of disquiet and isolation.
Despite the initial enthusiasm I felt towards the narrative and atmosphere, after a few hours this had all drained away and I often found myself holding down the “run” button as I traversed the game’s very spacious – but very empty – environments. And the ending did nothing to redeem the experience – as the game wore on, the time I spent with it and the events that played out began to feel increasingly pointless, and the twist delivered during the conclusion only cemented that feeling.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game I really wanted to like, and one I did enjoy for the first couple of hours, only for this to change as boredom set in. Because here’s the thing: if a videogame isn’t going to take advantage of its medium in any real way, offering almost nothing in the way of actual gameplay or interesting game mechanics, then it needs to impress me enough in other areas to hold my interest, as there are plenty of games which manage to excel across the board. But although its visuals, sound and atmosphere are certainly well-crafted, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has nothing else of significance to offer apart from its narrative, which I found to be a disappointment.
One of the messages that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter seems to want to convey is that of the power of stories, and that’s a message I couldn’t agree with more. It’s just a shame that the particular story told by this game isn’t a more satisfying one.