The emergence of the ‘walking simulator’ as a new genre was a sticky and unusual event, as it blurred the line between games and artistic storytelling. Numerous titles sprang up in the wake of thechineseroom‘s seminal work Dear Esther, one of which was The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Created by three former employees from People Can Fly (better known for their development of the wacky and wild FPS Bulletstorm) it was touted as an “…adventure game that does not hold your hand.”, featuring a vast and beautiful environment with an ingrained story that players would have to uncover without the help of hints, tips or tutorials. While it never won great fame, it win the Best Game Innovation Award in 2015’s British Game Awards, and set a new benchmark for achievable photo-realism in graphics.
Now, three years later, the game has been ported from it’s original Unreal Engine 3 software to Unreal Engine 4, allowing the designers to take full advantage of the new features offered by the upgraded software. Of course, this means that the ‘Redux’, as it has been branded, is only a redux insofar as Half-Life 2: Update is a redux. There are numerous bug-fixes and graphical improvements, but not much new content, if any. Still, with this moment of renewal in the game’s identity, it’s well worth the time to take another look at it overall. If you’re interested in owning it and the original version, you can pick them up on Steam as a bundle for 19.99$. Furthermore, if you have a VR headset, there’s also a VR Edition you can pick up for just an extra 9.99$, which is absolutely worth it given the game’s ultra-realistic appearance and heavy reliance on atmospheric immersion.
Originally there was a prequel comic released prior to the game’s original debut explaining the general outline of the narrative. You can still read it here if you want, but it’s pretty simple and doesn’t tell you anything you can’t learn by playing the game. Long-story short, you are Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective whose paranormal powers include psychometry, which is the ability to see the past through contact with objects of importance. You’ve just received a letter from a fan of yours; a young boy in Wisconsin named Ethan, who claims in his missive that he is in grave danger, and that only you can help him. Being a hard-boiled detective, you grudgingly dress for the occasion and set out to answer his plea, even though you know somehow that this will be your last case…
All this background is delivered in pure noir-style monologue as you arrive at Red Creek Valley, the source of Ethan’s message. From there, the story gets very strange, as is fitting for a work inspired by the weird fiction of the 20th century. The core plot revolves around uncovering what happened to Ethan and his family, who seem to have turned against the boy, seeking to sacrifice him to an unknown figure called the Sleeper. Orbiting around this central thread are details and objects that help flesh out the characters, the largest of which are fragments of short stories written by Ethan himself. The bulk of the game is spent investigating these, with each revealing a key feature of the people who surround the boy and their role in his life. From Ethan’s kindly and tired grandfather to his abusive uncle and brother, every person has a role to play.
The plot twists and turns, keeping the player guessing constantly, with every new discovery shedding further light on a double-decked narrative about the dynamics of Ethan’s family and the events that befell them. In addition, Paul’s grizzled gum-shoe commentary as an outside observer serves as a glaze of thoughtful, reflective frosting on this rich cake of a story. There’s really not much to complain about with the tale except perhaps for the ending, which some people might find dividing in terms of how it impacts them. Also, while the plot is technically non-linear, and the various points that make it up can be approached in any order, the way they are arranged leaves little room for experimentation, and doesn’t do much to prevent the experience from feeling very linear. However, given the overall quality of the writing, it’s not really that big of an issue with regards to the greater experience the game aims to convey.
Sound and Design
As with most ‘walking simulators’ of course, a large chunk of the plot also lies in the environment itself. This is especially true with Ethan’s short stories, which are the obvious products of a young, creative mind stifled by his relations, but invigorated by his surroundings. The sprawling, verdant landscape of Red Creek Valley, with its run-down structures interspersed with wide tracts of wilderness, seems wholly alive and full of potential stories despite the mostly linear path offered by the main story. A random cliff-side house becomes a magician’s sanctum, and a lonely tree-house becomes an astronaut’s space-ship in Ethan’s young mind, serving both to demonstrate his creativity, and his desperation to get away from his family and be left in peace.
A fair chunk of this atmosphere is thanks to the fidelity of the graphics. It is entirely possible for a game to be great without photo-realism, but in this case, the result is astounding. Every scene seems like it was pulled from a high-definition photograph, and every location is made all the more vibrant thanks to merely its looks. It’s easy to see why this is a perfect game for use in VR; the scenery alone makes you feel as if you’re actually in Red Creek Valley, with the branches of the trees swaying above you and the river rushing through its course below.
Also worth mentioning is the music and sound. As in any adventure game, both are crucial to the development of a strong atmosphere, and if there’s one thing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has in spades, it’s the power of immersion. The soundtrack, while unobtrusive, is hauntingly beautiful and suited to its surroundings. It’s subtle application amplifies the sense of mystery that permeates the valley, while also providing a solid support for the sense of tragedy that runs through the center of the narrative. It promotes introspection, and underlines the reality of Ethan as a victim, misunderstood by his family and whose sole escape is his creativity.
In the end, the biggest stumbling blocks in the game’s design are minor when you consider how much the story overshadows them. Still, it wouldn’t be a good game if there weren’t at least a couple. As previously mentioned, the game is actually supposed to be non-linear, and you can skip over as many of the concealed segments of plot as you want. However, if you want to do them out of order, then it can get pretty frustrating. The base player speed is pretty slow, which is understandable given the pacing of the game, but which also makes it murder to try and go back through the expansive environments to get something you missed. You can sprint, yes, but there’s a concealed stamina meter that will mean Paul gets winded and you sink back to slowness again. Hence it’s generally preferable to proceed in a linear fashion and pick up anything you missed on a second playthrough. While this adds to the game’s longevity, it subtracts from its efforts to be a more fluid narrative experience.
The other crucial flaw, if you can call it that, is the game’s difficulty. To be fair, it tells you right off the bat that it is not going to hold your hand, and while that’s a bold decision from a design perspective, it does mean that many players might be put off by how hard it is to work things out. Then again, this is a detective story, and most detectives don’t have all the evidence neatly plotted out before they arrive, or a handy device that tells them where the body is hidden. Stumbling over clues rather than being led by the nose makes for a more authentic experience. Still, the amount of time most players will spend wandering aimlessly looking over every rock and tree might be enough to make some people put the game down and never pick it back up. Just remember: you were warned.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is less of a game and more of an interactive novella, written in a post-modern style. Beneath Paul Prospero’s over-arching search for Ethan and the truth, there spans a multitude of smaller fragments that flesh out a second narrative; that of Ethan himself, and his search for happiness in a frightening, unkind world. It’s a tragic story told through an experience that is a struggle in itself, perhaps as a metaphor for what the characters are going through. All in all, it’s just a very strong piece of work, whose sole flaws are some minor patches where form clashed with intent.
The game is very short, and if you skip over everything except some crucial plot points, you can finish it in two, maybe three hours. That said, where it shines is how it makes you work for the rest of the plot. It gets you invested, then reels you in, leaving you wondering what else there is to find. All in all, it was a very satisfying experience, and while it ended all too soon, so do most good stories. After all, you have to leave room for the next one, right?
|+ Strong environmental story-telling and writing||– Very difficult; does not hold your hand|
|+ Superb atmosphere and immersion||– Linear experience despite non-linear story-telling|
|+ Gorgeous world and graphical fidelity||– Slow-paced; not for everyone|