I like narrative driven games, they’re my favorite. No matter the genre—books, movies, games, tv shows—to me, the story is all that matters. I can overlook mistakes, budget limitations, and mediocre acting if a story is compelling enough. That’s where I’d put The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the story was just compelling enough.
The game is only a couple of bucks through the Playstation Store, I think you can also pick it up on Steam and whatnot. Overall, it’s rather basic. You just walk around and discover the story. There’s no objective other than playing detective and trying to figure out what happened to some missing kid. On the surface that sounds easy enough—but you literally start off in the woods with no guidance, direction, or clear objective. Things kind of start happening to you, but you have no idea what you’re supposed to do about them.
As the story starts to unfold, curiosity builds and the game has a major eerie component about it. The whole experience has this subtle feeling of sickness—you know some bad shit went down and it’s only a matter of time until you discover it. With that said, I wouldn’t classify this as a horror game—I hate those—but it flirts along the edge at times. It reminded me of a darker and more supernatural version of Gone Home. To me, Gone Home had this dreadful suspense like something terrible was about to happen but never did, whereas Ethan Carter follows through with the promise.
The graphics are early PS3-ish, but the environment is pretty. The game is set in a mountainous region with trees and a lake. The sun is always low in the sky which gives an off-putting golden hour and fits the mood just right. At first, I thought the game was set in the Pacific Northwest, but now I actually think it’s European—probably the Tatra Mountains. The voice acting is adequate, the music plays a roll and helps you know when you’ve found important areas to explore, and the sound effects get their point across in the most basic way.
So, my problems with Ethan Carter… The biggest one I have is that it takes a good three quarters of gameplay before you know what it is that you’re actually doing and how the gameplay system works. There is no instructions or a nonsense tutorial mission to help you understand what is important or how it all fits together. The developers recognize this and even warn you of their laissez-faire attitude at the beginning of the game. However, this lack of direction sucks because by the time you actually figure out what you’re doing, there’s a whole lot of story that you’ve missed—which means a lot of backtracking.
The developers must have received enough complaints from testers because in the final scene, they actually allow you to magically teleport back to various areas of the game to help complete the story. But, I didn’t know that three quarters in. Once I did figure out how things worked, I spent a great deal of time retracing my steps and correcting what I missed. My advice—just push through to the end. You’ll have the opportunity to fast travel and replay anything you missed.
That leads to my second complaint—there’s a lot of steps. Like, actual walking steps. It’s not as bad as Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, but let’s be clear. The only thing you do in this game is walk—and key moments of the story are very far apart. Thankfully, there is a run button, but still… the game isn’t pretty enough and doesn’t offer enough distractions to take your mind off of the amount of time you’re wasting while walking.
I hate giving criticism without offering solutions. However, I’m not sure how they could have handled the walking situation differently. Perhaps they could have stashed a moped by the train tracks? Or maybe allow you the ability to fly because there is a ghostly supernatural component? Yes, it would have seemed weird if all the key story points happened right next to each other in a small vicinity, but the walking was so monotonous and boring that it almost made me lose interest in the game. I never had this feeling with Life Is Strange—that game did a great job of sprinkling in minor plot points and observations between the major ones, never making me aware that the game is nothing more than a bunch of steps mixed with inner monologue.
The story did keep me going though—it was odd, cryptic, and unsettling enough to push me through several tedious puzzles and find the ending. Ethan Carter has a big supernatural component and the occult bits sent chills down my spine while also providing the hope that this Ethan kid might actually possess a nugget or two of esoteric wisdom. Let’s just say that I got my hopes up a little too high, but at least the payoff at the end made sense and I felt satisfied. Overall, the game began to feel like a chore, but I wasn’t disappointed with it—my favorite sequences involving spacemen and sea-monsters.
I actually got a 100% game completion rating, which is very rare for me. It’s not hard to do, I think you’ll reach 90% just by completing the main story. I then had to go online and look for guidance to figure out the last 10%—there’s no way you’ll find it without help. However, unless you’re OCD, skip it. That last 10% was extremely disappointing and as far as I can tell, made no sense in context of the rest of the game.
So, should you play The Vanishing of Ethan Carter? If narrative driven games are your jam—sure, go for it. If not, you’ll probably get confused and bored very quickly. I’ll never go back and replay this game, but I’m not upset that I gave it a few hours.