In all my years of gaming, I’ve never seen something so jaw-droppingly gorgeous as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. And my PC isn’t exactly state of art, either; my weakest component is a GTX 550 graphics card (to put it into perspective). After playing this game, anything else my computer puts up on the monitor is just going to depress me, because now I know how beautiful games can and should look. That’s the first impression that Ethan Carter gives, and astoundingly it manages to maintain that positive impression right up until the very end.
Ethan Carter is an interesting adventure tale that places you in the role of a paranormal investigator, who has received a boy’s letter beckoning him to a small town. On arrival your sleuthing skills are quickly put to the test, where the game that “doesn’t hold your hand” presents some new and interesting ways of interacting with the world. As you approach a macabre scene on railroad tracks, looking at certain objects prompts words to appear and swirl on the screen, as though the thoughts dancing around in your character’s head are literally doing so before your eyes.
After collecting clues you then have the chance to put a sequence of past events into chronological order, where past conversations from the (recently?) deceased play out before you, giving hints at what’s going on. It’s a system that works and is far more intuitive than any other adventure game in memory, partly because the game does a good job of clearly segmenting out areas where clues and individual puzzles are contained, but also because what you’re looking for is fairly obvious. If you need a crank, you know it because the word “crank” was swirling around earlier, for example.
As you solve mysteries and explore the environment things remain tense, despite the fact that the game really does very little to startle or scare you; it’s almost a shame, in a way, because I found myself so engaged by the beauty of the world that a few more threats to my safety would have livened up the adventure. Despite the fact that there’s no pulse-pounding action sequences to be found here, Ethan Carter is still very reminiscent of successes such as Alan Wake. That comparison may hurt impressions of Ethan Carter though, because it only serves to highlight this game’s biggest failing: namely, the ending, and how quickly it comes on.
Presuming your intellect is just as dull as mine, after about four hours you’ll be finished with this $20 adventure. For the scenery alone it’s worth the money, but that doesn’t change the fact that when you do reach the story’s moments of conclusion, there’s a sad little “twist” that upends everything you were previously assuming (and were so engrossed by). I don’t think it spoils anything (beyond what the ending itself spoils) to say that at the end of the adventure you’ll wish Ethan Carter had leaned far further into the Cthulu-inspired “paranormal” aspects of its storytelling, rather than grounding players back in the “investigating” reality.
All in all, I’m left with an impressive number of fond memories, made impressive not simply by over how short a span they were created, but by how indelible an impression the game’s visuals make. I don’t think I will ever forget standing on a bridge staring at moss, circling a building multiple times to marvel at the texture of the stone corners, or looking at the bark of a tree and exclaiming out loud, “There is a tree in my living room!” But what I will forget, hopefully, are the final moments of Ethan Carter’s story, to be supplanted by my own fanciful imagining that every game I play from now on will contain this much beauty. After all, I can dream can’t I? Surely there’s no harm in imagining.
SCORE: 8.5 out of 10
A code for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was provided to Pixel Related for this review