New game 'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter' emphasizes the stories we tell and how we tell them

Review: The new PC game places players inside the heart of a slowly unraveling mystery, with plenty of gorgeous visuals to entice them further.

Before placing players on the ominously dilapidated railroad leading into Red Creek Valley, PC video game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens with a disclaimer. The simple warning — white text on a black screen — pertains not to harsh language or moments of graphic violence, which begin to manifest within minutes of the start of the game, but to narrative style: “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”

More than a Lovecraftian horror story or a paranormal noir mystery,The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a meditation on storytelling. Throughout the experience, fledgling Polish development team The Astronauts makes use of non-linearity and open exploration to deliver a story that could not function outside of the interactivity of the video game medium.

As the initial disclaimer suggests, the game gives little to establish a structured progression of events. Stories lie waiting to be discovered across the eerie emptiness of Red Creek Valley, and each of these grants insight into the nature of Ethan Carter’s disappearance.

Players unveil the game’s narrative threads through the perspective of Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective with clairvoyance that grants him visions of past, present and the arcane workings of other dimensions. To open portals to these visions, Prospero must survey an area until he has collected and rearranged all of a particular mystery’s necessary clues.

By following a series of the most accessible sub-stories, players can reach the physical location of the game’s ending with minimal side exploration. In order to fully comprehend what has happened there and understand Ethan’s fate, however, they must venture back to seek out the vestiges of every story he has left behind.

The bleak environment of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter invites this type of exploration. From the onset, the visuals and atmospheric music hint at an unknowable force of Gothic calamity which has left the otherwise pristine, forested valley and its small lakeside community abandoned. With no living characters to encounter, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter relies wholly on its impressively rendered world and the intrigue of the secrets it holds to compel the player forward.

Prospero’s role in the story takes place in the aftermath of the events that have stricken Ethan Carter and Red Creek Valley. As a result, the gameplay is focused not on action, but on self-directed investigation. Despite a section or two of jump scares and an enveloping sense of unsettling isolation, there is never a fear of danger or failure. Patience and attention to detail rather than skill or reflexes shape the experience.

While the narrative ambition of the game is commendable, The Astronauts are not always able to match that ambition in their execution.

Prospero’s voice-over is well performed, but Ethan and his family, when they appear in flashback sequences, sound distractingly unconvincing. Likewise, some tediously designed puzzles occasionally hinder the pace of plot development, pulling the player out of the experience.

Distraction aside, these shortcomings do not prevent The Vanishing of Ethan Carter from being a worthwhile experience. Over the course of their inaugural three-to-six hour mystery, The Astronauts have proven themselves to be capable curators of player-driven story.

Thanks for the review

Looks like a cool game...

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