After receiving a troubling letter from a young boy named Ethan Carter, occult detective Paul Prospero finds himself visiting Ethan’s desolate home town in the wilds of Pennsylvania in order to find out what happened to the boy and his family. It soon becomes clear that a darkness has fallen on the deserted mining town and that you’ll have to immerse yourself in the aftermath if you’re to have any hope of finding Ethan alive.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first person mystery title in every sense of the word. There are no instructions, no in game hints and no subtle nudges towards the next challenge. You even have to refer to the controls scheme to discover your capabilities. You’re on your own out there, and that sense of solitude is reinforced is reinforced by the measured pace of your movement, the silent beauty of the area and the almost complete lack of interaction with other entities – you won’t be having conversations, reacting to quick time events or running around shooting things here. You can’t even jump. You don’t need to.
The sense of something being quietly, horribly wrong lurks behind every tree and urges you onwards. There’s no actual danger to you, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way – especially when, just a mile or so down the tracks, you stumble upon a blood splattered train and gain a flash of insight into what might have happened. This is your introduction to the game’s core mechanic.
As you explore Red Creek Valley you’ll stumble across a series of horrific crime scenes and it’s up to you to use all your senses to try to recreate the situation at the time of the event. You’ll have to find all the locations that played a part in each situation them return them to the state they were in just before the crime took place. Doing so correctly will reveal a series of ghostly flashbacks that you have to arrange into chronological order in to see the events play out. You may also have to hunt around for a few objects after inferring their existence, and that can be a fiddly process given the open nature of the areas. One puzzle in particular requires you to track down a missing item that’s off in the undergrowth somewhere with no indication of why or how it got there, which is frustrating but then nobody said crime scenes had to be clean and easy to understand.
As you uncover more parts of the story, in whatever order you stumble across them, you’ll start to piece together an inkling of what might be going on. One particularly weird encounter early on telegraphs a large part of this this loud and clear, but it’s to the game’s credit that the actual sting in the tail only reveals itself in the final moments. It’s a thought -provoking, satisfying conclusion and one that places your experiences so far into whole new frame of reference.
The vanishing of Ethan Carter succeeds on almost every front. It looks exceptional, sounds fantastic, and generates an atmosphere so tangible you can almost taste it. Prospero’s dialogue seems a little schlocky at first, but there’s a reason for this and you’ll understand in time.
The biggest criticism that some gamers may level at this title is the pacing. This isn’t a mad dash around to solve everything quickly. Your movement speed is realistic which means it’ll take time to explore the game world and visit different areas. The whole point is that you immerse yourself in the surroundings and feel like your discoveries were worth the trek – complaints to the contrary are representative of the idea that the point of a game is simply to win, and that the best winners are the fastest. This is all about the experience.
And it is an experience, well worth the few hours it’ll take to crack the mystery of Red Creek Valley. Slow down and savour the surroundings, and take a welcome break from the predictable run and gun of the AAA blockbusters.