Ah, the humble walking simulator.
For those not in the know, “walking simulator” is a semi-derogatory phrase used to describe games like Dear Esther or Gone Home: primarily narrative and exploration-focused experiences that de-emphasize direct gameplay mechanics. I’m quite a big fan of this bold new horizon, bringing as it does a unique fusion of environment, gameplay and story to create something that feels more thoughtful than your average game.
So I was quite looking forward to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and was subsequently quite disappointed to find out that it absolutely nails that first element, fumbles the second and utterly botches the third.
Paul Prospero is some sort of supernatural detective, not unlike a certain Harry Dresden. One day he receives a letter from a young boy- Ethan Carter- asking for assistance with some sort of spooky scenario. Prospero races off to scenic Red Creek Valley to investigate, where it quickly becomes apparent that some messed up shit has gone down just prior to his arrival. What follows is an atmospheric and methodical stroll through the woods, punctuated by hideous crime scenes that you’ll use Prospero’s nebulous psychic abilities to examine.
Let’s start with environment. The first thing you’ll probably notice about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is that it looks absolutely fucking gorgeous; you will continue to notice this throughout your time with the game. Never before have you seen mossy rocks rendered with this much visual fidelity or stopped to examine every single stone and trough of mud on a forest path. Wood grain on ancient window-frames is visible from a distance, grass ripples in the wind. This is hands-down one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever played.
Which is good, because you’re going to spend a lot of time looking at trees. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might have some puzzle mechanics, but it’s primarily a game about exploring a forest. Sometimes said exploration reveals a new puzzle or scrap of story, but there are entire large areas that exist just for the player to wander through. The game takes takes place along a mostly linear corridor, but it’s a wide corridor with lots of scope for exploration and poking around. It’s never out and out scary, but right from the start an atmosphere of subtle dread is established that makes every new location a tense crossing of the threshold into the unknown. If a mildly scary traipse through a gorgeous virtual woodland sounds like your kind of thing, go buy this game. You won’t regret it.
If you’re looking for puzzles, on the other hand, you’re in for a much more uneven experience. The challenges on offer are a more or less random sampling of mechanics, most of which feel thin and underwhelming, and in the case of a jarringly out of place maze sequence- the only time in the game you can actually die- downright frustrating. The most compelling puzzles are the crime scene sequences that task the player with recreating the context leading up to a grisly death, then piecing together the chronology of events using Prospero’s psychic abilities. It’s a clever system that more than any other game I’ve ever played made me feel like a detective, relying as it does on some actual observational skills and deductive reasoning. Unfortunately even these start to peter out over the course of the game; the last two are disappointingly brief and simplistic.
Each solved puzzle yields another nugget of story, and it’s here that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter starts to really stumble. For 99% of its relatively brief playtime the game straddles the line between low key snippets of insight into Ethan Carter’s troubled home life and a deliriously stupid sub-Lovecraftian cosmic horror story, not devoting nearly enough time to either to make them feel fleshed out or fully realized. Ethan and his family members are barely more than shadows animated by some ropey dialogue and voice acting.
Then right at the end the game pulls a sleight of hand to bring the two disparate strands together, but it’s far too little, too late. The game simply doesn’t erect enough scaffolding to support the direction its plot ends up going in, and as a result an ending that should have been moving feels empty and shallow. Developers The Astronauts were trying for something that I very much support in theory, but they botched the execution.
So that’s one prong of the walking simulator trinity masterfully executed, one half-baked and one completely mis-handled. Whether or not you’ll get anything out of Ethan Carter very much depends on which of those three elements you value. If the idea of a graphically stunning walk in the woods appeals to you then this is hands down the best execution of that idea you’re likely to find for quite a while. Hell, if you just like excellent graphics then you might find the game’s stunning sights to be worth the asking price; it might literally be the prettiest game ever made.
Personally, i enjoyed my time in Red Creek Valley enough that I didn’t regret it, but due to its shallow puzzles and directionless story I was left at the end with a folder full of gorgeous screenshots and not a whole lot else.