“The Vanishing of Ethan Carter,” a Steam hit recently ported to the PS4, opens with a bold, and somewhat confrontational claim—“This game does not hold your hand.” I have to admit I found it a little off-putting. Show, don’t tell, as the saying goes. Opening your game this way isn’t just issuing a criticism to other developers (the “…like other games” is understood or the warning wouldn’t be there) but a challenge to the gamer.
“You’ve had your hand held before, but we’re special and different.” The fact that the remarkably ambitious 4 hours that follow mostly live up to this bold claim is why “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” has earned so much press over the last nine months. It may not be as narrative-redefining an experience as, say, “Journey” or even the offerings of Telltale Games like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” but “Ethan Carter” is an undeniably memorable experience, even just for presenting some of the most impressive graphics of the PS4 generation.There are times in “Ethan Carter” when the sunlight glimmering through the perfectly-rendered trees gives the game the look of a video more than a game. From a distance, looking out over the horizon of this visually amazing experience would likely be mistaken for a clip of reality and not something created using the Unreal Engine. You simply have to see “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” to realize where gaming is going in 2016 and beyond. Think about the fact that, like all games, “Ethan Carter” will one day look dated.
It’s hard to believe graphics could get much better.
The gorgeous graphics of “Ethan” are in service of a story that’s, well, hard to explain. You play a private investigator named Paul Prospero. You have been summoned to a town called Red Creek Valley, Pennsylvania by a young boy named Ethan Carter. Ethan is missing. In fact, it looks like everyone is missing. At the start, you’re left in a field near a train track. You’ll find traps around the track. Are they trying to keep people out of town? Why? Shortly thereafter, you’ll find a mutilated body near the train track, and realize how the game “works.” You have to find the clues—a bloody stain, a crank, a rock, the body, etc.—and then piece together what happened by placing the events to which the clues relate in the right order chronologically. You’ll also chase an astronaut through the woods and take a memorable trip. Yeah, it’s a weird game, and it only gets weirder.
I found I started to enjoy “Ethan Carter” more when I stopped trying to piece it together. Like “Twin Peaks” or other works by David Lynch, it’s at its best when it’s moody and strange, like in the aforementioned astronaut interlude or a bizarre bit in which you have to basically put a house back together like a maze that’s been jumbled into various pieces. I’m not sure “Ethan Carter” fits together in the end and it can be too deliberately odd for its own good, particularly in some remarkably overcooked narration in which Prospero drops gems like “No place is truly quiet, and no place is truly ordinary.” Some of the dialogue/plotting here sounds like a Creative Writing student’s first draft.
And yet when the game works it can be mesmerizing. I found myself staring at old train cars or buildings in the distance, wondering how this place had gotten so desolate and barren. At their best, games at are this narratively unique don’t just challenge gameplay expectations but become thematically resonant as well. “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” approaches that kind of greatness. It’s essentially a puzzle game, but it is one buried in something you haven’t really seen before. And likely won’t see again for some time.