RPG Analysis

Posted on Nov 19th 2014 at 06:00:00 AM by (Fleach)
Posted under Review, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, PC, Steam, GOG, The Astronauts, Indie, Atmosphere, Creepy

There's something eerily wrong in Red Creek Valley and it's your job to piece things together in this atmospheric "weird fiction" detective game.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, released in September 2014 for the PC (a PS4 release is slated for 2015) by The Astronauts is at its core a detective story, but at the same time, it's about a boy with a wild imagination whose family has turned against him. You play as Paul Prospero who is following up on an urgent letter he received from Ethan. The contents of this letter are unknown save for a cryptic image which is Paul's call to action. Upon arrival, Red Creek Valley seems like an ordinary rural Wisconsin town, but, as Ethan warns, you should not be fooled by the tranquility because scratching below the surface are dark and terrible things.

While not overtly scary, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter evokes a sense of unease in its players. The game is heavily influenced by the works of "weird fiction" authors including Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. And like these writers' works, this game offers just enough to create an uncomfortable tension. King claims that there are three kinds of terror: "the gross-out - the severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, the horror - the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, etc., and the worse of the three, terror, which King compares to returning home only to find an exact substitute of your house and everything in it. "It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there." This is what The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does to the player, and it does this superbly. The beautiful, yet uncanny, setting is enough to put the player on edge because everything points to something that just isn't right.

Just like a single bright light emanating from from a dark house on a foggy night. Source: The Exorcist film poster

To create this level of atmosphere, The Astronauts use the diegetic method of storytelling and the 4-Layers narrative design approach, which involves characters actively retelling the story and consequently requiring the player to connect the dots and create an interactive narrative. Not surprisingly, you will be connecting a lot of dots in this game. To aid players in pieceing together the story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Paul Prospero has the ability to see into the final memories of the recently deceased. He must use this gift to solve the murders involving the Carter family and find the whereabouts of Ethan. Your job as the player is find clues and recreate the crime scene and chronology of the events leading up to a victim's death. To do this, you scour an area for evidence and watch Prospero's thoughts swirl around in his head; this leads the player to key items or locations. Once these clues are found and returned, Prospero can learn about the disintegrating Carter family and uncover the location of the next set of clues.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a love letter to "weird fiction" and the use of the uncanny and the unknown is very engaging. The team behind the game created an environment that you can get lost in and forget about the real world. Video games are perhaps the greatest medium for this style of fiction because they have the ability to combine visuals, sound, and interactivity to build something that seems so much like the every day things that people understand, while keeping still keeping these things just outside the realm of possibility. You know that an abandoned house poses no threat, but when all of the design elements come together just right, you sense that there is something sinister within this derelict home.

Source: In-game screen shot

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter proves that a story is not just plot. The fullest experience of the game comes from the series of events, character interactions, and the ability to step into the world presented to the player. Usually a player needs only to be aware of the game world itself, but are often distracted by objectives or heads-up displays. In a game like L.A. Noire, this engagement comes from the people present at a crime scene, the cars that slow down to look at what's going on. In Shadow of the Colossus, it is the act of finding the Colossi and feeling their immensity while standing in their shadows. In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, engagement is facilitated by the artifacts found within the game; these items add depth to Ethan's character and also add to the dynamic of the Carter family. This game isn't really played so much as it is experienced. You will never be told what to do or where to go next; in fact, the opening line of the game is, "This is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand." This warning works on two levels: it deepens player engagement by calling them to pay close attention to all the details, and supports the premise that you play as a detective who must rely on his clues and intellect in order to progress.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter presents players with a world full of depth and mystery. What you put into this game is what you will take away from it. Nothing is concrete and there aren't black and white/right or wrong answers. The experience is completely unique for each player. That is not to say this is an ambiguous game; it is only vague because the developers want the player to piece together their own story for the Carter family and walk away with something that feels personal. Within five hours of play time you will feel wonder, intrigue, discovery, and closure. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is as visually beautiful as it is mentally satisfying. It is an experience that will be remembered long after the credits roll.

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This sounds intriguing. I don't do a lot of PC gaming, but I may have to make an exception and snag this.
Sounds like a really interesting game. I'm a big fan of mysteries like these that seem to keep you drawn in until the end.
sounds cool man. Good write-up.
Glad you guys enjoyed the article. This game is fantastic in so many ways and I can't recommend it enough. Whether you're just going to meander and soak in the great graphics or try to figure out the plot people will get a lot out of their time with the game.
I originally didn't pay very much attention to this game.  I think I assumed it was one of those mystery item hunt games that I see at Target all the time.  I think I'd like to still see it in action (maybe with the first video of a good Let's Player) but I am certainly interested now.  Thanks, Fleach.
thank your for the nice suggestion- didn't have this thing on my radar, but now i will definetly give it a try.
Thanks for posting this man!  Never heard of it, but I was intrigued enough to sign up for Steam and pick it up when it went on sale.  While it's not something I'd recommend paying full price for (it took 4 hours to complete the game with all achievements, although I did look up the sniper rifle), it was worth the $13 or so I paid for it.  Recommended for fans of the genre and those that are looking for a short-yet-fulfilling experience.

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Role Playing games are my favourite genre of the gaming library. I feel it is appropriate to take a look at the games that have touched me in my time as a gamer and collector and share them with the community. Feel free to discuss your thoughts, ideas, and challenge my opinions. The conversation is welcomed.
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