Nordic Games; PC (version tested)/PS4; ￡15; Pegi rating: 16+
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter begins with a title card saying, “This game is a narrative experience that will not hold your hand”. It isn’t kidding. You enter the game’s world with a journey along train tracks through a tunnel, where the protagonist Paul Prospero – a detective with supernatural abilities – talks about a letter he has received from Ethan, who has apparently seen things no child should. With that, you are left in a forest to begin your journey.
The game world is enormously and beautifully open. The environment is gorgeous, redolent of an American mountain state. Detailed landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see, with forests on rocky cliffs dropping away to open water, covered in a blanket of mist and bathed in an eerie perpetual sunset. I had to turn the graphics levels down to avoid toasting my computer, but the view remained breathtaking and the detail – on leaves, rocks and even the peeling paintwork of an old train – still looked crisp. Developer, The Astronauts, has created an exquisite environment that works across a wide range of machine specifications.
The soundtrack creates a spell-binding environment, too, with a beautiful, yet sinister score. Subtle shifts in the music reflect your passage across the landscape, with phrases reminiscent of a music box from a horror film building the tension and making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. With no birdsong or noises other than your footsteps, coupled with the fact that this is a first-person game – without the floating hands or gun that often accompany this perspective – you feel entirely isolated. This is a place, you imagine, where something has gone very wrong.
As a supernatural detective, Paul uses the things he’s discovered to assemble clues and see a psychic vision of what has happened. Key items have “inspect” hovering above them, at which point Paul’s thoughts will float as text across the screen. If you’re searching for an item, turning around until the letters merge into one solid word reveals the direction the item is in and shows you a psychic vision of its location – a mechanic that took a little time to uncover.
When you build up clues, certain objects show you “memories” of what has taken place overlayed in an eerie blue tone over the “real” world, beginning as a tiny fragment and building as you collect clues to fully transport you to the scene. This then shows you snapshots of characters frozen in time which you must arrange in the correct order for a cut scene revealing more of the story. It’s an unusual and haunting way of leading you through the narrative.
The game’s lack of handholding and huge environment meant I found it very easy to crash around without the foggiest idea where I was supposed to be going or what I was looking for. I restarted a couple of times after realising I had missed a key part of one of the puzzles that meant I had failed to create the memory scene. However, the open world format means the game won’t penalise you for missing parts and on my first attempt I arrived in the final area without having actually finished any of the puzzles. This means it’s quite a short game but the beauty is working through the story and piecing together what happened in this desolate landscape.
The save points occur infrequently at what seem like quite arbitrary moments, so I had to keep pushing on to try to find the next section of a puzzle to get the game to save. Once it had saved, it did seem to have a quirk in that it remembered where I was but didn’t seem to think I had assembled various parts of the puzzle, so I had to trot round and do them again.
Overall, this is an ethereal and haunting work that left me constantly on edge. Its beauty lies in its hands-off approach, confronting you with a mystery and leaving you to discover fragments of clues which build together to reveal the story. It’s a mystery game, rather than horror – but when a jump scare did happen, it certainly lived up to that phrase.
If you want to be free to make your own way through an intriguing narrative in gorgeous surroundings, this subtle, melancholy game is for you.