Weird Tales Inspire a Wonderful Game
HIGH: Maintains a nearly constant atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
LOW: Lengthy backtracking after completing a previously missed puzzle.
WTF: The summoning of the sea-thing Gnaiih.
Weird fiction is one of the most appealing sub-genres for fantasy writers, yet one of the most difficult to pull off. All too often, authors think that the styles of Lovecraft, Derleth and Blackwood can be imitated by including elements these luminaries used in their more famous works. While inhuman abominations, obscure cults, and ancient relics frequently appear in this genre, they’re merely peripherals—not the core necessary to the essence of these stories.
The true terror comes from the revelation of how insignificant humanity is; how for all our achievements, there are forces which we are powerless to control or comprehend without going mad. Polish developer The Astronauts’s debut title The Vanishing of Ethan Carter understands this, and delivers a supernatural detective story that pays proper homage to the forefathers of weird fiction.
When innocents are threatened by dark forces, they call upon Paul Prospero to save them. A world-renowned paranormal investigator, Prospero tackles cases involving the unknown and unnatural. One of his admirers, Ethan Carter, sends a letter discussing strange occurrences in his hometown of Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin. Concerned by the phenomena Ethan mentioned, Prospero sets out to offer his assistance. Upon arrival, every resident of the town has been brutally murdered, and reality itself appears to be fracturing due to the presence of a being referred to as “the Sleeper.” Prospero must tread lightly as he searches for Ethan and the source of this sinister influence, or it will be his final case.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first-person title that promises to deliver “a narrative experience that does not hold your hand,” and it certainly lives up to that description. There are no markers on the map indicating where to go next, and no hints are offered when stuck on a puzzle. All players can do is press on until they find the clue they need or figure out the necessary solution. It’s a simple yet effective way of encouraging players to explore and exercise critical thought.
The crux of the gameplay involves reconstructing murder scenes. As players travel through Red Creek Valley, they’ll come across the bodies of the Carter family, most having been killed in particularly savage ways. The player can then inspect the corpses and objects around the crime scene while possible theories about what transpired float around each item. Usually one or more pieces of evidence will have been removed from the area, and the investigation can’t proceed until these absent clues are found. Locating them isn’t an easy task.
After investigating the spot where a missing object used to rest, multiple copies of its name will float around in the air. Moving the mouse around will cause the words to converge when players are looking in the direction the item can be found. The player can then ‘sense’ where it’s located, getting a brief glimpse of the surrounding area. These locations won’t be marked on a map, though—they must be sought out by looking for a landscape that matches the vision.
Once every piece of evidence has been retrieved and inspected, Prospero’s powers enable him to reconstruct the crime. Specters of those involved will materialize to show what they were doing at various points. The players then put these events in chronological order to show how the murder played out. Some parts of the timeline are easy to put in sequence based on where characters are located and any items they may have (or lack) though a few visions are a bit vague. It may take some trial and error to deduce the proper order, but with enough logical analysis, the correct sequence can be determined without much stress.
Story-wise, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter certainly fits the criteria of weird fiction as defined by Lovecraft. While bloody murders and mysterious apparitions abound, they aren’t the true source of dread. The real terror arises from discovering what led the townsfolk to commit such horrible acts. Was the Sleeper controlling them, or did something else remove their inhibitions? Red Creek Valley’s landscape also shifts depending on where Prospero travels without warning, and players have little or no control over when it will happen. Morbid curiosity about what new enigma I might find created an almost constant frisson that kept me drawn in.
There’s only one segment where the tone falters—in a mine, there’s an area where players must navigate a series of passages while pursued by an undead miner. If caught, the ghoul will suddenly appear before them and howl, sending them back to the start of the area. While it does enhance the sensation of weakness since players are unable to fight the monster, the cheap jump-scares ruin the consistently subtle climate of fear—I felt The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s greatest strength was in how it made me question the reality of the game’s world and the sanity of its inhabitants.
I was also enamored by the fact that nearly every strange event in Red Creek Valley (except the murders themselves) were linked by short stories Ethan had written. Whether it was an astronaut who lured Prospero into a space capsule, a massive stone seal holding back a monster, or a house with shifting rooms, braving each ordeal would lead to a hastily-scribbled tale. After finding the stories, the areas transformed from mystical to mundane—an alchemist’s lab became a moonshine shack, and a witch’s hut was nothing more than an abandoned campsite. Was Ethan’s writing changing the world around him? Was it another effect of the Sleeper’s power? Or, as I later thought, was everything just happening in Prospero’s head?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter hits all the right notes a supernatural mystery should contain. It’s well paced, has a compelling plot, the twists are surprising without being outlandish, it prefers a more nuanced psychological horror over excessive blood and gore, and it’s able to organically elicit fear, sadness and intrigue. The development team at The Astronauts have produced a stellar launch title that shows how committed they are to their goal in creating immersive, atmospheric narrative-driven games. I look forward to seeing what new stories they’ll tell in the future.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download from Steam and played on PC. Approximately 4 hours of play were devoted to the game, and it was completed. There is no multiplayer mode.
Parents: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has yet to be given an ESRB rating. According to Pan European Game Information (PEGI) this game contains extreme violence and coarse language. Several murders are depicted, usually featuring mutilation of the body. Characters occasionally swear and utter offensive slurs.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: A subtitle option exists for dialogue. Lack of sound may be a hindrance while trying to complete the mine puzzle since being unable to hear the zombie’s movements makes it more difficult to avoid it. Audio cues accompany the solving of a puzzle, though they aren’t necessary to tell when the correct solution has been found.