Over the last few years we’ve witnessed an exodus, of sorts, as one developer of AAA games after another has decided to drop the insane expectations and ridiculous budgets of blockbuster video games to focus on passion projects. In 2012, Red Barrels was established by some of the folks behind Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell so they could bring us Outlast. There’s also Blackpowder Games, a studio comprised of former Monolith devs, which recently released its atmospheric open-world shooter Betrayer.
AAA-turned-indie devs have gradually developed a solid track record of making quality games that didn’t need tens of millions of dollars to realize or a hive of PR people to market to the widest possible audience. They’re also far more courageous ventures — like an open-world game that’s almost entirely bereft of color — than what we usually see in the AAA space.
It’s almost as if setting aside all the nonsense and high expectations that come with making wildly expensive games to focus on the creative side of development can actually benefit the game. When no one’s wasting time asking stupid questions like whether or not featuring a woman on the front of the box art negatively impact sales, we get games like Outlast, Betrayer and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
That last game is the latest example of what’s so great about this exciting industry trend. It comes from The Astronauts, a brand new studio formed by ex-People Can Fly devs. This is (part of) the team behind bombastic blockbuster action games like Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment, though you wouldn’t guess it by looking at their latest project.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is entirely unlike anything this team of clearly talented developers has done before, and I absolutely love it.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say there aren’t enough quality mystery games to choose from these days. Ethan Carter may just be good enough to change that. At least I hope it is. It’d be great if this game was successful enough to inspire more talented game makers to take a stab at this alarmingly underused genre, because we need more games like this.
It’s worth mentioning that Ethan Carter isn’t a horror game in the traditional sense. It manages to be scary without relying on gore, monsters or jump scares. It needs none of that, because its dark themes, moody atmosphere and slowly building dread prove far more effective.
Before we really start picking it apart, let’s talk about what this game is all about.
Ethan Carter is a story-driven supernatural mystery played in the first person perspective. It couldn’t be played any other way, for two reasons. The first is because the immersion relies on our ability to live inside the head of its lead character — the man who’s investigating Ethan Carter’s murder — paranormal investigator Paul Prospero.
The second reason for this is its emphasis on exploration. There’s a major focus on discovery here, and The Astronauts has made scouring every inch of the gorgeous world they’ve made feel worth it.
This was accomplished by making its world feel as real as possible, and by making it the focus at all times. Even the interface has a gorgeous, minimalistic design. There are no tutorials, annoying in-game hints, maps, compasses, objective markers, or any of that crap that inundates so many modern games, and that frees us to enjoy this big virtual world that’s been created just for us.
The attention to detail here is impressive. I found myself going out of my way just so I could frame the perfect screenshot. Despite its supernatural tendencies, Ethan Carter strives for realism, and much of why it’s so successful is thanks to its setting. It’s difficult to believe that such a serene and peaceful setting could hide such darkness, but it does, and witnessing it slowly unfold before you is nothing short of spectacular.
There’s a beautifully realized world to explore here, and a keen eye is required not only to solve the mysteries that have been scattered about it, but to find them as well. If a keen eye isn’t something you already possess, it will be something you develop.
Prospero has a very specific set of skills that make him more than a little familiar with the occult and the supernatural.
Like any good investigator, he has an eye for little details. Examining objects gives us a glimpse into his mind as brief notes appear, representing fleeting thoughts and observations. Things get interesting when his more unique talents reveal themselves.
Being a supernatural investigator, Prospero possesses the ability to see past the reality “normal” people see. He can glimpse into a hidden world. For him, it seems as simple as lifting a veil. This talent will prove invaluable in finding out exactly why a young boy, the eponymous Ethan Carter, was murdered.
Prospero’s suite of abilities will be helpful, but they won’t be enough to solve every riddle that comes your way. This isn’t a survival horror game, but much like the best games of that genre, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will require your full attention.
I’ve mentioned my love for quiet moments numerous times here on Bloody Disgusting, so I was delighted when I realized Ethan Carter shares my fondness for these moments that are so rarely found in modern games. It certainly helps that it’s backed by a subtle, haunting and sufficiently mesmerizing soundtrack by Mikolai Stroinski (composer on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt).
Ethan Carter is more of an interactive story than a video game, in the traditional sense. But where similarly themed story adventure games like Gone Home and Dear Esther have each been wildly successful in handling their narratives, this is an area where The Astronauts stumbles.
A substantial amount of effort has gone into crafting a stunning presentation, I only wish the narrative was given the same amount of attention. The writing is superior to many games, but its flaws have been made more obvious with the spotlight shining upon them. Without spoiling anything, with a more confident execution, certain revelations could’ve landed with greater impact.
Ethan Carter is a case of the quality of the package sometimes overshadowing the contents contained within.
Because the player’s only real impact on this world has been purposefully limited, it’s clear from the beginning that we are only visitors in this place. We’re never meant to have any real impact on it, our only purpose is to pay a visit it, solve a mystery, and leave. Wwhen we’re gone, we’ll leave nary a trace that we were ever here.
Funny, that. Prospero has daily dealings with ghosts, yet in a way, he’s a ghost himself.
I also wish it trusted the player enough to not use invisible walls. If there’s a cliff and I get perilously close to its edge, I want to feel like I’m in danger, as I would if I were in a real-life version of that scenario. Protecting the player with unnecessary boundaries is cheap and hurts the immersion.
In the end, Ethan Carter is likely to polarize a few folks, but I assume a majority of those who leave disappointed weren’t sure of what to expect from it to begin with. Its refusal to hold our hand makes it only slightly less accessible to the average gamer, but it’s necessary for this kind of experience — and for gaming as a whole, because excessively hand-holdy game design is ruining some games.
The Final Word: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is ambitious, visually stunning and becomes gradually more unsettling the deeper you go. It’s a shame the writing is often outclassed by its other strengths, because that’s the only thing that holds this game back from true greatness.