Many modern adventure games are becoming increasingly linear and streamlined, with nothing to discover for ourselves anymore. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter goes in the opposite direction, promising no hand-holding and a world you can freely explore right from the start. And explore you delightedly will, because clues to this paranormal murder mystery can be found anywhere throughout the remote Red Creek Valley, a visual splendor you’ll continually behold in slack-jawed amazement. It’s fairly light on puzzle challenge and a bit of environmental signposting wouldn’t have hurt, but the game’s open-ended approach and surprisingly poignant backstory represent a welcome breath of fresh air, in more ways than one.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter starts with a brief narration outlining the barest minimum of information before dropping players into the game without any further guidance. From this opening, we learn that Paul Prospero is an occult detective who has received a disturbing letter from a youth named Ethan Carter and fears that something bad has happened to the child. Prospero decides to investigate how such a young boy could have knowledge of the things he described, though somehow he knows it'll be his last case.
The investigation starts in a forest near some train tracks. From a first-person perspective, you have almost total freedom to explore the immediate surroundings using the traditional WASD keyboard/mouse combination. You can either follow the tracks or wander off into the woods, but it pays to get off the beaten path, as you will miss many clues if you keep to the obvious routes. In the woods around the starting area, for instance, you will come across a series of traps that are sprung as soon as you come near them (they won't hurt you). Click-holding on them to 'inspect' will reveal a partial image that fills in more completely with each new trap you've triggered. Once you've found them all, the picture is complete, revealing a kind of ethereal memory world that you can investigate further.
In trying to uncover what happened to Ethan, you'll explore a rundown village, a graveyard, a dam, and a mine sprinkled throughout the mountainous, forest-bedecked valley. The full 3D locations look absolutely stunning in the eternal twilight, and you will often find yourself pausing from your trek through the country just to stare at a lake reflecting the foliage or the butterflies fluttering around. Indie developers The Astronauts used the Unreal Engine and a special visual technique using thousands of photographs of real trees and rocks. They've done a great job, as no area looks alike and the changing landscape always feels totally natural. Better still, there are no load screens causing artificial interruptions along the way.
Although this is a breathtakingly beautiful game, it has plenty of scenes that aren't so pretty to look at. Throughout his investigation, Paul discovers many a mutilated corpse, such as a guy whose legs have been severed from his torso. The gore is very real and yet never overdone, as the goal is not to gross players out but to suitably convey the shocking horror of the mystery, which continually ramps up both your desire to find Ethan and the dreadful suspicion that when you do, it may be too late.
The juxtaposition between the serene, pastoral landscape and the gruesome horrors you uncover makes for an almost palpably unnerving atmosphere. For the most part there is no actual danger to Prospero, but a growing sense of supernatural malevolence is enough to evoke fear as you progress, as well as sadness at the tragedies you encounter. Bit by bit, the sparse but immersive backstory reveals just enough to make you want to constantly discover more. You’ll gradually learn all about an ancient curse that threatened to tear a family apart, but saying anything more would spoil the experience.
Much of this huge, open world has nothing at all to interact with, but scattered around the environment are small set pieces that represent significant new parts of the mystery. Within these scenarios, looking at certain objects causes Paul's thoughts to be visualized as words on the screen, such as ropes, a rock and the crank that belongs to the train. Some items can be interacted with directly, while others provide visual hints for tracking down other crucial details. A few objects can be collected as inventory, though these are used automatically in the correct situations later on. The objective is to recreate each scene as it was during the incident (was it an accident or murder?). When you’ve accomplished that, clusters of light appear and turn into ghostly holograms of the characters involved. Your task is to 'tag' these people in the chronological order the scene originally played out, using observational skills and imagination (or even guesswork in a pinch).Continued on the next page...