The Van­ish­ing Of Ethan Carter

Dark vi­sions cloud The As­tro­nauts’ open-world crime thriller

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher The As­tro­nauts De­vel­oper In-house For­mat PC Ori­gin Poland Re­lease 2014


There’s blood splat­tered across the front of the rail­car we find aban­doned on a rick­ety bridge over a lake. As we draw near, the word ‘In­spect’ hovers over the mess, and se­lect­ing it fills our vi­sion with a swarm of ob­ser­va­tions: ‘Fresh blood’, ‘Hu­man?’, ‘Few days?’ and then, ‘Clean ground…’ There’s no fur­ther ex­po­si­tion, leav­ing you to con­clude that, whether it’s the re­sult of an ac­ci­dent or foul play, the in­ci­dent must have hap­pened else­where. De­vel­oper The As­tro­nauts is par­tic­u­larly proud of the light touch with which it has im­ple­mented its 3D in­ter­face, and it has com­plete faith in you, too.

“Voiceovers are the wrong way to go about it, be­cause we trust the play­ers,” game de­signer Adrian Ch­mielarz tells us. “You can see that there is blood, and that it’s a rail­car, and it’s not re­ally that hard to fig­ure out what hap­pened here. And, yes, some play­ers might miss the fact that there is no blood on the ground, so it prob­a­bly hap­pened else­where, but people that care and pay at­ten­tion will be more re­warded.”

It’s a setup The As­tro­nauts hopes will al­low play­ers to more eas­ily in­habit the skin of Paul Pros­pero, let­ting them play de­tec­tive rather than sim­ply con­trol­ling one. It’s still rough in form, and will be re­fined over the com­ing months, but Ch­mielarz is con­fi­dent that the stu­dio has struck the right bal­ance be­tween what he de­scribes as “in­tru­sive nar­ra­tion”, which dis­rupts im­mer­sion, and leav­ing play­ers to their own de­vices.

“Orig­i­nally, we did it the old-school way,” Ch­mielarz ex­plains. “You ap­proached an item, clicked Ex­am­ine and the hero com­mented. But the com­ment can­not be di­rectly about what is on the screen. As a player, you see some sev­ered legs, and if the hero says, ‘It’s sev­ered legs,’ then even with some ex­tra words for flavour, that’s just re­dun­dant. If the com­ment re­veals more info, a con­nec­tion that the player might have missed – for ex­am­ple, ‘Sev­ered legs… I should go back to the rail­car and take blood sam­ples’ – then that’s leading the player and turn­ing them into a FedEx pup­pet. Not to men­tion that at this point the hero and the player are sup­posed to have ex­actly the same knowl­edge of the world. If the hero knows more, that’s break­ing the fourth wall and ex­pos­ing the de­signer/di­rec­tor. And if the com­ment is just for ex­tra flavour, then this is a di­a­logue be­tween the player and the char­ac­ter. But the hero and you, the player, are sup­posed to be one and the same en­tity! There shouldn’t be any di­a­logue be­tween the two of you.”

Pros­pero won’t be silent like Gor­don Free­man, but his voice will be re­stricted to am­bi­ent nar­ra­tion. “Like the nar­ra­tor in

Bas­tion,” Ch­mielarz ex­plains, “if the nar­ra­tor him­self was the hero and talked only dur­ing idle or su­per-cru­cial mo­ments.” The point is that the nar­ra­tion will never in­trude on your abil­ity to draw your own con­clu­sions. Ch­mielarz hopes that some play­ers will go even fur­ther and at­tempt to an­a­lyse clues and ob­jects them­selves, only click­ing In­spect to see if they missed some­thing.

Right next to the blood on the rail­car is a slot for a crank han­dle, but the tool we need is miss­ing. This pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to try out an­other of Pros­pero’s pow­ers of de­duc­tion, al­though this one is less grounded in re­al­ity. Once the slot is in­spected, mul­ti­ple in­stances of the word ‘Crank’ float about near the cen­tre of the screen, get­ting far­ther apart or closer to­gether depend­ing on which way Pros­pero turns. Once they over­lap, the word glows yel­low and you know you’re fac­ing in the right di­rec­tion. You can then hold the

Vi­sion but­ton to see the ob­ject in ques­tion. It could be nearby or far­ther away, but clues can be gleaned from these brief glimpses. The crank is next to wa­ter dur­ing this par­tic­u­lar vi­sion, for ex­am­ple, so now we know the gen­eral di­rec­tion to travel in, and to head down to the edge of the lake be­low the bridge.

This abil­ity is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of Pros­pero’s su­per­nat­u­ral in­tu­ition, which en­ables him to tune into the mem­o­ries of the dead. A dis­tance down the rail­way line, two sev­ered legs lie on the sleep­ers, and fol­low­ing the trail of blood along a path leads to the cor­re­spond­ing mu­ti­lated body of a teenage boy. An op­tion to sync with the boy’s mem­o­ries ap­pears when we look at the body, but some­thing isn’t right and it can’t be ac­ti­vated. Pros­pero’s power, it turns out, re­lies on all the pieces of the puzzle to be where they were be­fore an in­ci­dent took place, and solv­ing this prob­lem con­sti­tutes much of The Van­ish­ing Of Ethan Carter’s game­play.

There are other clues nearby: a length of rope that’s par­tially tied to the rail­way line, a

The point is that nar­ra­tion will never in­trude on your abil­ity to draw your own con­clu­sions

blood­ied rock, a can­is­ter of fuel and a patch of dry veg­e­ta­tion found a short way away. In the cur­rent build, in­spect­ing the dead grass trig­gers a ghostly blue vi­sion of the rail­car in its orig­i­nal po­si­tion, but The As­tro­nauts is still de­cid­ing whether or not to keep this trans­par­ent hint sys­tem in place.

A sub­tler sys­tem that will def­i­nitely stay is the au­to­matic tag­ging of ob­jects and clues that you find, a word or two hov­er­ing just above each new ob­ject. It’s an ef­fec­tive vis­ual metaphor for Pros­pero’s in­creas­ing un­der­stand­ing of a crime scene, and side­steps the break in im­mer­sion that check­ing a list in a note­book would surely bring about.

Once you think you’ve found all the rel­e­vant ev­i­dence and re­turned ev­ery­thing you can to where it was (we re­place the blood­ied rock in a pile of stones and re­verse the rail­car back to the dead grass af­ter a short search for the crank at the lake’s edge), it’s pos­si­ble to sync with the strong­est mem­o­ries of the corpse. Blue wisps float out from the body to­wards crime scene ‘hotspots’, and more blue vi­sions ap­pear, each one play­ing out a few sec­onds of the events that tran­spired be­fore the per­son’s death.

Watch­ing each one adds them to your own mem­o­ries, which can be ac­cessed at any time. Do so and they float in front of you with­out paus­ing the game, along­side the op­tion to vi­su­alise the crime. But now your task is to es­tab­lish the or­der in which they hap­pened – a vi­sion in which the boy is crawl­ing away from his sev­ered limbs can’t pre­cede one in which he is walk­ing, for in­stance. Get it right and you’ll see the crime play out in full, be­fore all those wisps float back to the corpse, cre­at­ing its first mem­ory as a ghost. This in turn floats to a new lo­ca­tion, and by fol­low­ing it you’ll see one fi­nal vi­sion, which will pro­vide a hint as to where to go next.

The sev­ered-legs crime is the first you’ll en­counter, tak­ing place five min­utes into the game, but it’s nonethe­less an elab­o­rate, tiered puzzle. The As­tro­nauts is re­main­ing tightlipped on how many mys­ter­ies the fi­nal game will con­tain, or how much of the large, fully ex­plorable world later co­nun­drums will cover. But we’re al­ready itch­ing to delve deeper into Ethan Carter’s macabre tale.

De­spite the blood­shed, Red Creek Val­ley is one of the most pleas­ant videogame en­vi­ron­ments we’ve vis­ited, chan­nelling a lit­tle of Alan Wake and The­Wit­ness in its beau­ti­ful, forested acres

Adrian Ch­mielarz, game di­rec­tor

Clues range from the bla­tant, such as aban­doned per­sonal ef­fects, to more sub­tle hints like a dis­turbed rock. Find­ing them is an­other mat­ter, how­ever, as they can be far from your main path

The patch of dead grass sug­gests that the rail car spent some time here be­fore it was moved. An up­ended fuel can rests just next to it, too. You’re free to ig­nore all of this and ex­plore the world, how­ever

TOP A blue tinge to the screen and a deathly whis­per (dubbed by The As­tro­nauts as the “cry of the dead”) her­alds a nearby corpse. Such mo­ments are in sharp con­trast to the wel­com­ing tone else­where in the game. RIGHT This mem­ory re­veals that the vic­tim who lost his legs had pre­vi­ously tied Ethan to the rail­way. Whether he in­tended to harm the vic­tim or was sim­ply a cre­ative bully is un­clear at this stage

TOP Hav­ing pieced to­gether the crime scene and synced with the corpse’s mem­o­ries, it seems clear that Ethan’s grand­fa­ther has come to his aid. Ethan is clearly afraid of the man, how­ever. ABOVE While the lake looks tempt­ing, you won’t be able to swim in it. “It would of­fer greater free­dom,” Ch­mielarz says, “but at a cost of break­ing im­mer­sion due to the silli­ness of it all.” CEN­TRE The As­tro­nauts’ 3D in­ter­face aban­dons crosshairs and any kind of HUD in favour of float­ing verbs and nouns, high­lighted sim­ply by fo­cus­ing on them. It’s an el­e­gant sys­tem

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