The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter
The Astronauts’ handsome debut begins with an attention-grabbing contrivance that’s cheap, but undeniably effective. As you take your first steps through peaceful, picturesque woodland, you’ll hear a loud wooden creak and thump as you trigger a spiked trap. Soon after, you’ll almost blunder into another, and another. The metaphor may be a little on the nose – danger lies beneath this seemingly tranquil surface – but it serves as a reminder to be watchful, and also to unsettle you for the rest of the game.
There’s another message here: tread carefully, and take your time. Despite the presence of a run button, Red Creek Valley is a setting to be lingered over, its sumptuous environments rich in detail and atmosphere, lit by a permanent, hazy, low-hanging sun. You’ll stride across an old railway bridge and then gaze out in both directions, looking up at the craggy hills, then peering down onto a beautiful calm lake next to a formidable dam, your finger hovering over F12, Steam’s screenshot shortcut, all the while.
It’s at once real and unreal, evoking a powerful sense of place. Neglected and vacated, this is a world haunted by the spectres of its former inhabitants, a world of cracked paint, weather-beaten masonry, dust and rust. Stony, leaf-ridden paths wind their way past a church on a hill that would look imposing if it wasn’t so pitiful, while a nearby cemetery is more sorrowful than scary. As extraordinary as the texture detail is, this is no mere technical showcase; instead, each meticulously crafted inch of scenery helps to tell a story, adding background colour to the game’s central mystery.
The noir-tinged voiceover of Paul Prospero sets the tone as he looks into the disappearance of the titular youngster. Prospero is a supernatural investigator in every sense – not only because the paranormal is his speciality, or because he uses occult powers to dip into the past, but also in the way he effortlessly glides over the ground (though even he is occasionally thwarted by the odd invisible wall). Regardless, as in any good mystery, he soon discovers he’s in for more than he bargained for, stumbling across a pair of bloody severed legs and then, shortly afterward, their former owner.
It’s the first of a series of vignettes that you must piece together by examining key items in the vicinity, highlighted by text overlays, until you find something missing from the scene. This prompts a swirl of words as Prospero guesses the nature of the absent item; you’ll need to move around until the noise quietens and the words merge. One button press or mouse click later, and you’re not only shown roughly where to go, but given a glimpse of the object’s precise location. A pre-game message proudly states The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter isn’t going to hold your hand, and that may be true, but it’s sometimes happy to grab your shoulders, spin you around and point you in the right direction.
Once everything has been returned to its original position, you’re left to recreate the chronology of the associated incident. Nearby you’ll find several images, which you’re invited to arrange into the correct order by assigning each a number. Although solving the puzzle is an enjoyable process in and of itself, it’s an idea that quite never stops feeling discordant. With most of the real deduction done for you by Prospero, it’s not so much about solving a mystery as having to complete a trial-and-error puzzle before you can enjoy the next chapter of the story. It could barely be more jarring if accompanied by a flashing sign bearing the legend, “Here comes the game part.” Much more successful are the small discoveries elsewhere that take you further into Ethan Carter’s dysfunctional world and that of his increasingly troubled family. There’s a puzzle that will have most players scrabbling to find a notebook and pen, and a bravura early-game fantasy sequence that at first seems entirely inappropriate, but makes sense in light of later revelations – and, besides, it’s an absolute joy. These vivid sparks of imagination illuminate a game that could otherwise have been a little too unrelentingly grim, its narrative spiralling towards something truly sinister; it’s a dark and unpleasant (albeit superbly written) tale with a strong, haunting Lovecraftian flavour. It’s all supported by an expertly judged nondiegetic soundtrack, a significant presence, but one that’s suggestive rather than intrusive, and knows when to fade into the background and let the sounds of nature take over, making rare silences all the more unnerving.
And if most of the detective work is done by Prospero on your behalf, the rest of the mystery is yours to unpick as you see fit. The devil, as ever, is buried in those finer details, and while the ending seems open to interpretation, one reading explains away so many apparent incongruities as to feel all but definitive. There is, however, a notable misstep in the closing stretch – a roadblock just ahead of the finish that demands you backtrack to find anything significant you might have missed. Red Creek Valley might not be the largest sandbox you’ve ever seen, but it’s quite a trek from one end to the other; time, at last, for Prospero to break into a sprint.
Regardless, this is a classy, inventive adventure with an absorbing story. Come for the textures, stay for the subtext: The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter’s picturepostcard views make Red Creek Valley an appealing place to explore, but for all the visual memories stored away in your screenshot folder, it’s what lies beneath that will stay with you. By turns melancholic and menacing, tender and raw, The Astronauts’ debut is a powerfully evocative journey that just so happens to take in extraordinary views along the way.