The Van­ish­ing Of Ethan Carter

EDGE - - GAMES - The As­tro­nauts PC (ver­sion tested), PS4 Out now (PC), 2015 (PS4)

PC, PS4

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.

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