the van­ish­ing of ethan carter

A spooky mur­der mys­tery that’s just child’s play

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - START -

There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing game at the heart of Ethan Carter: a su­per­nat­u­ral mur­der mys­tery with a great central me­chanic that has you search­ing for clues and re­assem­bling crime scene events. But there are also a few prob­lems. Like a loose nar­ra­tive that’s so open at times as to let you slip through its storytelling fin­gers and, on Xbox One, some odd frame-rate is­sues.

Let’s get that frame rate thing out the way first. Ba­si­cally, avoid the 30FPS frame rate lock in the op­tions like the plague. For some rea­son it turns an oc­ca­sional on-screen lurch into a metro­nomic pulse, es­pe­cially on the orig­i­nal Xbox One. On the S and X it’s far less no­tice­able, but can still get an­noy­ing in a ‘once you see it’ kind of way. Un­cap the frame rate and it’s a far more fleet­ing is­sue.

It’s a point in Ethan Carter’s fa­vor, though, that even with these tech­ni­cal is­sues the magic of the game still shines through. It’s an oddly unique tale mix­ing de­tec­tive work against a back­ground of the su­per­nat­u­ral and, oc­ca­sion­ally, the sur­real. As the ti­tle sug­gests, a boy called Ethan has dis­ap­peared and, play­ing as an in­ves­ti­ga­tor called Paul Pros­pero, it’s up to you to ex­plore Red Creek Val­ley to find him.

Bloody in­trigu­ing

Scat­tered around the val­ley you’ll find puz­zles and the sites of grisly mur­ders—var­i­ous mem­bers of Ethan’s fam­ily that have met a bloody end, of­ten tied to­gether by scraps of sto­ries writ­ten by Ethan. They’re al­le­gories, re­ally, of real-world events—tales of a wizard’s home be­ing burned by an­gry vil­lagers for ex­am­ple, linked to a news­pa­per clip­ping about the cause of a real-life house fire. Putting all this to­gether over the course of the game lets you form a pic­ture of what might have hap­pened, with talk of a pres­ence called ‘The Sleeper’ and the fam­ily’s in­creas­ingly strange be­hav­ior mak­ing it clear that what­ever it was, it was not good.

Solv­ing the mur­ders is one of the most sat­is­fy­ing things here. As you ex­plore you’ll even­tu­ally stum­ble on some blood, a body, or maybe just a piece of one. When you do you’re able to use a psy­chic abil­ity to re­veal glimpses of the past, or track down miss­ing clues. Search­ing the crime scene will re­veal words that hover over im­por­tant clues. ‘Blood?’ ‘Whose blood?’ and so on might swirl around a splat­ter­ing on the floor, while a cru­cial item might cre­ate a cloud of words that swims around as you look, even­tu­ally co­a­lesc­ing when you face in the right di­rec­tion to find it.

Us­ing these skills you’re able to recre­ate the crime scene by lo­cat­ing

ev­ery­thing that was in­volved and re­turn­ing things to their right­ful place. Once that’s done, stage two be­gins: Piec­ing to­gether what ac­tu­ally hap­pened. Ghostly ap­pari­tions ap­pear show­ing var­i­ous events, and it’s up to you to put it all to­gether in the right or­der—get it right and the whole scene plays out be­fore you, fill­ing you in on who did what to whom and why.

Stranger things

It’s mostly bad things. We don’t want to spoil much be­cause the story is the star here. On the one hand it’s weirdly sur­real, formed from scraps of a child’s imag­i­na­tion—you might be chas­ing a space­man through the for­est, for ex­am­ple—but then it’s also darkly un­pleas­ant as a fam­ily ap­par­ently im­plodes in the blood­i­est way pos­si­ble, drawn by a strange pres­ence that wants Ethan dead. There are hints of Stephen King, HP Love­craft, Silent Hill, and more, with each scene feel­ing like a little stand­alone short story mo­ment, ty­ing into a greater arc.

When you’re on the trail and piec­ing things to­gether it can feel amaz­ing. There’s a won­der­ful iso­la­tion and at­mos­phere to Red Creek Val­ley, and some­times just be­ing there is the mo­ment, with­out any game­play pay-off or nar­ra­tive re­veal. But the open­ness that gives you such free­dom can also cause prob­lems. You’re told right up front that this is ‘a nar­ra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence that won’t hold your hand’, which is a great idea in prin­ci­ple, but it lacks per­haps the sign­post­ing and storytelling skills to avoid los­ing you along the way.

Not al­ways be­ing able to tell what’s im­por­tant or miss­ing a key item can eas­ily rup­ture the haunt­ing nar­ra­tive form­ing around you. In­stead of a su­per­nat­u­ral de­tec­tive solv­ing an ethe­real and at­mo­spheric mur­der, you crash back down to Earth as a gamer, press­ing but­tons at ev­ery­thing in hope of find­ing the thing that makes the game start again. There may be swear­ing. Def­i­nitely some googling.

It’s still worth it though. De­sign is­sues and slight tech­ni­cal prob­lems aside, there’s a won­der­fully dif­fer­ent su­per­nat­u­ral tale here; not quite full hor­ror, but trou­bling and in­ter­est­ing, with one of the best ‘oh my GOD’ end­ings in any­thing we’ve played, read, or watched in a while.

“One of the best hand-to-mouth, ‘oh my GOD’ end­ings we’ve played in a while”

far left Suc­cess­fully find­ing all the parts of a crime scene re­veals a ghostly re­play of events to put in or­der. Left

Red Creek Val­ley is a peace­ful and at­mo­spheric place, but some­thing is very wrong.

Right

Solv­ing mur­ders means look­ing at the clues and re­cre­at­ing the crime.

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