the vanishing of ethan carter
A spooky murder mystery that’s just child’s play
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.
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.
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.
Solving murders means looking at the clues and recreating the crime.