Talk about a game that doesn’t baby the player. The first message that the player gets when they boot up The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” It quickly becomes apparent that that message is no joke. I wandered around the game’s gorgeous world for a good 20 minutes before stumbling upon what I was supposed to do. Even then, the game remained coy in offering solutions. It has been quite a while since I have had to think so hard about a game’s puzzles. At one moment, I even had to grab a pencil and paper and start writing things down. I loved it.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter puts players in the role of Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective. He has been tasked with visiting Red Creek Valley and solving the mystery behind Ethan Carter, a young boy who suddenly disappeared amidst reports of several gruesome murders with paranormal overtones. Thankfully, Prospero has a few mystic tricks of his own to help bring clarity to the case. By interacting with specific objects or places, he can briefly look into the past.
The player needs to direct Prospero around the valley to solve the mystery. It is about a 30-minute walk from end to end, and the player will explore every inch of the terrain in search of puzzles that hide clues. These clues, once discovered, cause cinematic moments of the past to play before Prospero. The player then has to rearrange these moments in the correct order to begin to piece together the mystery. It is a process that, unfortunately, gets a little too easy as the game goes on. They’re welcome challenges at the start, but, by the end, the solution to the correct order of the events is almost elementary. However, the puzzles that the player needs to solve in order to find said clues are anything but easy.
These puzzles range from matching symbols to shapes, memorization challenges (why I needed the paper), and curving labyrinths. None of these challenges are highlighted on any map. In fact, the player really doesn’t have a HUD at all. This game challenges the player to think outside the box. Occasionally, it will go back on the word of its earliest message and nudge the player in the right direction, like turning Prospero’s eyes towards a clump of discolored dead grass so the player can deduce that a heavy object must have been recently removed, but the player is mostly left to their own devices. This extends to the order of the puzzles themselves. I actually walked past what should have been the “first” puzzle, and didn’t discover it until I had actually solved everything else.
The player will have to do a fair amount of exploration and backtracking to beat The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but it is never a drag. The game is positively stunning to look at. As I crossed the bridge over a ravine, I took a moment to gaze at the tranquil water flowing in the reservoir below. I could hear the soft creak of an old tree swaying against the wind, and the sun behind Prospero was painting everything in a warm glow. It was breathtaking. Even after adventuring through the scenic environments of last year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, and NieR: Automata, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might be the most beautiful game I have ever played.
The story is nothing to scoff at either. I hesitate to talk about the game’s narrative in detail, as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is, first and foremost, a murder mystery. A large portion of the story’s enjoyment comes from figuring out what the story even is. Prospero himself is not all that talkative. He spends a good deal of the game silent. When he does speak, it is to silently muse on his surroundings or make some disgruntled statement about the supernatural phenomenon he has found himself in. This makes him a difficult protagonist to easily identify with. However, everything about his bearing informs the player that this is a man who knows the world is both stranger and more horrifying than normal people would like to believe. He is not someone who responds to normal disappearances.
This heightens the game’s already tense plotline and setting. Outside of the ghostly apparitions that visit him when viewing the past, Prospero is entirely alone throughout The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The game does little to scare the player (outside of one of the most well done jump scares I’ve seen in media in awhile), but the oppressive silence of the setting reinforces the notion that something must be there. Ethan Carter, and the people close to him, could not have just disappeared. People do not do that. Someone or something must be responsible for making the world as quiet as it is.
The remnants of ghastly murders and otherworldly influences only highlight that something is wrong. Throughout the five hours of my first playthrough, I could not shake the feeling that Red Creek Valley was a literal embodiment of the “uncanny valley.” There were moments in the game that left me so apprehensive that something as simple as Prospero randomly speaking would shake me. I was never scared, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a masterful showcasing of how a game can use tension to toy with a player’s emotional and mental state.
The only, and I truly mean only, place where The Vanishing of Ethan Carter falls flat is in its save system. The game uses an autosave feature to keep track of which clues the player has found and which puzzles they have solved. However, there is no way to manually save the game. More than once, I had to keep playing 20-30 minutes longer than I wanted because I wanted to stop playing but the game hadn’t saved in awhile, so I had to find something that would cause the game to register that it needed to autosave.
I also didn’t appreciate the heart-sinking feeling of turning on the game for the second time, only to discover that I had lost about 35 minutes of progress, and realizing that if I wasn’t careful then every play session could accidentally become a lost cause if I forgot to find an autosave point. It would be one thing if it had been my fault for forgetting to save, but it seems cruel to force players to rely on the whims of the game itself. Thankfully, the game is short enough that it can be completed in a few sessions. However, it is unfortunate that this game is designed in such a way that it is difficult to quickly jump into the game and play for 10-30 minutes. Sometimes that is all the time a player has.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a phenomenal game. The initial warning that the player cannot rely on the game is one worth heeding (except when saving apparently), but this opens the door to some truly mind-boggling and innovative puzzles. The player feels like a supernatural Sherlock Holmes by the game’s end. The stunningly life-like setting, use of silence, and soft-spoken protagonist makes for one of gaming’s tensest experiences. If you’re looking for a game that will test your deductive skills, while delivering one of the best supernatural thriller narratives in years, look no further than The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.