Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Post-Launch Review
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Redux (PC)
Developer: The Astronauts
Released: September 2014
Played: complete in 2h:48min


Paranormal investigator Paul Prospero has received a plea for help from Ethan Carter, a boy who gets carried away writing stories. As he tries to locate the boy, Prospero's investigation slowly reveals that Ethan woke up something he shouldn't have, something that slowly turned his family against him one by one...

At Launch

Ethan Carter earned average review scores of 82%. Reviewers loved the visuals and environments, and also enjoyed the puzzles and story. Many reviewers criticized the ambiguous autosave system and the backtracking at the end.

Post Launch

The game was ported to the Unreal 4 engine to improve visuals and open up a PS4 release. The updated version changes the save system, eliminates the backtracking, and improves load times.
I didn't play the original release, but I had heard it was one of the best-looking games on the Unreal 3 engine. That combined with the little I knew about its story already had me interested. I would have played it months ago, actually, except that I heard an Unreal 4 update was coming and I held off until the overhaul.

Turns out that was a great idea, because Redux is absolutely stunning. The alpine environments are really high detail with complex rock formations, woods that feel like woods, and natural geography. Playable areas have more room than is strictly necessary for gameplay purposes, so it feels like an open world despite the linearity. Vegetation is sprite-based, but you won't notice unless you inspect things closely. The one downside is that the trees in the distance are too sharp in the new version - they looked more distance-blurred and less artificial in the original. But overall the game looks truly exceptional compared to what else is available.
Sound design really helps with the atmosphere. The sounds of birds, wind, insects, and rushing water are well done and add immersion. I have some minor complaints here, though. Directional audio could be improved; around the dam it sounded like the water was all around me when it was actually on my left. I also thought that the music, while nice, was a little too loud and slightly overdramatic - it should have blended with the background audio a little better.
The investigative gameplay reminds me of Murdered: Soul Suspect, especially the font used for the text. You'll come across murder scenes that are incomplete, and you'll have to find and replace a couple of objects to get a good picture of the scene. When you do so you get memory visions of what happened and you need to place them in the correct order to deduce the events of each murder. What's especially nice here is how the game rewards exploration. There are five investigations related to Ethan's stories that can be missed if you just stick to the path. At the end of the game you'll be required to go back and find any that you missed. Some critics didn't like this backtracking, but as someone who loves exploring, I found it all the first time through, which made me feel pretty good when I came up on the finale. (plus the Redux version doesn't force you to walk if you have to go back, which is nice)
Spoiler warning for the next paragraph, for this game and one other.

What I most enjoyed about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is how it subverted my expectations of its horror tropes. There's another game that tried this which I didn't end up enjoying. Gone Home played up horror themes and slipped them into the story only to reveal that they were just set dressing that helped the atmosphere. It raised my hopes and then dashed them. Ethan Carter, on the other hand, directly ties the supernatural horror themes into the plot and characterization. It's not set dressing - it's a look at who Ethan is as a person, the hobby he enjoys, and how his family sees him and his hobby. I felt like Gone Home tricked me with its supernatural  horror themes, whereas Ethan Carter incorporated the supernatural from the beginning into both gameplay and story and constantly made me question what was real, so that when I finally find out what is real it comes as a gut-punch bittersweet conclusion, especially with the implications regarding how Ethan sees his family.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a fantastic game with a great, complex yet understated story and top-notch visual design. It's the right kind of short - the kind that provides a complete experience and doesn't overstay its welcome. Highly recommended and it's going on my top 10 list this year.

Recommendation: play it.

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