Despite the definition of the noun ‘game,’ my adult years have seen narrative and storytelling overtake all other aspects of this medium in importance to me. Give me the janky controls but epic story of the first Mass Effect over the refined mechanics but bland action tales of a Call of Duty game. When The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opened with the phrase, “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand,” I was intrigued, excited and oh-so-ready to dive in. However, while the game does not lie about its focus on narrative, the way in which the game leaves you to your own devices could be described as total abandonment more than a lack of hand-holding, resulting in a frustrating experience, and is definitely not fun.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first-person exploration game, which swaps action and combat for environmental story-telling and puzzle-solving. You play as slightly-supernatural detective Paul Prospero, on the trail of the titular missing boy in an abandoned, rural land. You are immediately dropped in at the deep end – emerging from a railway tunnel into an eerie wood – with only Prospero’s noir-inspired narration giving context to anything whatsoever. And from here, it’s up to you; time to get lost.
During my first play session with Ethan Carter, I slowly travelled through its gorgeous woodland setting – made that bit more gorgeous by the absolutely stunning visuals on display – marvelling at the way in which the sunlight streamed through the trees and the incredible vistas that make the game’s environment feel like part of a world, as opposed to a level in a game.
Precariously, I made my way across a rotting railway bridge and before long I had stumbled upon my first crime scene – a set of ropes on the tracks; had someone been tied to them? Moving on I found even more clues: severed legs, a murder weapon, a body. As I pieced together this crime, Prospero’s thoughts appeared in text, floating in front of his eyes, nudging me towards some sort of conclusion. But I couldn’t find the final clue. I knew what I was looking for but in this densely wooded open world, it was needle in a haystack territory.
Soon after, I encountered an astronaut and was transported into space. I carried on to find two creepy, desolate houses which formed one of the most ingenious yet totally tedious puzzles I’ve ever encountered in a video game; a puzzle that requires the player to have either the memory of an elephant or real life pen and paper in hand with which thorough notes must be taken. As I began to go about solving this puzzle, it was here that I thought: “Wait a minute, what about the murder back at the railway?”
And this was the point that I consulted the internet. Not only had I not even come close to solving the murder at the railway but I’d missed an entire segment of the game before that. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may be a narrative experience but so much of this narrative can and will be lost if you don’t spend hours combing through every pixel. And I understand that’s kind of the point of the game, a real-life detective wouldn’t have some sort of glowing arrow appear before him/her exclaiming “psst, clue over here.” But I’m a 23-year old journalism student and it felt like I needed a first-class criminology degree just to get anything out of the game. There were even points when I felt like the game was intentionally trying to point me in the wrong direction, just to be a dick.
Most importantly, though, I wasn’t having any fun.
Ultimately, I restarted the game and played through it with a guide – a fact that I absolutely despise. I accept that I’m never going to be the world’s greatest gamer but it wasn’t lack of skill that was standing in my way in this instance. But without said guide, I was just wandering around, looking at really beautiful scenery, finding the occasional clue and feeling frustrated in knowing that I was probably – nix that, definitely – missing a tonne of stuff.
And it truly is a shame because The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a triumph in so many ways. I’ve already mentioned its visual fidelity. Even more impressive than the graphics, though, is the game’s tone, atmosphere and Lovecraftian tale. A beautiful score makes every footstep feel like it’s leading to some scare or big revelation. The way in which the story unfolds, slowly, piece-by-piece incentivises the player to uncover all of the world’s secrets and solve its mysteries. It just sucks that all of these elements are hidden in a world that is too big and alienating to allow you to feel like you’ll ever see it all.