Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an indie mystery game from 2014 by the Astronauts. You play as Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective who has arrived in Red Creek Valley to investigate, as the name of the game might suggest, a disappearance of a boy named Ethan Carter. Prospero also has some supernatural skills himself. He can sense ghosts and use this skill to reconstruct and observe past events. Investigating these events and solving puzzles in the environment, you unfold the story of Ethan’s family.
As you start, text on the screen tells you that this game “doesn’t hold your hand.” Although sounding somewhat arrogant, the statement holds truth. There is no heads-up display (HUD) to show plot points on a map and no inventory or a log to re-read found clues. These features alter the gameplay: you are forced to slow down and really look around, lest you walk right past important story points without realizing it.
The term walking simulator has, at times, been used as a derogatory term, and the developers have tried to distance the title from it. Still, it is essentially what you spend most of my time doing: walking around, scouring the open-world map for clues about the events that have unfolded prior to your arrival. Fortunately, Vanishing of Ethan Carter offers gorgeous scenery to wander around in. Nearly photorealistic graphics lit by a low hanging sun are something out of a postcard. Characters and character animations could have been more polished, however. It is a small hiccup, but something worth noting.
The soundtrack is captivating as well. It creates an eerie feeling that otherwise fairly nonthreatening visuals alone wouldn’t conjure. The map is not very large, but the developers have managed to create several distinct areas with just auditory hints: when you realize the change in music, you had better keep your eyes peeled for new leads. There’s also another reason why music is so important: It is the only sound keeping you company. Often in games like this, the protagonist has a constant monologue in their head, or you can find audio tapes to listen to as you advance, but not this one. Prospero utters a line here and there, but other than that, it’s silent, as if time was standing still.
This mystery takes three to five hours to solve, and I would recommend playing it through in one sitting. You can’t manually save, and the lack of HUD makes it challenging to determine when was the last time the game saved itself, resulting in some backtracking to redo puzzles that hadn’t been saved from the last time you played. There’s backtracking to do regardless because it is more than likely that you’ll miss some puzzles the first time around. Also, because you cannot take the clues found with you, the only way to revisit them is to physically walk back to them. And lastly, it is easier to remember the few lines Prospero has. They are important to the story, and you might miss the sense of foreshadowing if you decide to split the game into a couple of sessions.
So, reserve an afternoon, get comfortable and solve what happened to Ethan and his family. The story will hold you in its grip.
Developer: The Astronauts
Publisher: The Astronauts
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Release: Microsoft Windows, September 26, 2014
Redux: PlayStation 4, July 15, 2015, Microsoft Windows, September 12, 2015, Xbox One. January 19, 2018, Nintendo Switch August 15, 2019
Genre: Adventure, Walking Simulator
Pictures: Screenshots from the game, taken by the author