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Monday, 7 November 2016

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Redux) review: A very human horror adventure game



I came into this gaming experience without really knowing what to expect. Despite never having heard of the horror adventure title from indie games studio The Astronauts before, I bought it during a Steam sale without viewing much more than the description and a brief trailer. As someone who likes to research games in depth before committing to a purchase (and as a notorious 'fraidy cat), this was an unusual move for me.

Certain key phrases really sold it to me on the store page: 'immersive storytelling'; 'inspired by the weird fiction from the early twentieth century'; 'atmosphere, mood, and the essential humanity of our characters'. Sometimes, when it's right, you just know.

I wasn't disappointed.


The game opens by telling you it is 'a narrative experience that does not hold your hand'. There are no reassuring waypoints or handily placed NPCs to deliver extraneous information about your next task in Red Creek Valley. Gulp.

'Wow. Aren't we lucky we were there to get that information? It seemed extraneous at the time.'
You're offered deliberately minimal details about your identity and mission. In the rolling bass tones of the narrator, you're told your name is Paul Prospero. You're someone that people turn to 'When the police won't help you, and the priests don't believe you'. You're in search of a boy named Ethan Carter who has reached out to you through a mysterious letter. There are intimations of darkness; the supernatural; special sight for glimpsing things that are hidden to most... and that no little boy should know of.

With this tantalising preamble, you exit a long, dark tunnel and enter the hauntingly beautiful setting of Red Creek Valley. The game world is quite possibly the most stunning I've ever experienced. Majestic fir trees, bursts of autumnal colour, the lingering rays of the setting sun over the mist-covered waters. And yet, an uncanny stillness. It's impossible not to pick up on the tension of the eerily depopulated valley, which never truly eases. I found my mind playing tricks on me; a movement out of the corner of my eye, a pressing sense that the sky was growing darker and the air colder, despite the fact that there are no other immediate characters and time does not progress past a certain point.


"I found my mind playing tricks on me; a movement out of the corner of my eye, a pressing sense that the sky was growing darker and the air colder."


The feeling that things are drawing to a close is pertinent; as it turns out, you've come at the end of things, after some unnamed horror has apparently claimed all the inhabitants of the valley and left the buildings suddenly deserted and in disrepair. I had assumed there would be a quaint village with eccentric locals -- somewhere I could gather clues, take stock and, most importantly, feel the security of civilisation and interaction with fellow people. When I found that this wasn't the case, I felt an acute sense of dread. While in most horror games the player is constantly seeking the next safe place, the next breathing space (even in Resident Evil, there are the little sanctuaries with typewriters and a reassuring supply of herbs and ammo), in Ethan Carter there is no such relief. Entering an abandoned, run-down house is even more terrifying than leaving one. Small comfort can be derived from the quiet open spaces and last rays of sunlight. But the darkness permeates the very trees around you, leaving you constantly wondering if whatever evil has touched Red Creek Valley might not catch up with you, too.

See what I mean?
The game excels at atmosphere, and one of its most impressive features is the way the mood shifts at key moments despite the location remaining unchanged; from present to past, evening to night, aftermath to crisis and back again, the game swings between eerie tranquillity and edge-of-your-seat tension. The environments are fluid, changing to reflect the people and memories that inhabit them, increasing the unpredictability of the gameplay experience. This is aided by the dynamic music; at times sparing and ominous and at others emotive and stirring, it is as beautiful as the world it represents.

The game is not heavy on action or puzzle-solving, presenting more of a gentle unfolding of narrative. The puzzles that do feature feel organically woven into the gameplay, not breaking the sense of exploration and discovery. True to its word, the game provides no hand-holding tutorials or hints for solving these, but they're nevertheless intuitive, and I never found myself stuck for long or having to backtrack excessively. The main puzzle mechanic is unique; using Paul Prospero's thoughts and instincts, the player has to reconstruct murder scenes using relevant props and locations to open psychic windows into the past. In this way, the player can sequence and visualise the events that led to each character's disappearance and gradually piece together the greater mystery of just what happened to Ethan Carter.


"True to its word, the game provides no hand-holding tutorials or hints for solving puzzles."


One of the main criticisms, as with many games that feature environmental storytelling, is that the player is mostly passive throughout the experience. Much of the action is merely observed from a removed point in the future and the characters are not directly interacted with; therefore, the protagonist doesn't actually change anything. While the desire to intervene is strong at times (particularly at the end), this is only because the story is so involving. It might not be for everyone, but the observational storytelling technique places emphasis on the experience of player-driven exploration and discovery and the internal reality of the characters rather than the external influence of the player. The changes the player experiences take place in their own perceptions - something Ethan Carter challenges at every turn.

As I was reminded when I ran into this handsome fellow after being lulled into the belief that, while places might be hella creepy, nothing could actually hurt me*:

Image result for ethan carter zombie
Nope.
Whether the end reveal was a cheap trick or a masterful M. Night-esque (pre-The Village) twist is still up for debate. Without saying too much, I personally found the finale original and thought-provoking, but not so shocking that I couldn't trace it back to hints dropped throughout the game. Not all is revealed, so there's room for conjecture and enduring mystery, but the ending is nevertheless quite satisfying. Most importantly, it made me feel things. While I'd normally give anything with the 'horror' tag a wide berth, I'm glad I didn't this time; Ethan Carter is ultimately a very human story. It also left me wanting to find out more about the characters and mysteries of its world, which is both a potential flaw and to its credit. Indeed, this captivating experience, like Gone Home, stayed with me for a long time after I left the melancholy beauty of Red Creek Valley.

Score: 


Developer recommendation: 'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game to be played at night, alone, and with headphones'. Appreciate the coronary, guys. šŸ‘

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