The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

 

Genre:   Horror adventure

Developer & Publisher:  The Astronauts

Released:  September 2014

PC Requirements:   see review below

Additional screenshots

 

 

by gremlin

 

What is it?

There are some quiet little spaces in this world that are stunningly beautiful, even when they contain signs of human habitation - a dam, a few houses, an old railway viaduct. For such a place to be reproduced in a game is something quite special, especially when The Astronauts get their hands on a camera or two, some advanced modelling software, and a game development kit.

It's almost a shame to set a story of gruesome multiple murders and dark possession in such an environment, but that's what they've done in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and their ilk would be in their element in Red Creek Valley

Is there a plot?

You are Paul Prospero, a detective with a powerful ability to visualise what has happened in a place in great detail. It might even seem to be a supernatural ability to see the past. Either way, you arrive in Red Creek Valley to investigate The Vanishing of Ethan Carter after receiving a letter from young Ethan himself.

Entering the valley via a railway tunnel you walk into a beautiful nightmare of fragments of story and a dysfunctional family trying to handle the darkness that dwells in, or is it under, the valley.

How do you play?

The user interface of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is very minimalist. There are just enough prompts to get by if you're already used to the general pattern of first person gaming. You move around using the W, A, S, and D keys, and using the mouse to look around. You use the left mouse button to click on things, and the space bar to activate texts or Paul Prospero's ability to reconstruct the chronology of a scene.

You are dropped into a very open world in this game. It's a fully modelled 3D environment (using the Unreal Engine version 3, if you're interested) which means there's no 360 degree bubbles, or pre-rendered scenes like previous games of this level of graphical detail. You can explore around the paths quite freely. You can actually go a long way into the valley without ever clicking on anything! This does have the advantage that you can just explore and absorb Red Creek Valley, but the disadvantage that if you miss clues (which pop up as white text when you're reasonably close, turning amber when you're close enough to click on them), you can miss whole sections of the overall story. Having since looked at a walkthrough, I note that I did complete all the locations, but I did that by being quite determined to explore every corner of the valley.

Each of the puzzle sections in the game are mini-mysteries to solve. They all contribute to the over-all story of what has happened to Ethan and the rest of the Carter family. You have to find the clues that identify the central scene to each mystery, and then reconstruct the chronology of the events that lead to that scene. There are variations in how this is achieved, but to reveal more of the detail, I feel, would reveal too much of the story, and impact your ability to be mystified by Red Creek Valley to its proper extent.

Notable Features

Oooh, where to start? There are many notable features in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter but I think the really big one is the amazing scenery. Photo-realism in gaming has come an awfully long way since Myst made us all go "Wow!" in 1993. The Astronauts have applied a technique called "photogrammetry" (the science of making measurements from photographs) to take photographs of real-world objects and turn them into 3D models suitable for use in a computer game. Each object requires dozens of photographs; the more photos, the more detail, the more accurate the representation in the 3D model. The final effect gives you a world with very little visible repetition in textures - you don't see the same rock, or the same tree, or the same plank in a wooden structure duplicated around the world, the objects are unique and startlingly realistic in appearance. Marry that with the performance and smoothness of motion possible with the Unreal Engine (even on the budget PC I was playing on), and you've got a thing of beauty.

Once you've got a game that looks the part, of course, you need actors and action and sound to fill that world. This is another area that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does well, though perhaps a little more sparsely than the rest of the world. The Astronauts development team have made use of motion capture to obtain very good models of the people in this story, but watch out, these are murderous people - some of the scenes are not for the squeamish.

The voice acting to go along with the physical acting (because that's what you end up when you motion-capture actors' performances), are also top notch. The characterisations are strong and believable, not to mention spine-shiveringly worrying!

Any other novelties?

I found the sparseness of the game's user interface - the lack of an inventory (you do pick some things up, but you've no way to "look in your back-pack" for example), the lack of a mini-map, or health-bars - it all made for a game where your complete focus is on the scene before you.

Many games where there's an elaborate series of puzzles to solve will force you to address them in a specific order, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is different. You can solve the scenes in almost any order, though there is one locked door that you cannot pass early.

Oddities

One of the strengths, for me, of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the ambiguity in the ending. Lots of stories in the Western European/modern American tradition wrap up nicely with a, "and they lived happily ever after." The story of Ethan Carter is much less clear, not just on what precisely happens at the end, but on what has been happening all along. And I like that. Call me odd if you like, but I did.

The principle oddity in this experience for me, other than myself, was the save game system. The game saves when you're deemed to have solved a puzzle (and at a couple of other notable moments). This means that you can spend ages wandering about Red Creek Valley not achieving anything, leave the game, and come back in a completely different location - the location that you last solved a mystery. This was an ambiguity in the game that I didn't enjoy so much. When I'm forced by the demands of the outside world (you know, making meals, putting people to bed, going to work, that sort of mundane reality), to break from the suspension of reality that is involved in such an absorbing world, I do at least want to be sure that I'm not going to lose my place in the story - and the exploration of the world is a large part of the story in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, so losing that sense of progress is a problem.

Conclusions

I re-iterate - I have never seen such a beautifully and realistically rendered game environment as has been achieved in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Even if you have no intention of solving the mysteries of the valley, you must take a look at this game.

The save system is really a small glitch that I'm not going to let hamper my grade for this outstanding game.

Grade: A+

What do you need to play it?

Minimum Requirements

OS: Windows XP SP3 or higher

Processor: Intel Core2 Duo or equivalent AMD

Memory: 4 GB RAM

Graphics: DirectX9c compliant card with 512MB of VRAM

DirectX: Version 9.0c

Hard Drive: 9 GB available space

Sound Card: DirectX9c compliant

(I used a home-built 64-bit Windows 8.1 PC running on an AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual 5200+ processor, with 6 GB RAM, and a Sapphire Radeon HD4670 512MB video card, with on-mother-board, built-in sound card)

 

 

GameBoomers Review Guidelines

November 2014

design copyrightę 2014 GameBoomers Group

 GB Reviews Index