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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
What do you need to play it?
OS: Windows XP SP3 or higher
Processor: Intel Core2 Duo or
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
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