The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Raises More Questions Than It Answers, and I'm Just Fine With That
A walk in the woods.
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At a show like Gamescom, it's rarely a good thing when a developer can't make it to your appointment. But in the case of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a PC adventure game from the creators of Bulletstorm and Painkiller, that may have been for the best. This, I could quickly tell after being given the chance to play on my own, was a story about mystery and unanswered questions, a first-person exploration game where you're given the freedom to explore its gorgeous setting at your own pace as you try to piece together clues explaining the gruesome events that have occurred in this seemingly idyllic place.
That place is called Red Creek Valley, a natural landscape of lush trees, misty lakes, and expansive vistas. Exploring this world from a first-person perspective, I was immediately reminded of games like Gone Home or the upcoming Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. There's an unsettling stillness to it all, from the train car frozen on a bridge spanning the river below to the empty platform where passengers might have boarded for a voyage to who knows where. Along with the rumbling, ambient soundtrack there's a very eerie effect going on.
So it didn't come as too much of a surprise when, following the train tracks that guided me through the woods, I came upon a pair of severed legs lying in a gruesome trail of blood. I followed the trail down a nearby hill to find the body those legs once belonged to, a body long since dead. Here I was able to use one of the game's key game mechanics in motion: your ability to peer through time and see brief glimpses of the past.
It was the same ability I employed earlier when a spiked trap swung down from a tree, narrowly missing me. Here I was able to see the bones of those who weren't lucky enough to avoid the trap, which had apparently been buried by the passage of time. Clearly I wasn't the first to try deciphering the mysteries of this place.
The whole time, I kept wondering what the heck was going on here. Why was this place, so picturesque it could have been used as a travel poster for autumn in New England, the setting of such brutality? In the 30 or so minutes I played, the game answered none of those questions. It didn't even come close. There was the occasional deep-voiced monologue of the main character, but even that only served to make me wonder what else was in store.
But it all seemed to click. There's no combat, so you're free to soak up the sweeping wilderness landscape at the most glacial of paces. You can wander away from the beaten path in hopes of finding more clues, though they aren't always there--but the world looks so nice that I didn't really mind.
All told, my experience with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter left me with far more questions than answers. But you know what? I'm alright with that. This is a mystery game, and clearly one meant to immerse players in a creepy atmosphere. The mind races as you play it, and I'm eager to let it race some more.