Red Creek Valley, the picturesque setting of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, feels like a postcard come to life. This isn't one of those pristine cards you'd buy off the rack at your local corner store, though. It's one with fraying corners that's been stuck to your refrigerator for the past 10 years, buried under layers of past-due bills and other reminders of life's harsh realities. Red Creek Valley is a place where decaying homes and lifeless railway lines sit beneath stunning mountain vistas and painterly sunsets, a forgotten corner of the American Rust Belt fighting a losing battle against nature. There's a beauty to it, certainly. But it's a melancholy and complex beauty.
(Warning: the following review tries to avoid spoilers, but you will find brief references to later plot points.)
Such themes are consistent throughout The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, an exceptional adventure game that introduces itself as a supernatural murder mystery before peeling the layers back to reveal something more touching and personal. You're Paul Prospero, a detective in search of a boy whose gift for peering into the unknown has triggered some terrifying mystery leading to the child's disappearance. "There are places that exist that very few people can see," remarks Prospero in the game's opening moments. "Ethan could have drawn a map."
Prospero's poetic ruminations combine with the game's breathtaking landscapes to create an atmosphere that's nothing short of mesmerizing. It's easy to surrender yourself to its gentle grip; I quickly found myself wandering through forested hills as wind swept through the autumn foliage and an evocative soundtrack guided me toward the next stunning view of the river valley below. But there's more to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter than simply taking in the scenery, something you learn early into the game when you stumble upon a mangled corpse next to a railroad track in the woods.
This is a game that deals in striking juxtapositions, building an uneasy contrast between its pastoral scenery and the grim aftermath of violent outbursts. As the detective on the case, it's your job to piece together clues at the scene of the crime to gain insight into what's happened. The blood on the front of a railcar and the victim's severed legs suggest he's been run over in some sort of accident, but why are there ropes on the track? Why is this blood-stained rock lying in a nearby patch of grass?
As you inspect each clue, you see Prospero's thoughts swirling around onscreen, revealing little pieces of insight that help guide you in your search. Eventually, you have enough to reassemble the scene of the crime. But there's still work to be done. The game then gives you little glimpses into the events leading up to the murder, everything from a man grabbing a makeshift weapon to a strained conversation between two family members. You have to study these vignettes in order to determine the chronology of events. Once you get it, you're treated to an extra scene subtly pointing you in the next direction.
It's through these glimpses into the past that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter transforms from a simple collect-the-clues adventure game to a complex and captivating exercise in storytelling. On the surface, it's a tale that concerns itself with the Carter family's descent into madness. But by carefully delivering details and motivations for each character and playing around with the sequence of events, the game builds a gripping narrative that hints at a sinister and unquantifiable something lurking beneath the surface. It dips its toes into some disturbing waters, but the journey is a riveting one.
It's also much more than a simple murder mystery. What makes The Vanishing of Ethan Carter so special is the way it expertly toys with the player's assumptions to build upon its universal themes. Moments that initially seem like strange puzzles and supernatural events plucked directly from an H.P. Lovecraft novel wind up serving as touching snapshots into the mind of Ethan, a child who pours himself into fantastical literature as a way to escape a troubled relationship with his family. This is a narrative that tackles some heavy ideas, from youthful alienation to the way a person's limited circumstances can cause them to take their frustrations out on loved ones, but it spins those themes together in a fascinating and often poignant way.
In that regard, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is mysterious and unpredictable, while still deeply cohesive. There's a thematic bond that ties the whole thing together, from the run-down state of each building to the picturesque views that provide a vague sense of hope in the face of all this decay. It all culminates in a powerful ending that practically commands a second play through of the game in order to pick up on all the hints and foreshadowing you may have missed your first time through.
There are faults, but they're easy to forgive. On more than one occasion, I had to replay a few modest chunks of the game thanks to the way the obtuse auto save system fails to communicate exactly when your game has been saved. And while the game's lack of hand-holding allows you to explore and discover enriching environmental touches--such as Ethan's collection of novels tucked away in an attic--it can lead to a few issues. I often found myself wishing for some sort of logbook to reference previous conversations when I was stuck searching for some new details, leading me to make long treks across the game's rather expansive collection of forests and pathways in order to replay the most recent plot point.
But these issues are small hiccups in an otherwise phenomenal adventure. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a stirring tale that walks a fine line between the human and the supernatural. As the layers begin to peel back, what you'll find is a story told with a level of cleverness and elegance rarely seen in games. It confirms the feeling you had from the first breathtaking view; when you enter into Red Creek Valley, you're in for something special.