The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

FBT investigates the mysterious disappearance of his gaming expectations.

In a destitute mining town, little Ethan Carter creates wild stories to escape reality, but when a real evil is unleashed and those around him dismiss it as another of his stories, he contacts famed paranormal-investigator Paul Prospero - who arrives to find Ethan has disappeared.

The opening warns the game will ‘not hold the player’s hand’. Pah, I’m a seasoned adventure gamer; mysteries, puzzles, super-natural goings on, nonlinear events? I got this. But literally everything, even the plot - let alone the gameplay - is a complete mystery; I don’t even know where to start. I do not got this.

My first deduction as Prospero is that Ethan didn’t vanish, he got lost. This place is huge. It’s like Fallout '76 with no NPCs. Or Players. It’s an open-world puzzler, and that breaks my gamer mind. I need someone to hold my hand! There’s no map, mission marker, clues, just open space. This is unnatural.

But then you walk a path and stumble into events that need investigating. The scenes are done like any other crime investigation game; you piece it together then watch it unfold. The real challenge is in working out what the hell you need to cook up a cut-scene.

I find a murder scene and the thing I’m missing is a rock – I only discover that because I happened to pass one and text popped up telling me ‘a rock’. Prospero’s particular about his evidence; surely any rock would have done? Later, a puzzle required a pair of scissors to trigger detective mode. Where were they? Miles away, in a lift shaft of course, and the game didn't even tell me I needed the scissors. I would have closed the case with ‘stab wound’. But once I’d put together the crime scene, it made sense. It’s the kind of game where the clues only click once you’ve solved the puzzle and they then lead you on. It’s often little more than a hidden object game – one has me looking for a cast-iron crow, which I found - after an intensely irritating period of foraging - at the foot of a Jesus statue. I only found it because I’d gotten so frustrated I went to pray for help.

Besides the family’s fate, there’s several of Ethan’s own stories we can tease out of the wilderness. And by teasing I mean sheer luck. Early on, as I trudged along, I just happened to glance over and see what looked like a traffic light in the woods. Turned out to be a puzzle, which I figured out by chasing an astronaut through the woods. I lost him, and then I couldn’t find the traffic light thing again. Eventually I did and went on a wonderous trip through the cosmos and got a better understanding of Ethan’s desire to escape this horrible place and his indifferent family. Hugely rewarding, insanely annoying – I could have missed that.

Those side stories are wonderful, if you can find them, and you won’t. They remind me of What Remains of Edith Finch, where you’d open a door and be transported into another world and story. But at least there we only had a house to navigate, here we’ve got a county to miss things in and you lose hours of your life poking about and finding nothing.

One of the stories even includes a hide and seek with a zombie miner who kills on sight, before we unlock an Eldritch-style monster from the deep. Some imagination this kid has got, and it starts to wind me up that I might have missed other Ethan adventures. Had it been a smaller, more controlled world or their locations made some narrative sense that piqued your curiosity as happens in Free-Roamers you’d be more inclined to go exploring. It’s either straight ahead for the plot, or frustrating wanders for the puzzles.

It’s an incredible world though, beautiful and believable, and there are times I just wander contentedly; I found a great puzzle where I had to navigate through a house by working out which room went where while I was in it; and I only found it because I went off the beaten track to see the view. At times the only thing that’s vanished is my patience.

Eventually though, I realise the open world is a lie, or at least a distraction - it’s a linear game inside an open world. You can reach the end by walking in a straight line, just following the path Prospero started on, and once I figured that out, I was walking full steam ahead. But…

Eventually, I reached the ending; but it wasn’t the end. In order to fully reveal what happened, now in Ethan's room I can interact with his drawings and travel to where the undiscovered stories are – now we get a fast travel?! So not only is it filled with puzzles that only make sense when you solve them, we have a game that you basically start at the end. But it’s okay, I can’t stay mad at this.

Once I had experienced all of Ethan’s stories, the real ending took shape, and every single criticism melted away. I realised it was my own free-roam conditioning that kept sending me off the beaten track into nothing. I’ve never played a game that annoyed me right up until the end and then I fell in love with it. It made me realise it was my expectations that were the problem, that this is what true art-games are supposed to be. For once, I actually had to think for myself. That was, in retrospect, incredibly rewarding and satisfying.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter did give me a hand, it made me reconsider what to expect from games and how lazy a gamer I’ve become. Maybe now I’ll leave the mission marker off more often, not consult the map as much. Here’s to more open-world puzzlers. It’s an extraordinary, moving, brilliant, compelling game. When you play it backwards.