The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s immersive setting and story are let down by lazy puzzle design
I’ll admit it. I was drawn to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by its title, and the fact that there aren’t too many games of the detective-puzzler-driven-by-narrative kind going around these days.
The game is made by Polish studio, The Astronauts, which features ex-employees of People Can Fly of Bulletstorm fame. Yes, Bulletstorm. I just totally had to see what these guys were capable of outside of the crazy-shooter-with-ridiculous-mechanics genre.
The US$20/Rs.1,200 price point (for PC on Steam) was attractive as well—I paid around the same for Gone Home, another narrative-driven gaming experience which I thoroughly enjoyed. Speaking of which, expect more than one comparison to Gone Home during the course of this review—it’s the closest game in terms of style to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I also consider it the benchmark, so comparisons are inevitable.
Red Creek Valley
You will experience The Vanishing of Ethan Carter through the eyes of Paul Prospero, a detective with certain special abilities who has just arrived in Red Creek Valley because a kid called Ethan Carter wrote to him repeatedly. There’s something mysterious going on here, and Paul, who was planning to retire, Paul, who has planned his retirement, has vowed to get to the bottom of everything before calling it quits. Not much else is revealed, and it is up to you, the player, to wander around (often aimlessly, admiring the scenery), discovering mysteries worth unravelling.
An immediately striking aspect of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is its spectacular graphics. Set in almost-idyllic Red Creek Valley (it would have been just ‘idyllic’ if not for the general all-round unpleasant incidents that occurred there), TVoEC sports some seriously good looking foliage, high resolution textures and fantastic lighting effects. If there wasn’t a mystery to solve, I would have happily wandered off into the wilderness and attempted in vain to smell the flowers, eat the berries and climb old railcars (spoiler: you can’t do any of these things). You’ll need some decent hardware to enjoy the finer aspects of the graphics engine, the game is running on Unreal Engine 3 after all You might need some reasonably new hardware to get the most out of the game, however (the game runs on Unreal Engine 3). Complementing the visuals is some of the most captivating music you will hear in a video game— there’s a sense of unease it portrays, and its dynamics add so much to the game’s atmosphere.
Polish developers seem to be able to get some good voice work done as well. Like CD Projekt RED’s Witcher games, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has voice acting that fits the bill perfectly. It’s not the best, but each of the voice actors is able to bring something unique in terms of personality to the table, and the game’s characters are made all the better because of this.
Your hand will not be held
One of the most talked about elements of Ethan Carter is its opening declaration: “This game is a narrative experience which does not hold your hand”. In principle, I am completely for a game that doesn’t show you the ropes— Gone Home is a great example of this.
Ethan Carter, like Gone Home, is largely linear, despite the fact that exploration is encouraged and the basic mechanics allow you to do as you please. Want to just read stuff? Sure. Want to solve puzzles in some random order? You can do this as well. But where Gone Home succeeds, Ethan Carter stumbles on occasion— sometimes badly.
It’s unfortunate that Ethan Carter’s world gets in the way of the story. It’s just so beautiful and detailed, it’s not just easy to get lost— it’s also easy to miss important visual cues or even find the right object or location. During my first play-through, I missed completing the very first ‘puzzle’ and had to track back a reasonable distance to finish it. But the game is brief, so tracking back or even starting from scratch isn’t much of an issue. However, its brevity brings with it another problem. By the time you get your bearings and understand what the game is about, it’s already over.
The lack of handholding also feels like an excuse for taking shortcuts to puzzle design and variety as well. The Astronauts have also resorted to giving the player ‘jump’ scares to try and dilute the lack of depth during sections of the game that aren’t story intensive.
Puzzle me this…
In short, puzzle design feels lazy. The story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is surely worthy of more than trial and error, maze and hidden object puzzles.
The problem is that this isn’t as much of a narrative experience like Gone Home – you could argue that the journey is a means to the end, but progress is hindered by game design choices and puzzles, and the player will not experience a fraction of the story without solving (or even discovering) the game’s puzzles.
Ethan Carter is already quite linear in the sense that it is a collection of individual segments which collectively impact the endgame, and some imposed restrictions by segment would have arguably worked in its favour.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could have been an infinitely better experience if only the developers. The Astronauts had decided to handhold players through the first half-hour of gameplay. As a result, what we have now is a game that ends just when it gets going.
There’s nothing wrong with the game’s focus on mystery, exploration and discovery— it’s just that the several shortcuts employed in puzzle design ultimately let it down, despite the superb graphics and atmosphere.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has an interesting, moving story to tell, and it’s a crying shame you have to look so hard to find it. This game could have been so much more.
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