In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the player takes on the role of Paul Prospero, a faceless narrator with strange powers and a gravelly voice. He calls to mind the hard-boiled PI of noir fiction, but the actor’s delivery of his lines sounds more like Watchmen’s Rorschach to me, in tone if not in content. Paul has been summoned to the countryside by a letter from a boy named Ethan, and it's soon apparent that there are secrets to be uncovered and hidden details to be found all over the landscape.
At the beginning of the game, this title warns you in no uncertain terms that there will be no hand-holding. I found this to be quite accurate in my time with Vanishing. There are a small handful of core mechanics beyond exploration and point-and-click, and they aren’t ever really explained well. It took me a few hours of trial-and-error to accidentally stumble upon how one worked, and that opened the way for me to understand the other major mechanism that reveals the plot. (Spoilers: When you see scattered text floating around on-screen after clicking on something, they will align based on the direction you look, unlocking a vision of a significant object or event that exists in that direction. You can also unlock visions that reveal the events of various murders throughout the game by discovering the various items and locations that comprise the timeline of the death, then solving what order things happened in.) There is no map except for a few depicted in the game world itself, and since time doesn’t visibly pass you can’t navigate by the angle of the sun either. I got turned around now and then until I spotted a familiar landmark, and the huge exterior area allows you to run quite far afield before you encounter any boundaries that indicate you’re headed in the wrong direction.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the most visually breathtaking games I’ve played all year. From the beginning, you are surrounded by a lush landscape of forest, mountains, lakes and rivers, with sunlight shining through the branches and reflecting off the water. I snapped various screenshots throughout my play sessions, and any one of them are probably worthy of being included in my rotation of desktop wallpapers. Without context, they’d be easily mistaken as a real landscape photo. Some of my favorite vistas were looking out over the river/lake from the dam. I learned later that some of the terrain, buildings and objects within the game were not just created from scratch as typical 3D models, but partially built up by taking many photos of their real-world counterparts at many different angles, then using specialized software in a technique named photogrammetry. (The Astronauts’ blog has a rather interesting article about this process.)
I upgraded my graphics card substantially during the course of this review: two hardware generations and several performance tiers forward. The visual quality was already lovely with my 700-series card, but when I switched to a 900-series the framerates became buttery smooth. I had a hard time visually discerning between the maxed-out settings and the slightly more conservative settings that were automatically chosen when the new video card was installed. During my early sessions, the mouse input was also being deliberately smoothed for less-twitchy motion. There are not many situations in Vanishing that call for frantic input and motion, and thankfully none of the dreaded Quick-Time Events that I’ve come to expect in the horror genre, but the mouse input felt much better to me with the Smoothing option off.
As you start to explore your surroundings at the beginning of the game, you will quickly bump into your first indication that all is not well here: a broad swath of blood streaking away from a set of train tracks down the nearby path. If you choose to follow the trail of blood, you’ll meet the first victim, and be given your first opportunity to solve his murder, and it’s a grisly scene indeed. The mechanics for revealing the truth of these events are not obvious, as I touched on above, but by thinking critically, and investigating the nearby areas for clues, you should be able to get to the bottom of what happened to this poor man. Without the context found in other locations, you may not understand what you see just yet, but the same mystery-solving process can be re-applied in other situations later on.
The music in Vanishing mostly keeps to the background, turning on and off situationally, but it did an excellent job of instilling a sense of tension and unease in me as it faded in and out. It is also occasionally used as a pointed cue that the player has made good progress in solving a particular puzzle. Along with the eerie, subtle music, various locales feature the disembodied voices of Ethan and his family reliving past conversations, giving insight into their relationships and how they’ve changed over time. The locations where these voices are heard are often significant to the plot of the game, as are nearly all of the objects you can read. The first time I heard a man’s voice erupt from an empty room, I nearly jumped out of my chair.
Much of your time with Vanishing leaves you with the sense that this is a very lonely world, abandoned by its inhabitants. You might believe you are the only living soul for miles in any direction. As you explore and start to look more closely, the story of what happened to the people who lived in these homes is revealed. Ethan's vivid imagination and penchant for writing otherworldly fictions plays a crucial role in the unfolding narrative, and leads to some very unusual and perturbing experiences if you dig far enough. The surreal events allow the game to avoid leaning heavily on scaring the player by having something leap out at you, although this horror trope is not totally absent from the game.
It's possible to solve the various puzzles and mysteries out of order, which can lead to a fairly disjointed idea of what really happened to Ethan and his family. It’s also quite easy to miss details that give more meaning to later events, so you may not have the most fulfilling experience possible the first time you play through. For anyone who’d like to get the full story, I’d recommend exploring widely and listening to your instincts anytime something doesn’t seem quite right - there’s probably more than meets the eye.
Vanishing is an astonishing achievement in graphics quality, and makes excellent use of sounds and music to heighten the emotions the player is already feeling. The story and dialogue often gave me goosebumps, and came to a surprising but satisfying end. Once I got the hang of the less-obvious game mechanics, I was able to solve the rest of the plot in around two hours - but it was purely an accident that I realized that if I acted in this certain way, a completely new type of puzzle was revealed. You could (and I did) wander the terrain and explore the buildings for hours without being much more than a hands-off tourist. Until that mechanic becomes clear to you, you cannot fully enjoy the story. Despite its (possible) brevity, I consider this title to be a great experience for horror/mystery fans.
Review by Shane