The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a far cry from the over the top, bombastic shooter Bulletstorm which these former People Can Fly developers came from. The debut game under their new studio The Astronauts trades in shooting for detective work and a fantastical, creature filled planet for a sleepy, mountainside village that time seems to have forgotten. The Vanishing sets out to construct a sense of mystery and tension in the fictional town of Red Creek Valley by putting players in the shoes of supernatural detective Paul Prospero who has been drawn to town by the recent disappearance of the titular Ethan Carter; but is the mystery worth seeing through to the end?
The game opens in narration as Paul Prospero muses as to the reason of his arrival at Red Creek Valley. Paul claims that he is able to see things in the world that others cannot, he notes that Ethan Carter can as well. Is this why Paul Prospero was compelled to investigate Ethan’s disappearance? Before ever being put in control of detective Prospero, the story will have already raised several questions regarding the nature of Paul, Ethan and the other residents of Red Creek Valley. These questions serve as your main motivation to keep going forward and your enjoyment of this game will rely heavily on your eagerness to satiate your curiosity about the world The Astronauts has teased.
Most of your time in Red Creek Valley will be spent walking along linear paths though the game tries to create the illusion of a large world to explore with a few, more open, wooded areas. Usually you’ll be travelling down railroad tracks, dirt paths and mine tunnels. Before the game begins it issues a warning saying that it will not hold your hand and that it would be possible to miss aspects of the game entirely. While this may sound both daunting and promising at first blush it is not entirely true. The game world is peppered with several vignettes and while it is possible to walk past these scenes you will eventually reach the end of the path through Red Creel Valley at which point you will discover a painting of the area that explicitly tells you where these vignettes are located. In addition to that the game won’t actually end until you find and solve the mystery of all of these scenes.
These scenes are what make up the majority of your gameplay interactions in The Vanishing. One of the first ones you come across is a scene of a pair of severed, bloody legs on a railroad track. Who do these legs belong to, where is the train now, who did this and why is there a bundle of rope and a gasoline can nearby? As you explore the area close to these scenes you will eventually uncover items related to these events which must be picked up and put back in the place they were in before the events leading to the aftermath you discover. Once you’ve put all objects in place you will then unlock a series of ghostly tableaus which depicts the series of events out of order. You are then tasked with numbering these tableaus so that they make chronological sense. In short the game tasks you with locating murder scenes, collecting clues and reenacting the crime in your mind.
As you find and solve more of these vignettes a story begins to be constructed surrounding the disappearance of Ethan Carter. Ethan himself appears in a number of these tableaus and sorting out this story, especially when finding these vignettes out of order was genuinely engaging. The act of exploring Red Creek Valley is quite absorbing itself due to the incredible graphical fidelity that The Astronauts have managed to summon using a technique called photogrammetry. The developers have gone to real world locations taking thousands of photographs and have used these photos to construct their environments. The results are a lot of incredibly detailed art assets that don’t tile or are duplicated in any easily discernible way. Red Creek Valley feels like a real place worn down by the passage of time and this sense of reality lends a lot of believability and weight to Prospero’s investigation.
However, the joy of exploration eventually becomes tiresome when you must walk the same stretch of railroad track, dirt road or mine tunnel for the umpteenth time. If you’re lucky you’ll hit each one of the vignettes before reaching the end of your path through Red Creek Valley, if not, prepare to do a lot of backtracking. The mines section of this game is the most egregious example of this which is doubly unfortunate as it is the most graphically boring and repetitive section of the game world. This would be more forgivable if the game was as open as it initially seemed to be but every large open section of the game is separated by corridor like stretches of land. You’ll need to walk along rail road tracks to reach an open wooded area. You’ll need to walk along the top of a narrow dam to reach a more open village area. You’ll need to walk along a mountainside road to reach a more open cemetery area and then there are of course, the mines. A number of tunnels that seem to offer three possible paths at multiple T-junctions but you soon realize that two of those three paths are blocked off due to a cave in or other obstruction.
The voice acting in The Vanishing, for what little there is, is quite good. The standout performance belongs to Paul Prospero who at times sounds like a very dour Ed Harris. The spoken dialogue in this game is a great example of quality over quantity. While you spend most of your time walking to the sounds of nature’s ambiance, Paul will occasionally fill the air with his thoughts on the nature of his investigation. The writing can sometimes walk up to the line of being histrionic but its sparse nature balances things out well. The music is, on the surface, light and melodic with chimes and strings but as it progresses it builds onto its music tracks with a sense of underlying dread as more electric and percussion instruments are layered in. The soundtrack is a great match with the story and tone that The Vanishing builds up.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is unlike more traditional games and that alone might be reason enough to experience it. If the idea of playing as a Sherlock Holmes type detective aided more by a supernatural awareness to look into the past rather than sheer human observation then know that The Vanishing provides a fair amount of puzzles to work though in the form of environmental navigation or the sussing out of the crime scenes themselves. The world is beautiful to look at and the sound design and voice acting is great. Just be prepared to overcome a few instances of backtracking and a playtime that could last you anywhere from two to four hours depending on how much of Red Creek Valley’s atmosphere you’re willing to stand still and take in.