Spoiler Alert: I’m absolutely going to ruin bits of the game in this post if you care about such things. All the spoilers are below the fold though.
I recently spent several hours playing through and thoroughly enjoying The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by The Astronauts. It’s a really interesting game to me because the designers are really trying to build on previous narrative games to explicitly improve storytelling in the medium. I’m going to attempt to take a critical look at the game trying to keep in mind the 4-Layers approach developed by Adrian Chimielarz of The Astronauts and Thomas Grip of Frictional Games. You can see Adrian Chimielarz speak about his approach to pushing storytelling in games in this presentation from the Digital Dragons conference this year. It’s super interesting and well worth taking the time to watch.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is told from the viewpoint of Paul Prospero a private investigator with some supernatural powers and his search for the titular character. The narrative arc has you discovering horrific goings on in Red Creek Valley with an equal mix of murder solving and weird vignettes of discovery. The vignettes typically lead through fantastic set-pieces to a mundane resolution and the discovery of a story written by Ethan that fits the events you have just experienced. These are quite cleverly wrapped in a longer narrative about Ethan’s relationship with his family and their attempts to murder him as their minds have been taken over by ‘The Sleeper’. The mundane resolution of some fantastic experiences is great foreshadowing of the twist ending which leads us to discover that ‘The Sleeper’ is in fact Ethan dying of asphyxia whilst his family tries to save him. I’ve been reading a lot of horror short story anthologies lately and the inspiration taken from this sub-genre is very clear right up to the deliberately ambiguous ending.
The key character explored throughout is Ethan himself, we learn of a boy who has an active imagination and a flair for morbid creativity who spends his time in the lush environs of Red Creek Valley cooking up stories to escape the situation he finds himself in. Ethan’s family serve more as archetypes of the problems he faces than clear characters in their own right. There is very little exploration of who they are or their own motivations. This fits the short story constraints but in some ways left me caring less about each horrific murder scene other than the effect on Ethan himself. This in turn made me feel less engaged in actually solving the crimes through the gameplay puzzles. They became blockers to unlocking the story rather than something I really cared about exploring.
The real supporting cast in the game is the environment and set-piece scenes, it’s an astoundingly pretty game to look and listen too. Each vignette you discover is unique and often very exciting, in particular the ‘astronaut’ set-piece was very memorable both for the weirdness of chasing a suited figure through the forest and the profound disconnect between the rest of the game and resulting trip into space. Similarly the scene of Lovecraftian tentacled doom is superb and I nearly jumped out of my seat in panic as the door opened when I thought I still had one more puzzle element to unlock.
There are still a few very gamey niggles with the environment that break the spell if sets. For example the church looks astonishingly good from the outside thanks to the photogrammetry used to capture it but the interior is lackluster and almost entirely devoid of character which felt a bit weird. There were also entirely too many invisible walls and they all lack any explanation. This felt particularly jarring in a game that wants you to explore. Having Paul explain why he isn’t going to go off into the wilderness or can’t seemingly clamber three feet up onto a ledge to cross the river would of added a lot to providing a narrative reason for the environmental constraints.
The narrative is uncovered by exploring the environment in a classic ‘find the hidden objects’ approach and the game begins with a warning about it’s lack of hand-holding. In retrospect this feels very odd to me as the game actually provides an awful lot of very ‘gamey’ hand-holding from in-scene tool-tips to a supernatural sense that lets you find objects. The latter in particular is excellent mechanic for helping players to place goals in the environment but still require exploration to find them. However it’s weirdly under-utilised and I often felt forced to explore every nook and cranny with nothing to show for it. The sense mechanic could have been used more extensively to help people find the objects hidden in the environment from nearby landmarks. For example I found myself at the end of the game having missed the astronaut vignette completely. Even after being teleported to the approximate vicinity of the trigger object I still had to resort to a grid search in order to find it. There are a couple of nearby landmarks in the station platform and train cars that could have some narratively sensible reason to sense the object nearby. At the same time the game provides excellent information about the location whole load of other objects you need to find and collect. It’s a strange inconsistency.
It’s an issue in itself that I was at the end of the game and still needed to go back and resolve a sequence that isn’t massive impactful to the overall story arc in order to progress to the stories resolution.
The meat of the gameplay beyond exploring Red Creek Valley involves solving a series of puzzles. They were all reasonably straightforward but varied in quality based on how well they fit into the context and narrative. The single worst example I encountered was a trivial blocker to progress which required you to find and turn a valve in a pump house to slow the flow of water allowing you to cross the river. Contextually it makes sense but its marred by invisible walls that I felt should have provided a route across and that seemed to be telegraphed in the environment by steps leading that way. On top of which there doesn’t seem to be a good narrative or contextual reason to have the flow high to begin with, you’re just blocked until you realise that is the only way across and find the valve.
The best bits of gameplay are intimately tied into the context of the game and the narrative as the 4-Layers approach describes. For example the combination lock puzzle at the end of the game or the zombie sequence in the mines. The first is trivially simple but made contextual sense, narrative sense and didn’t involve any particularly pointless actions. Some more thinking might have been nice as the solution is presented in a very immediate way but I can see the motivation to prevent players getting stuck on a reasonably trivial part of the game. The second to me is the real tour-de-force of the game and shows exactly how gameplay can fit narrative like a glove and work together to provide something more holistic. I got ‘killed’ by the zombie in my first foray and spent the second in sweaty anticipation as I explored the maze like mine trying to find the dead occultists. I felt so on edge the whole time whilst moving through the mine it really ratcheted up the sense of place and oppressive atmosphere generated by the visuals and audio. This probably contributed hugely to the scare I got when I finally unlocked the door and let loose the terror within.
The best puzzle from a mechanical point of view is by far the memory game to find the hidden room but this was rendered a little mediocre to me because there isn’t really a clear narrative or contextual reason for having that particular mechanic. It sort of fits because it’s weird and sort of fits the narrative because its about finding Ethan’s hidden room but it seems to break the fourth wall a little too much to me and exposes itself as a puzzle to beat. That said I thought it was lovely mechanically.
The oddest choice for me are the puzzles that make up the bulk of the murdering family narrative arc. The most interesting, most complex and least linear of which is the very first murder scene you are introduced to. Whilst people shouldn’t be bound by convention it seems obtuse that you’d introduce the mechanics of the game with literally the hardest example. Doing so renders the remainder of the puzzles anti-climatic and gives them the feel of make work. It lacks omoshiroi. This isn’t helped by each being started with a series of fetch quests in order to tidy up the scene and progress. I got frustrated with this and tweeted ‘Paul Prospero: Supernatural Janitor’ as an alternate title which although a little unfair does describe the feeling I got whilst completing these puzzles. Some more lateral thinking would have been nice and contextually sensitive to detective work. Once the scene is tidy you then follow some ‘spirit essence’ or memories to find several small scenes which must be put in order so that the cut scene plays out correctly. To me this is the most incongruous part of the entire game. It heavily breaks the fourth wall with its mechanics, plays a bunch of cut-scenes and at worst is a case of trial and error. The impact on the game is that it really hurts the agency of the player to build the connections in the narrative themselves which is present in so many of the other narrative arcs in the game. I’d have preferred to witness the scenes individually from my own perspective and then worked out what was going on in my own mind with no need to know if I was right or wrong. The mystery and suspense would then continue through the game as I reconfigured my ideas of exactly what happened and why. Instead I left each murder scene with a firm knowledge of what I had been told and didn’t really reconsider anything. I think this fundamentally missed a trick or two.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is pretty awesome, though flawed in many ways and it does show clear progress in pushing narrative forwards but perhaps not quite as well as the frameworks presented might suggest. Particular problems were mostly around integrating context and narrative tightly into all the gameplay and keeping player agency whilst also trying to show them a specific part of the story. For me The Vanishing of Ethan Carter proves that good storytelling through gameplay needs to make rock solid narrative and contextual sense. The mine vignette really shows the promise of the 4-layers approach to this and how well gameplay can be integrated with storyline.