I sometimes find it curious that we group video games together despite many genres having completely different appeal. Sports games rarely overlap with platformers which rarely overlap with simulations which rarely overlap with strategy games. Even within genres, you can often find games that are hardly connected to each other by anything but one mechanic or narrative convention. Relatively recent to the stage is the rise of so-called “walking simulators,” which seem to have peaked a few years ago but have merged with Telltale-style adventure games to create choice- and narrative-driven experiences, often set in highly realistic but also highly constrained environments.
The mark of a walking simulator is a lack of objective and an empty environment. There are puzzles, things to do, and places to explore, but where other games provide enemies or collectables as rewards for exploration, walking simulators rarely do the same. The beauty of the environment, the tension of wondering if anything is coming near, that is the appeal of these games — that, and the promise of a story.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t particularly old, but I would consider it a classic example of the walking simulator genre — both of its merits and its flaws.
3P Reviews: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Murder, and Puzzles
I’m not entirely sure whether there’s a specific audience just for walking simulator games, but if there is, I might predict what they enjoy about them. The genre’s appeal is atmospheric, simplifying the controls of most first-person exploratory games into just a few buttons — walk, pick up, interact. They don’t usually rely much on fine control or time-based challenges, and there usually aren’t any combatants, so the game progresses at a gradual pace set by the player. There isn’t a distinct fail state, failure instead simply resulting in a puzzle resetting.
In other words, the games are designed to be fairly easy for anyone who doesn’t play games to get into. Just because there’s no fail state doesn’t mean they can’t be challenging, and a lot of these games manage to incorporate horror elements that can make progress intimidating.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of them.
Perhaps the most specifically horror-themed of the walking simulators I’ve played, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter follows a paranormal investigator trying to learn what happened to the titular character. Ethan Carter has written to the investigator, saying that something is happening to his family and he needs help. Once the investigator arrives at the secluded village where Ethan and his family lives, he starts to encounter surreal ruins and gruesome crime scenes. The player controls the investigator as he determines the sequence of events related to the clues at the scenes, unlocking doorways that allow him to press further into the village.
Along the way, we learn about Ethan and his family, as solving a scene reveals a short clip of what happened (usually one of Ethan’s family members trying to kill him and then another killing them to protect him), as well as a short story Ethan wrote. As we quickly piece together, Ethan is a shy boy who spends time writing stories. These stories often have loose connections to the surreal ruins the investigator encounters, such as a story about an alchemist relating to a hidden distillery and a forest fire relating to a field of bones. In the physical world, Ethan’s family members become slowly corrupted by some force, and insist on “waking the Sleeper.” To do so, they apparently need to kill Ethan. The corrupted people are systematically murdered by their sane lived ones who then themselves succumb to the corruption.
You know, fun stuff.
The plot is perhaps needlessly bleak and violent at times, all in an effort to create a chilling atmosphere. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I actually found myself more afraid when returning to the game to get screenshots, because everywhere you go, you feel like something is going to pop out and start chasing you. The environment, while beautiful, is uninviting, the sort of place you might expect a first-person shooter to be set. It’s remote, isolated, and empty. And then the game asks you to descend underground and face the game’s only actual assailant.
I found the gameplay to be a bit clunky at times, but the mystery pulls you along through all of the more tedious puzzles. I do wish the side puzzles were better connected, because the gameplay and story don’t always mesh well. For all the haughty abstraction, the plot is sufficiently simple to work for a short game like this. The characters lack much depth, but there are few enough of them and they each have different relationships with the main character so you remain interested in keeping track of them. The story gives you things to think about while you’re playing, so you end up more immersed in its simple plot than if you were merely reading or watching it. It actually might not work well in another medium.
As you might imagine from the sort of game this is, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has a plot twist at the end. As with much of the game, I imagine it will sate some and infuriate others. I tend to come down on the side of those who enjoyed it, but I admit it’s a bit of a cliche. The final puzzle involves investigating the charred remains of an old house, below which we have been led to believe the ominous Sleeper lies, and also the missing Ethan Carter. Once we get there, we find Ethan’s writing room, complete with stories about the psychic investigator. It was all a dream in the mind of a twelve-year-old. Well, a smoke-fueled fever dream, but a dream nonetheless. Once all of the main puzzles are solved, the game plays a final cutscene in which we learn that Ethan often runs away to the basement under this house to write and draw stories. He has an antagonistic relationship with his older brother and doesn’t relate well to most of his family members, with the exception of his grandfather and perhaps his mother. One day, he ran off to his hideout and got lost in his stories for hours, missing supper and prompting a whole-family search party. When they all find his hideout, his brother teases him and his parents tell him to come in. His mother accidentally hits her lantern, which sets fire to the many old, dusty books in the room. The fire spreads rapidly, and Ethan, terrified, shuts himself in the back room to escape the flames. The back room has no way out, and he succumbs to smoke inhalation while his family tries to douse the flames.
It’s not exactly nuanced and it has little to do with the progression of the game’s internal narrative, but it’s sufficiently tragic to get to me. I also have a thing about fire, so the imagery sticks.
Part Two: Weaving Tales
The biggest flaw in the game is its cohesion. Individual elements are usually well-crafted, but all of them feel like they were designed by different people or for different purposes and then shoved somewhat haphazardly together at the end. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world design.
I will stand by what I said about the world being eerie despite its tranquility. The sets are gorgeous, and while the play space is mostly linear, it has an elegant means of traversal where most places you can see are places you can get to at any point in the game. The environments are varied without feeling artificial, and the design of the environment is such that the game looks beautiful, even on a lower-end machine like I have.
But if a world isn’t designed for the gameplay, it’s not a well-designed world. The environment invites exploration, but rarely rewards it. There are few secrets to find and almost nothing to interact with outside of the main puzzles. Worse, the clues to the puzzles are haphazardly strewn about the environment with little rhyme or reason, and I quickly discovered on only the second puzzle that the only thing consistently linking clues to where they are found is that they are all within a relatively small radius. Even then, there were multiple instances where finding a small object hidden in the grass frustrated me to no end and even made me quit the game a few times. This is where the mediocrity of the mystery mechanics becomes a problem; in a mystery or even classic adventure game, the props necessary to solve an investigation often have to be combined or reported in some way, and even when the logic behind the puzzle is loopier than a poodle with a perm, there is still some logic to it. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does not have difficult puzzles, so it needed a way to elevate the challenge. Detective games often have difficulty with this, like L.A. Noire’s insistence that allowing one to pick up every cigarette and vegetable will make the relevant clues harder to spot (it does not). Ethan Carter opted to just make one clue very difficult to find, but because you can’t progress without locating all of the clues to the major puzzles, much of the game time is spent combing the grass and pebbles for a stray pair or scissors or a letter or something. Riveting gameplay. There’s no rhyme or reason to where these objects are, they’re just somewhere in the grass. That so much of the explorable space goes unused doesn’t help, as it’s easy to wander well outside of the bounds of the puzzle while searching. On more than one occasion, I even ran into a completely different puzzle while doing this.
The game allows few affordances. This isn’t a case of the game “not holding your hand,” but a serious oversight in the primary appeal of the experience. Affordances are there for the sake of flow, not difficulty. This game does not have difficult puzzles, yet I had to reference a walkthrough at least once to get through the thing. Intuitive mechanics are never a hindrance to challenge; just look at Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, Return of the Obra Dinn, Don’t Starve, Cuphead, Baba is You, N++, and Super Hexagon. I wouldn’t consider myself much of a fan of difficult games, yet some of these are among my favorite games of all time. Hell, Dark Souls has a fanbase among designers because of its affordances, not in spite of them. Difficulty is tied up in execution and mastery. Anyone can make a game harder by turning a simple task obtuse, but that doesn’t make the experience satisfying. If nothing grabs your attention or indicates the difference between a conscious design choice and a mistake, finally solving an artificially difficult puzzle becomes tedious instead of rewarding.
Part Three: The Sleeper Must Be Woken
The question then: is the game worth it?
At the risk of sounding coy, I’d say it depends on what you’re looking for. Those familiar with video games will likely find it a bit tedious because its gameplay is weak and its story simplistic. There are plenty of games with more going on under the hood, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter strikes a tone similar to many of David Cage’s projects in that it seems like it’s trying to tell a Story through the medium, without realizing others have done just that and more effectively. At $20 USD, the experience is fairly costly, and I would favor Gone Home or Firewatch for a similar price. Those games are also walking simulators, but I think they hold up better to scrutiny and have a much more cohesive purpose.
That said, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is not a bad experience on the whole. Its environment is beautiful without requiring a monster rig to run, and when you aren’t bogged down with inane parts of the puzzles, it has a steady pace as well. Many story-based games have long gaps between narrative beats, but the number of puzzles and the way they’re laid out means that you always have something to do. If knowing anything about the game has interested you, even if you know the plot twist, it might be satisfying. If nothing else, it handles atmosphere quite well. I would just recommend keeping a walkthrough handy for those scissors.