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In recent years, classic, puzzle-solving adventure games have seen a bit of a revival, what with Double Fine returning to the genre with Broken Age, and Telltale scoring episodic hit after hit, but there are adventure gaming niches that remain largely neglected. One such ignored sub-genre is the one established by games like Myst and The 7th Guest. Games that were creepy and vaguely horror-themed, but didn’t really present you with any active threats or aggressive scares. Games that just sort of let you wander around spooky environments at your own pace, solving logic puzzles. Modern indie games like Dear Esther borrow some elements from these ’90s classics, but they don’t quite capture the exact vibe.
Well, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which has recently been re-released on the PS4, truly feels like the modern revival of the spooky, chill-out adventure game. Of course, the question is, does strolling around shadowy locales solving puzzles still hold up, or should these kind of games have remained vanished?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (PC & PS4)
In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter you play as Paul Prospero, a detective with psychic powers who travels to the small Pennsylvania town of Red Creek Valley to find the titular Ethan Carter (sadly, the game takes place in 1973, so he can’t just check his cable listings). It isn’t made entirely clear why Prospero is so interested in Ethan, or why he seems to know more than he should about this haunted place, but that’s not the only mysterious thing going on. You arrive after all of Red Creek Valley’s residents have either split town or been killed, but solving the town’s numerous murders and puzzles reveals fragments of what happened there. Some of these fragments specifically relate to the fate of Ethan Carter, while others are more perplexing. Witches, unknowable Lovecraftian horrors, mysterious space travelers — Red Creek Valley has its share of peculiar residents.
Red Creek Valley is a nice place, so long as you don’t trip over any corpses.
The dialogue in Ethan Carter occasionally sounds like it was written by people with a slightly tenuous grasp on English, but that aside, it does a good job of portioning out bits of plot through flashbacks, scraps of paper and other tattered remnants. The game keeps you guessing with a string of pretty killer red herrings, and misdirections, but in the end, everything makes a certain amount of sense, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an undeniably beautiful game. The developers used new technology to scan real-world objects and environments, and the result is a game that looks very nearly photorealistic. Indoor, man-made structures and natural environments both look amazing, which is a rarity (most games nail one or the other, but not both). Of course, too much straight-up realism can be banal, so the makers of Ethan Carter heightened the appearance of their world with dramatic lighting, and some subtle exaggeration. A tree that looks more eerie than any real tree could here, an extra creepy ruined house there. The effect is mesmerizing, and the recently released PS4 version of Ethan Carter looks even better than the PC original, thanks to an upgrade to Unreal Engine 4.
Yes, the game actually looks this good.
Ethan Carter doesn’t sound quite as good as it looks. The voice acting is a bit on the stilted side, although the game’s subtle piano-heavy soundtrack sets the right tone.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter introduces some clever mystery-solving mechanics that eliminate the stodgy point-and-click interfaces of yore, without also eliminating puzzle complexity or challenge. Once you stumble upon a murder scene (a distressingly common occurrence), you’ll wander around looking for clues as you would in a typical adventure game. Occasionally, a particularly important clue will set off a chain of thoughts in your character’s head, represented by a dizzying cloud of floating words. Look in the correct direction, and all those words will coalesce into a single thought, which will lead you to your next clue. Once you’ve grabbed all the evidence and returned it to its proper place, ghostly images of the crime-in-progress pop up, which you have to arrange in the right order. Do it right, and you’ll be shown how the person laying in front of you met their end. It’s an elegant system that isn’t quite like anything I’ve encountered before.