( There are major spoilers regarding the game’s ending in this post. )
At the very beginning of the game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter puts text on the screen saying that it’s “a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”
I was like, Okay, fine. I will use a walkthrough, then. DON’T TELL ME HOW TO PLAY.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s gameplay is maddeningly opaque, and I ended up having to use four separate walkthroughs. The Kill Screen review hits the nail on the head when it says that the failure of the devs to acknowledge how a game’s design shapes the player’s interactions signifies “a refusal to become friends with the player, when really, it should be as welcoming as possible.” That is absolutely how I would describe this game – unfriendly.
I appreciate that there are no artificial barriers restricting the player’s movement through the game; but, without any “beaten path” to suggest clues, it’s supremely easy to miss the story events. For example, one of the first puzzles involves finding a small gray crankshaft hidden between a bunch of huge gray rocks sitting on gray sand beside a gray lake. I can barely locate my own damn socks in my own tiny apartment, and even with the help of two video walkthroughs it still took me about twenty minutes to find the MacGuffin. I would have just given it up for lost, but I wasn’t able to trigger the next event until I completed the previous one in the sequence. So much for not holding my hand.
To make matters worse, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of the most joyless games I’ve ever encountered. It has zero sense of humor, and the writing is atrocious. The readable text almost makes sense but doesn’t quite, and the direction of the voice acting is bizarre, as if the actors were asked to fake American accents on the spot. I suppose we’re getting the key parts of the story through the words and visions of the eponymous Ethan Carter, a twelve-year-old kid who’s just starting to break in his writing chops, but one would hope that “artistic license” would be a good excuse for mitigating some the resulting awkwardness in the game’s storytelling.
Although there’s supposed to be a dramatic reveal at the end, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t achieve any sort of narrative closure or denouement. It’s supposed to be a surprise ending, but there’s no payoff from any foreshadowing. In fact, the entirety of the foreshadowing is that the story basically sucks. If I understand what’s going on correctly, the player-character, Paul Prospero, is some half-baked supernatural noir detective fantasy made up by Ethan Carter. As Ethan is suffocating to death in a fire, he either hallucinates Prospero or imagines himself as Prospero, who navigates the area around Ethan’s house while investigating clues from a preposterous mystery. In other words, the fact that the mystery is clichéd and disconnected, poorly written, and sloppily characterized is apparently supposed to serve as the foreshadowing that the game takes place in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy.
If I were writing this game, I would do two things. First, I would make a clearer connection between the stories Ethan reads and the stories Ethan writes. The stories Ethan has written, which the player receives in the form of scraps of paper hidden around the game, are crappy fairy tales that make no sense. What I would do is to make it clear that they are homages to the pulp fiction of the 1960s and 1970s by (a) having them read more like earnest fanfiction, and (b) putting them in relative proximity to the sort of paperbacks and magazines that would have inspired them. Second, I would have relied more on allegory to give depth to the diegetic world Prospero inhabits. The story we get is that Ethan’s family becomes possessed by a dark force that feeds on their pain and hatred and demands the sacrifice of their youngest son. What I would like to have seen are more allusions to the “pain” and “hatred” of Ethan’s family in the real world. For all the player knows, Ethan’s family could be perfectly normal and happy people, and Ethan is turning them into monsters in Prospero’s story just because he can – which is regrettably shallow.
I went through the game not really caring what boring and poorly explained murder scene would pop up next, and it took me almost until the end of the game to realize how the characters were related to one another. In an ideal scenario, the player would be able to figure out early on that the story is about Ethan’s family, and we would see interactions between them that contain more emotional valence than “Person A hits Person B over the head with a rock.” And then, as the player gradually uncovers clues that these interactions are filtered through the various tropes of pulp fiction, the events and objects in the game would begin to take on symbolic weight.
The only time the game comes anywhere close to doing something like this is when it reveals that Ethan’s dad is a failed inventor, which is connected to a story about miners who fail to summon an elder god… Except they do summon the god in Prospero’s story, and it makes no sense for the dad’s inventions to be associated with the mines, especially since the player is presented with a note from Ethan’s mom telling the dad to get his junk out of the laundry room. There’s a lot of backstory we’re not getting here. Did the dad move his machinery to the mines so that he could keep working on his projects in secret? Are “the mines” real, or are they supposed to be an analogy for the basement of Ethan’s house? Does Ethan’s family actually discourage his dad’s hobby; and, if so, why? Does Ethan, who writes stories, feel any affinity for his father’s supposedly illicit creativity? Why does Ethan associate creativity with summoning an elder god, and what does it mean that his fictional miners succeed? Who knows.
There’s no denying that the world of the game is very beautiful; but, as things stand, it feels very empty. According to the PS4 Trophies achievement rate, only about 46% of players have bothered to finish the game, even despite the fact that it costs $20 and can be completed in about three hours. I guess I’m not the only one who felt that the pretty scenery doesn’t justify the lack of a coherent narrative or well-designed gameplay.
( Header image from the review in North Texas Daily )