The Vanishing of Ethan Carter review for PS4

Platform: PS4
Also On: PC
Publisher: The Astronauts
Developer: The Astronauts
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

The very first thing you see in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a disclaimer: “This game is a narrative experience which does not hold your hand.”

It doesn’t take long for the game to put those words into action. Moments later, you find yourself emerging from a dark train tunnel in the middle of the woods. There’s no guidance as to where you should go next, nor any indication of what you can or are supposed to do. You’re just there, trying to solve a mystery, and it’s up to you to decide where to go next.

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In other words, if you’re the kind of person who wants a little bit of direction in your games, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter probably isn’t for you. That cold open sets the tone for the entire game, since you’ll be expected to piece everything together on your own, with no help or direction at any point in time. There’s the odd button prompt, of course, but those are so few and far between that they feel like the barest nod the game’s developers could possibly make towards the fact that they have, in fact, created an interactive experience rather than a really pretty animated movie.

Because of that, the only way to figure out what you’re doing is to move slowly and deliberately, keeping your eyes open for anything in the way of clues. There’s no rushing here; The Astronauts really seem to want you to experience The Vanishing of Ethan Carter as an immersive narrative rather than as a bunch of puzzles to be solved.

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It’s not hard to see why they wanted people to inhabit the game’s world, though: it’s incredibly gorgeous. The first time my wife saw me playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, she stopped what she was doing just to comment on the fact she couldn’t believe a video game looked so lifelike. Admittedly, the game is probably helped immeasurably in this respect by the fact it seldom shows people. It’s set in an abandoned village in rural Pennsylvania, which means that all it has to do is show environments; when it does pause to advance the narrative via flashback, there’s a definite uncanny valley thing going on.

Still, when the game does such a fantastic job of creating a creepy atmosphere, complaining about the lack of people seems like it’s missing the point. Like a great horror movie, everything in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is there to leave you feeling unsettled and unsure of what’s going on. Considering it nails that feeling and sustains it throughout, I’d say that counts as a pretty substantial success.

Grade: A-