"This game is a narrative experience that will not hold your hand" intones the opening statement of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, stark words on a black screen that act as the games main promise. And then, true to it's word, it dumps out on a disused railway line in a forest, as "psychic detective" Paul Prospero, and just leaves you to it. And so begins a fascinating, clever, wonderful, and yet deeply flawed experiment in what a game is, and how we, the players, relate to it. It's a game that generated a lot of buzz when it came out, but didn't seem to linger in the wider consciousness as much as fellow "Walking Simulator" Gone Home, but still wound up my first purchase from this years Steam Winter Sale, and the game I went straight onto after finishing Shadows of Mordor, because it seemed right up my street.
I think I'm generally coming to the conclusion that at the moment, video games are become really excellent at creating a sense of place, of using mood, and staging to make an environment feel real, and trick you into feeling like you're in it. At its best it can create places that feel more real than any other creative medium, at least in part because of the skillful trick of giving you an illusion of freedom that a film, or book, never will. What it struggles with is a sense of story, because that illusion of freedom is the death of the control that film or book exerts in how you experience it's content, and this conflict jars heavily at the core of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, to the point at which it broke it's own atmosphere, and, to my shame, I just walked away from it.
So to start with, the game lets you wander along the valley without any artificial barriers or obstacles, and no obvious signs of things to interact with. If you get close to something, you will be prompted, but you do need to be close to spot it, and what you have to do with a thing is likewise unexplained. Once you've completed an unknown number of one activity in an area, another set opens up, occasionally allowing you to witness events relating to the eponymous disappearance by another mechanic that lets you sequence these flashback to pull together a tapestry. At other times, even stranger events trigger from discoveries that don't seem to directly tie together.
The most striking thing about the game is it's visual design, something that cannot be understated. The gentle, autumnal tone is both charming and oppressive, the gentle decay of the natural surrounds and the overgrown, crumbling rail-lines that lead to faded buildings and darker, and darker deeds give the game a palpable sense of menace, a creeping, skin-crawling mood of terrible things even if you don't understand them. And then it goes and ruins it all.
So here's the problem. Despite not holding your hand, after a few hours it's clear that the game is broken down into sections that whilst you can walk past them, are guidance enough that you're not going to miss anything. From this you start to get a sense of the wider narrative, and the story gradually builds as you go deeper into the valley and see more of the story unfold. And then, you get into the mines, the game gives up on mood and ambiance to provide menace, and just goes for zombie jump-scares.
This sucks - whilst all it does is set you back to the start of a section, the artificiality, which in some of the other mechanics you can overlook because its a cool and interesting way of doing a detective mystery, slaps you in face. The lack of "handholding" stops being a charming a conceit and starts being frustrating, because my free will is taken away from me; because I can't work out what I'm doing wrong, and I'm not even getting chance to work out what I'm doing in this bloody section except that I should be here because it's clearly a section I should be investigating. Suddenly, my need to play the game evaporates, like a spell that has been broken, and I left the Valley never to return.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is bold, daring and beautiful to look at. It's aspires to a greatness it can't reach, and does, I think, stand as another signpost on the way to the truly great narrative-led game that we've yet to see made. It's not as emotionally engaging as Gone Home, and it's not as mind-bendingly clever as The Stanley Parable, but does bring a stronger gameplay element to the table, albeit at a cost that ultimately weakens it. I'd love to see the end, too, but that means trying to work out that bloody zombie bit, and frankly, I just can't face it.