The Vanishing of Ethan Carter shares a message at the very start: “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” That the game opens with a condescending boast, as opposed to an epigraph to frame the story, suggests a lack of faith from director Adrian Chmielarz. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may not hold anyone’s hand, but its shallow pessimism shouldn’t keep anyone awake either.
You play as detective Paul Prospero to discover what happened to a boy named Ethan Carter in Red Creek Valley. The valley and its abandoned human-made structures show The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s strength: a beautiful depiction of nature and environmental detail that very few games (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons) can match. Wandering and zooming in on minutia certainly make for better play than paying attention to the narrative prompts. Prospero narrates here and there with phrases such as “No place is truly quiet, and nowhere is really ordinary” and “The dead can’t explain what it means to be dead.” These noir banalities intend to add gravity to the dead bodies and other morbid findings, including forgettable fantasy snippets written by Ethan.
You eventually learn that near the corpses are items you must reposition to recreate crime scenes. Once you place every relevant piece, you can initiate a process where you tag ghostly images in chronological order to unlock cutscenes revealing the specifics of the deaths. These little enactments sap the color out of the great scenery and mistake dreariness for audience engagement. The characters, Ethan’s various family members, have little to no personality and are influenced by something called the Sleeper, which feeds on their inner hatred and drives them to conflict and murder. In the end, this ridiculous domestic horror feels emotionally vapid compared to the natural-disaster suspense that underlines the working-class familial distress in Zach Sanford’s Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition, one of the best games of 2015 thus far.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter becomes more desperate as you advance. One mine sequence incorporates an in-your-face jump scare that doesn’t come close to the execution of a similar trick in 2013’s overlooked Saturn 9. At one point, Prospero is asked a series of moral questions that seem to aim for general atmosphere over context-specific reflection. These inquiries activate in a location not too far from a church, which, as in Dark Souls, sits pointless in a situation of doom. Creators like Chmielarz need an obvious symbol of false hope to sell (not articulate) their trendy nihilism that, if anything, should vanish.