‘Atmospheric’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot when describing games, particularly horror games. But what does it actually mean? Much like the Earth’s atmosphere, the atmosphere of a game World refers to the things that surround it, the elements of the game’s design which exist beyond the core mechanics and narrative of the game proper.
‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’ has amazing atmosphere. The beautifully designed countryside of Red Creek Valley, in which the story mostly takes place, sucks you in and immerses you from the moment you emerge out of a train tunnel and set foot in it in the opening moments of the game. The flowers and grass gently sway in the breeze, the wind blusters and calms as you cross the dilapidated bridges and dash between the farm houses, all while the crickets chirp and scurry beneath your feet. The sound design is particularly well done, with a meandering score that seamlessly transposes itself as you move from area to area. I remember one particular patch of woodland well, due to how terrified I felt in it. Nothing bad happened there, in fact nothing at all happened there, but the subtle brass instruments lying behind the foreboding string section created such a rising sense of dread in the pit of my stomach that I had to keep leaving the area to catch my breath.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit here. What is the Vanishing of Ethan Carter? Well as you may have guessed, it is a game about a missing boy named Ethan Carter. You play the role of Paul Prospero, a private investigator with supernatural abilities who receives a number of letters from young Ethan prior to his disappearance, asking for help at his remote village in the isolated Red Creek Valley. Upon arrival, it becomes quickly apparent that terrible, supernatural things have happened here and you are left to unravel the mystery and discover what has happened to Ethan and his family.
This is where the game’s core mechanic comes into play. Paul Prospero has the ability to see how a victim died by piecing together little bits of information and then touching the corpse. As you explore the various crime scenes in the game you will see words flash up around the clues you discover. These words generally tend to be a series of questions. For example, upon discovering a corpse it may begin to list the possible causes of death; Blood loss? Blunt Trauma? Strangulation? You can then search the scene for potential weapons based on these suggestions. It is a great mechanic which serves the game well and it feels both organic and original. But I finished the game feeling that it was never built upon or taken to its logical conclusion. Every crime scene felt like it was made with the template of the first one I encountered, as though it was copied and pasted to fit the story. Once you have all of the clues you can then touch the body to reveal a series of events which led to the death. You must then put these events in chronological order and finally, the crime is revealed. It’s a great idea for a puzzle and while there are a few differing puzzles dotted throughout, this mechanic occupies the majority of them.
‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’ is a very unusual game. While it would seem on the surface to be a horror game, and it certainly tells a classic Lovecraftian horror story, mechanically it is an adventure game. You collect items and use them to interact with the World in order to progress and solve puzzles. However, in truth, most of the game is spent wandering the countryside and buildings dotted therein, looking for clues, as the plot slowly reveals itself. The voice acting is a little ropey at times but the grizzly voice of the main character, narrating his inner monologue, is fortunately good enough to maintain the suspension of disbelief. While there are many tense moments, it never truly feels as though you are in immediate danger of dying until very late on in the story. To be fair, when the danger finally emerges, it provides some of the scariest moments I’ve ever experienced in any horror narrative. The game itself announces at the beginning that it ‘doesn’t hold your hand’ and the designers really weren’t kidding. The player is given no hints on the functionality and you are left to basically figure out how to play the game. Furthermore, you are not told where to go or what to do at any point. While this idea may have hard-core players salivating for a genuine challenge, I can see it limiting the appeal of the game for a lot of people, who will quickly grow tired of aimlessly wandering the woodlands in confusion, not knowing what to do or where to go. Furthermore, even with all of the wandering about, the game barely lasted past the 4 hour mark for me. Combine that with limited replay potential for what is essentially a linear story and the £15/$20 price tag seems a little steep. Having said that, I would recommend this game to anyone, simply because it is one of the most aesthetically beautiful games I have ever played. The use of photogrammetry to create a realistic World is frankly ground-breaking and has to be seen to be believed.
Editor note: This title is currently available on both Steam (PC) and Playstation 4. This review took place on the Steam version, which can be found here: http://store.steampowered.com/app/258520/