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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review


I’ve never been to rural Wisconsin. But now I feel like I have, thanks to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

I’ve walked through gently shaded autumnal woods, watching rags of mist gathering on distant peaks. Wandered across a dam, marvelling at the sun reflected on the lake beneath and pools of recent rainwater on the pavement. Climbed a hill amongst ancient, mossy boulders with grass waving around me, just to see the view at the top.

The Vanishing is a beautiful game. Even on my limited hardware it evoked landscapes of such painful realism that I wanted to reach through the screen and touch it. It uses that reality to make you ask questions. Where, exactly, is this place? Why is it such a state of disrepair? And, most of all, where the hell is everybody?

And it’s a good job that the title is so full of achingly lovely vistas. You’re going to be spending a lot of time wandering about, looking at them while wondering what on earth you’re supposed to do next.

From the opening message, which proclaims the game a “narrative experience that does not hold your hand”, it’s obvious that Ethan Carter belongs the genre commonly derided as “walking simulators”. But its ambitions are much bolder. Unsatisfied with the weak game elements that characterised story driven masterpieces like Dear Esther and Gone Home, it seeks to challenge you. To make you think not just about the story and characters, but about puzzles too.

You play a detective, seeking to solve the titular mystery. But not any old detective. Not when you’re saddled with a name like Paul Prospero. This detective is psychic, and can use his powers to piece together the past once he’s gathered enough clues from a crime scene.

Vanishing Ethan Carter – CrowsYou uncover secrets by stumbling on top of them, whereupon they’re labelled and can be clicked on. Sometimes the interaction picks the item up, sometimes it’s just to examine the object. To say much more would be giving spoilers. Because when the game says it doesn’t hold your hand, it means it. There’s no tutorial, no hints, nothing except you, your mouse and a keen sense of experimentation.


That, right there, is the big problem with Ethan Carter. In its determination to be hands-off and let the story be the guide, it can leave you lost, forlorn and frustrated. Without clues you often have blunder about, struggling to find an important click point that you missed. In one instance I ended up traversing the entire length of the game world because I’d failed to properly explore a patch of forest a little off the beaten track. There were no hints I needed to look there, just the game stubbornly refusing to let me progress until I had.

Once you’ve got to grips with the way the game wants to be played, things become more interesting. The puzzles are not especially difficult, but they’re more of a challenge than Gone Home’s simple “find key, open lock” formula. And while there’s a central method to Paul’s psychic sleuthing, the game does try to mix things up a bit beyond just making you look for hidden objects. There’s even one section where you have to be on your guard against a stealthy, scary enemy.

Vanishing Ethan Carter – ValleyAt the start, the plot suffers from the same lack of focus as the puzzles. Again, lacking preamble, there are no initial plot hooks to pull you forward. But as you start to piece together the events leading up to Carter’s disappearance, the tone of the game becomes much darker. With pieces of the mystery slotting into place, it’s clear that the whole puzzle is going to be showing some very grim vistas indeed. The sense of gathering momentum is palpable, and propelled me on over the final hurdles of frustration the game placed in my path.

When you’re done, it’s a game that lingers. The sense of place is conjures is so solid that recalling some of its scenes begins to feel like memories from an eerie walk in isolated countryside. It’s worth wandering around again, because there are little flourishes of meaning in the landscape you’ll only spot once you know the whole story. And, like all well-worked narratives there are layers of meaning and symbolism that are best appreciated from a distance.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a bold, but not entirely successful, experiment in narrative-driven gaming. Its desire to marry visual and narrative aesthetics with more traditional puzzling is noble. But in pursuit of the laudable goal of trying to keep the player immersed in the atmosphere, it sometimes leaves them floundering instead. That balance something worth striving towards, a fusion which some game, someday will perfect. Ethan Carter is not that game. One day, however, I’m sure we’ll look back on it as an essential stone on the path to story-game nirvana.

This review originally appeared on The Average Gamer. Reproduced with kind permission.

Democracy 3 Review


Everybody Wants to Rule the World, according to a well-known song from a band hailing from my home town. Well now you can experience ruling a small part of it, at least, with Democracy 3.

The new game screen gives you a choice of western nations to choose from, but it’s deceptive: your pick has very little impact on the game. Curiously for a game with this title, the actual different models of democracy like first past the post and proportional representation aren’t modeled at all. Rather, this is a game about the act of governance itself, of raising and spending revenue for the good (or otherwise) of your citizens.

Naturally, a realistic simulation of such a thing would be impossible, and even coming close would require a gargantuan quantity of inter-relating factors to influence and track. This is what Democracy does, and it could easy have been totally overwhelming were it not for a lot of clever interface design.

Most of the game takes place on a screen of circles, each with a colour and an icon describing what it is: blue for statistics (like GDP), red for serious problems (like an asthma epidemic) but mostly white for policies that you put in place (like maternity leave). However over one and arrows will magically appear showing what other things influence it, positively or negatively and how strongly.

It is overwhelming at first, but it very quickly becomes second nature to hover over a problem spot, pick out the most important related policies and tweak them to your liking.

Of course you’re not limited to simply changing spending levels for things already on the mind-map, you can add your own too from an impressive palette of policy from the mundane, like a mansion tax, to the blue-sky such as a new space program. The selection is expanded considerably by a new DLC pack called Social Engineering, which gives you a whole new raft of ideas to play with.

For those masochists who want to engage with the hard numbers instead of this super-whizzy graphical interface then there’s a staggering array of bar charts, pie graphs, numeric breakdowns and the like to keep you happy. You can even delve into the murky world of political focus groups and voting intentions if you want, although most of us can make do with the vague voting intention percentage you get each turn.

Even with the benefits of such a well designed overlay, this remains a colossal exercise in number crunching and could quite easily have been an awful, boring snoozefest. Thankfully, it isn’t.


It must be understood that, like the SimCity games of yore, this isn’t really a game with a goal. You can aim to bring peace and happiness to your population and get voted in over and over again. But it’s not actually that difficult: build the basis of a strong economy without putting too many noises out of joint and your approval ratings will quickly go through the roof. But happiness is overrated. The appeal of popularity quickly wears thin.

Rather, the draw of the experience is simply to experiment, and this is where the game reveals its depth.

Whatever your political sympathies, Democracy 3 quickly demonstrates how high-flying ideology is rapidly pinned to the earth by the tedious tethers of reality. Raise excessive taxes on the rich and your economy will become hugely noncompetitive, leaving you with a soaring deficit and vicious interest repayments. Slash welfare to the bone and you’ll find crime and civil unrest running rampant, with similarly disastrous economic results.

The fun in the game, for me, was working it as close to the bone as possible, tinkering with the engines of government to deliberately create oddball or extreme mix of policies to see what situations develop in the country and still try and keep things on the rails enough to keep you in office. The game conspired with me in my efforts to create democratically acceptable socialist paradise by throwing curveballs in the shape of various random events like terrorist attacks to deal with. When my policies forced disgruntled capitalists into trying to bomb me out of Downing Street, I knew I was pursuing the right policies.

You see, one of the most striking, and true to life things about the game is that there are things voters care about more than the cost of living. You can succeed in improving life by almost every conceivable statistic and still get voted out because you ignored voters’ ingrained moral and political beliefs. So long as you keep various core demographics happy enough to keep voting for you, you can run things close to the edge and still return a majority at election time.

Democracy 3 might not be a particularly accurate simulation of a modern nation state but it is a fascinating experiment in sandbox gaming, an open world for you to explore shorn of its geography and culture and reduced almost entirely to numbers, yet enthralling for all that.

The Great Flappy Bird Flap of 2014 (A Memorial)

flappy bird

My son River (four) has this thing that he does where he will sneak into our bedroom in the morning and steal my iPhone. Usually he’ll play Lego Star Wars or one of the awesome Rayman runners I keep on it- he has good taste in games. Last week, I woke up and I heard him in his room laughing and his sister, Scarlett (two) was in there giggling as well. I had no idea what was going on. So I crept down the hall to spy on them and they were both watching the phone, River tapping it furiously. Then I heard a familiar punching sound and I knew what was up.

They were playing Flappy Bird.

Like most of the world, I downloaded it out of curiosity to see what the deal was with this weirdly popular, out-of-nowhere sensation that was earning its creator $50,000 a day in ad revenue until he pulled the game from the App Store over the weekend. I thought it was goofy and kind of dumb, but not without an odd charm mostly owing to its ridiculous difficulty and notably Mario-like graphics. I meant to delete it.

But I’m glad I didn’t, because my kids were playing together and having a ball with it. I sat down and played with them. We all took turns. I’d get the phone and say “alright, this time I’m gonna do it” and then crash out on the first set of pipes. We’d laugh. Then Scarlett would take the phone and do the same thing. River would clear one, and it was like a small miracle. They loved that you get a Wreck-it-Ralph style Hero Medal (with no actual value) for setting a record. I tried to be awesome dad, getting through 11, 12, 13 and finally 14 of the pipes. They were impressed. But there’s no way to do that consistently, regardless of your skill level.

It’s a “thing” for us now. When we have a minute or two, I’ll pull out the phone and we’ll pass it around, crashing and laughing about it. Every now and then, completely at random, River will say “Daddy, that Flappy Bird is too hard!” I can just imagine that in his mind he’s trying to reason out why he actually does pretty well with Lego Star Wars but can’t work out how to get that stupid bird through a a gap between some pipes that he probably recognizes from Super Mario Bros.

What can I say? We had un and are having fun with a game that has confused, angered and mystified everyone from the mainstream media to hardcore gamers. I have more fun playing this silly, frankly crappy game with my kids than I did playing just about any multimillion dollar AAA game made in the last year. I think I’ve played it longer than I had either Killzone 4 or Assassin’s Creed 4 in my PS4. My kids do not care about the politics of it being ad supported or the maybe-maybe not appropriation of Nintendo-branded sprites. They aren’t worried if the game demonstrated some kind of “dumbing down” of video games. They do not see it as a general barometer of how terrible and shallow mobile games can be. They do not view the game as another catastrophe in the casualocalypse that is supposedly destroying video games.

And you know, ultimately, I don’t either. Because we had fun playing a video game. It did exactly what a video game is supposed to do, regardless of quality, intent or depth. It entertained us. It didn’t try to make some grandly juvenile statement about The Way Things Are In America. Flappy Bird did not have a girl pack mule to escort in an attempt to show how not sexist the game is. There’s no DLC, IAPs or DRM. I was never called a “faggot” over a voice com every time I hit a pipe. Other than the ads, Flappy Bird might just have been a return to the kind of pure no-bullshit video gaming my generation grew up on- even if by accident rather than design.

Sure, Flappy Bird is a crude, single-mechanic game with no other goal than to see if you can get further than you did last time. It is punitive and intolerant of failure with a hard fail state. But you know, those qualities are perfectly in line with a lot of classic early video games. If it were 1981 and Flappy Birdd were housed in a cabinet festooned with gaudy artwork, there might have been a Bruckner and Garcia song about it.

Flappy Bird probably won’t be (and shouldn’t be) remembered as a classic like Pac-Man or Space Invaders but like those games, it will be remembered as a fad. It’s a very different cultural time, and that fad lasted for all of about a week and a half before it apparently fizzled out. Was Dong Nguyen, the game’s apparently reclusive creator, a marketing genius that got in and cashed out before the backlash? Or was he really just some guy that made this silly game that somehow went viral and went on to millions of downloads almost overnight?

I almost don’t want to know. I want it to remain this kind of strange anomaly. I want to think that Mr. Nguyen really did pull the game because he wanted to be left alone to spend his unexpected fortune. I’m sure that some of the big IOS development houses are already either offering him jobs or trying to sort out how to duplicate the success of this short-sell, flash-in-the-pan phenomenon. Good luck with that, suits.

So Flappy Bird is gone after an 11th hour update that randomly changes Flappy Bird’s color and makes it night time over the mysterious city in the background. You can’t download the game anymore. It looks like there are already a horde of other Flappy games emerging on the App Store- and into the charts. You can already go on eBay and buy a phone from somebody for $650 with Flappy Bird installed on it. It’s obnoxious and absurd. But the whole Flappy Bird thing has been. That said, it’s made for a hell of a lot more interesting news then some corporate marketing bullshit like a “reveal” or trailer announcement masquerading as a video game news story.

Whether you hate the game, love it or are just bewildered by its success it doesn’t matter. I don’t really care about what it “means” for gaming and sensible people shouldn’t either. My kids love it, I play it with them and we laugh about it. It doesn’t really “mean” anything, don’t overthink it. That’s really all there is to understand about the Great Flappy Bird Flap of 2014.

Get British!


As the token Brit on NHS, it’s obviously my remit to drink copious quantities of tea, discuss the vagaries of the weather and get typecast in Hollywood movies as the villain. However I also take it upon myself to bring you occasional snippets of news from the UK games industry.

Here’s the latest: a kickstarter for a new British game, made in Britain starring British people and full of typical self-deprecating British humour. It’s a point and click adventure entitled Her Majesty’s SPIFFING and you can back it at the usual place. Take a look, have a think about it. We’ve fallen a long way since the 8-bit glory days, and frankly, we could do with the business.

Talking About Television on the Ouya

YouTube video

As I mentioned on the podcast a few weeks ago, Clayton Grey, No High Scores reader and Don’t Shoot the Food Photoshopper extraordinaire is currently working on Television, an adventure game/WarioWare-esque mashup for the Ouya. Clayton and his partner-in-games Sam Strick recently took the Most Surprising award in the Create game jam sponsored by Kill Screen and Ouya. Clayton was kind enough to answer some questions via email and give a glimpse as to what life is like for independent developers looking to make a go on the Ouya.

Once you’re done reading, be sure to head over to their Kickstarter for Shift, a single card CCG currently in development.

You describe Television as a WarioWare meets Myst endeavor, and the trailer shows off a number of different games that would have been at home on my television during the 80s. Can you expand some on what the game’s about and how the adventure parts mesh with the mini-game parts?

The basic idea is that you can approach the game from a couple different angles: You can casually play around with a myriad of quirky short games, or you can dig in and “read between the channels” for a more complex adventure experience. You can procure items from shows and introduce those into other shows. There will be secret shows and secret channels. We enjoy games about exploration. The idea is to provide a meta-goal for those that pick up the scent. But there’s no hand-holding and no serious tutorials.

How did the idea for Television come about?
The idea originated during a brainstorming session. We had after the contest announcement to decide if we wanted to put down our current work and have a go at this contest. We had already kick(start)ed in for a developer kit, so it made sense from a lot of perspectives. I did some brainstorming about what we could do. We already have a lot of ideas for projects at various stages of development, and this was an opportunity to do something different.

I made some notes about some key ideas, and when Sam and I met up the next morning we started discussing things. We wanted to do something with exploration, something that wasn’t going to skew hard to a particular gender or demographic, and we wanted to do something non-violent. Why go to an console? What does that mean? What things work well on a console that won’t work well on a mobile device?

I had an idea that I had been tossing about for something called the “OUYA? Oh Yeah!”. It was an idea for something to put on a load screen or an interstitial between moments in a game. Totally random. The idea was that there was this weird insecure japanese gameshow host that keeps apologizing for how bad he is at his job. Players would see these questions cards that he would present, but they wouldn’t necessarily make any sense with one another.

We can’t remember the exact moment when it clicked, but once it happened, it just sort of flowered. We really hashed out a lot of the core game then and there. What are channels on TV? What kinds of shows are there? Which would work as games? Since then we’ve continued to flesh it out and nail down some of the core systems we need to make the games work.

What made you decide to switch from iOS development to Ouya development?

There haven’t been a lot of avenues open to independent developers, and that’s changing fast. We decided early on that we would make lots of game for lots of platforms – some of them analog. We’re doing digital games and boardgames. We think it’s important to be diverse. Mobile is a good starting point because it’s a big market, but we’ve never considered ourselves “mobile developers”. The OUYA seemed to have it’s ducks in a row, so we decided to spend the money and get a developer unit.

What kind of technical hurdles had to be overcome to switch development? How is the Ouya as a development platform?

We do our development using ActionScript and Adobe AIR. It’s easy for us to switch platforms from a technical perspective. The OUYA itself has very similar performance characteristics to a mobile device because it basically is a turbo-charged mobile device. Adobe as done an amazing job optimizing their virtual machine, and performance is great once you know what you’re doing! We used the Starling framework to get better performance for 2D on mobile platforms.

What have been the most challenging aspects of developing for the Ouya?

The OUYA team seems to have put a lot of thought into how to make working with the console as easy as they can manage. Right now I’d say the hardest part is waiting for the game data to install while you’re testing on the device. In short, it’s not a challenge, the device is a constraint. It’s not a desktop, and there are definitely things we’d love to do if we had more power. You make creative decisions around that.

Do you have ideas for expanding Television or are you more interested in taking the Create prize money to fund a different game idea altogether?

We’re very flattered to have won, and we’re excited that people were into the concept. The next step is planning. Kickstarter will probably be involved, so the prize money helps, but it’s really a good faith gesture. We’ll need to raise significantly a lot more to make it happen, as we will need to reach out to other tallent to do it in a reasonable amount of time. We’re having conversations.

Many iOS games end up being successful from a download perspective, but fail to make their creators any money. Is the same risk present on the Ouya or is the purchasing infrastructure more creator friendly and less reliant on in-app purchases to make money?

iOS has a known visibility problem. The key is getting enough awareness for your game. For our iOS game, we’re focusing on making a really premium game, because that’s all we can do. It really depends on your business model, and we’re hopeful but skeptical of iOS as a market for game developers. People like to talk about the outliers that made a lot of money, but that’s not an honest picture of what developers can expect. There’s no way to gloss over it. Making money on iOS is hard. There isn’t a single answer. Just make the best game you can afford to make, and really work to promote it and make people aware of it. No easy task.

The OUYA has some key differences. Firstly, the store is curated. That’s a big one. Secondly, they require all games to offer some part of their experience for free. Developers are given freedom to determine how they want to apply that to their game. So we have a lot of flexibility in determining how to monetize. For Television, we’re looking for inspiration from the concept. We’re looking at offering free “local channels” and then offering premium packages similar to cable or satellite. We’ll probably have Pay-Per-View content as well. ?? These are still just ideas, and we’re in the process of working that out. It’s still an in-app-purchase model, but that in app purchase can just be a license for the full game. We have total flexibility in that regard. Super neat.

Now that the Ouya will be available at Best Buy and other mainstream retailers, what’s the best strategy to make sure that Television rises to the top and gets played by all of those people picking up the console at launch?

We’re happy that they’re developing promising partnerships to sell the OUYA. That was a real question when we bought in, and they seem to be doing things right.

Television, like any piece of entertainment, isn’t trying to be for everyone. That said, we’re hoping to reach a broad group of people looking for something new. We feel winning CREATE will be a big boost to awareness. Keeping people informed about development, and telling your story is just as important. It seems the real key to indie game development is about persistence. Just keep making things!

What’s the best way for people to show their support for Television?

Television still needs support: follow us on Twitter and give us a Like us on Facebook. Everybody says that now, but that’s because it’s really important. It’s the best way for us to let you know what we’re up to, so when things happen, you’ll hear about it. We’re probably going the Kickstarter route for funding. That will probably happen in a month or so. So stay tuned!