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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.

Dear Esther: Down in the Deep


Last week I found myself in a twitter conversation about Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs which lead on to the previous game from its developers, Dear Esther. I offered two statements about Dear Esther, first that it was full of faux-intellectualism and second that it wasn’t particularly “deep”, both of which my conversant challenged. I couldn’t really answer properly in 140 character bites, but I think there are some interesting enough questions around this to merit wider discussion.

First, let’s talk about Dear Esther. If you haven’t played it, it’s a first-person experience in which you wander around a small island, triggering a selection of different voice snippets that hang together into a maddeningly incomplete narrative. There’s no enemies, no puzzles and you’re largely on rails, although there are occasional opportunities for exploration. So that narrative, which draws from a very large selection of passages and is different on each play through, makes up much the game’s value.

It’s questionable whether it really even qualifies as a game. But I’m not interested in tiresome genre clarifications and whatever it is, I found it hugely impressive. It’s the first thing I’ve ever come across that successfully sprawls across the art-game boundary, demonstrating in the process how games can deliver an intellectually challenging experience in a way unique to the medium. Rails or not, your active participation in Dear Esther is key to the experience, and the random unfurling of distinct but related narratives is something no film or book or canvas could achieve.

So, given that I’m a fan, what was my purpose in challenging the amount of artistic value that it offers? Mainly to demonstrate how little competition it has in that space. Journey is there, perhaps Child of Eden, but most of the other titles that tread into this sphere are either clearly games with some limited artistic pretensions – such as A Machine for Pigs – or equally clearly pieces of performance art like Lose/Lose. When people hold up the artistic value of Dear Esther, it simply highlights the paucity of competition.

Or am I being unfair? I made two claims about the game. When I made the first, that it was guilty of faux-intellectualism, I had a very specific example in mind: the writing. It’s incredibly hard to write prose that has the texture of poetry without coming across as overblown and pretentious. I can think of perhaps three authors who write like that and get away with it: Cormac McCarthy, Joseph Conrad and Mervyn Peake, literary giants all.

Yet Dan Pinchbeck, who wrote the script for Dear Esther and A Machine For Pigs, is not afraid to try and walk in their company. And given the quality bar that he’s aiming at, the fact he gets close is something that should be celebrated. But the fact remains that when, at times, he falls short, the result is clunky and jars with the evocative visuals, music and unfolding narrative. The words sound complex and impressive, but hide little meaning. In those moments Dear Esther collapses, briefly, under the weight of its own ambition.


But what of my other accusation, that the game lacked “depth”? When I stopped to consider this, I became unsure of what I actually meant. What do I understand as “depth” in this regard?

The most literal interpretation is that the work can be appreciated on multiple levels, often by understanding them one at a time like the layers of an onion. I am firmly of the opinion that truly great art should approximate this model and that its first layer should be accessible to all, regardless of education or culture, to encourage deeper digging beneath.

Dear Esther certainly has wide initial appeal, and it certainly has more than one layer of allegory. But it feels to me like it doesn’t have all that many. The other characters mentioned by the narrator as well as the physical terrain and history of the island itself are to be read as metaphors for different aspects of the narrator’s personality and state of mind, and that’s pretty much your lot. The fragmentary nature of the plot may invite multiple interpretations, but that’s not the same as real depth. Indeed, the lack of answers could even be seen as antithesis to it. You won’t find any meditations on the human condition hidden in the wide crevasses between paragraphs.


The human condition is important. Illuminating it is, perhaps, the single most vital thing a piece of art can do. And when I step back and think about the books and that have profoundly moved me some of them have not been particularly deep in the sense of onion layers. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a good example, The (ahem, yes really) Time Traveler’s Wife is another. The emotional impact of a wide-reaching and well-written tale can leave you with a lot of mull over without requiring excessive analysis.

This is where Dear Esther really excels. Both times I played it with headphones, alone, late at night: the only light coming from the game’s fat moon and luminous fungi. The first time I finished it I sat and gaped at the uncaring darkness, thoughts rushing through my head of times I’d been hurt, times I’d been guilty of hurting others. The effects lingered for several days. Even more impressively, the second time I played through I had a similar, though less intense reaction. In dredging up those emotions, turning them over in my head again from different angles, I learned more about those situations. I learned more about me. I learned more about people, as a whole.

So I was unfair to Dear Esther. It might not be as intellectually rigorous as it sometimes seems to think it is, but it’s not lacking in profundity for all that. There’s a lot more wisdom on the earth than that to be found written as footnotes in a textbook.

The Tyranny of Challenge

Like most middle-aged gamers, I cut my teeth in the noisy, garish world of coin-op arcades. When each play costs anew, game designers and manufacturers had a vested interest in making them tough. Not too tough to put off potential gamers, but enough to require repeated coins pumped through the slot.

It was a delicate balancing act but we lapped it up, living for those sweaty moments of exquisite agony where new and unexpected situations taxed your muscle memory and you twitched instinctively over the joystick. Trying desperately to keep that personalised bunch of mindless pixels on the screen burning brightly for one second longer, fired with the knowledge that pocket change isn’t that easy to come by when you’re a teenager.

The same ethic of toughness pervaded the early home computer games. Partly it was inherited from the coin-op world, and partly it was down to technical constraints. But neither lasted. As early as the end of the 8-bit era there were games where progress could be saved, where the focus was more on brave exploration or engrossing story or cunning conundrums than it was on mastering movement patterns.

At a stroke this should have altered forever the culture of difficulty. Where is the value in setting up artificial barriers to progress when they can be overcome eventually with the repetition of saving and reloading? Anyone could master anything with no more skill than a reserve or patience, or obsession. And yet difficulty not only remained a shibboleth of game design, it remains celebrated now.

For evidence, look at the number of titles that hobby gamers repeatedly celebrate and marvel over from the most recent console iteration which are feted for their extreme levels of difficulty, such as Dark Souls and others. Observe the worry about input lag on modern TVs, and how microsecond differences can make difficult games unplayable. Look at the exhortations you see in columns and articles everywhere to play games on their most punishing settings.

I first started thinking about this when I saw a fairly heated discussion about the merits of doing just that on Max Payne 3. There was a minority of dissenting opinion that the best way to experience the game was to actually do the exact opposite, make it as easy to play as possible, and just sit back and enjoy the story and those cool bullet-time visuals. And I thought, why not? What’s wrong with just loving a game because its immersive and clever, treating it more like an interactive film than a traditional game experience?

I was reminded of that train of thought recently, playing Dear Esther for the first time. It’s an odd thing which defies easy classification, and I admired to hugely for its inventiveness and artistry, probably more than I enjoyed actually playing it. But it has no difficulty whatsoever, beyond the demands that piecing together the intentionally fragmentary, incomplete story places on the player. It may not even be a game.

But whatever it is, it wouldn’t work anywhere other than on a computer. I was dumbfounded to read that some of its critics felt it would have worked better than a film. How would a film incorporate the elements of exploration that reward the player with more clues on Dear Esther’s tantalisingly incomplete characters and plot? How would it randomise the monologue to ensure repeat value and different interpretations on each analysis? How would it draw the viewer into the central driving seat of the experience? It is fundamentally a digital experience, and must remain so to preserve its value.

But on consideration, its astonishing that it took so long for something like Dear Esther to exist. The ways in which it leverages the medium to create an absorbing yet highly creative and aesthetic experience seems obvious after the fact. And it’s not like artists haven’t tried using games to make important, interesting statements before although the results have been far more art than game, worthy of analysis rather than play. Why did no-one create a playable art-game hybrid like Dear Esther earlier?

Some of the blame rests with the deservedly dreadful reputation that the term “interactive movie” garnered early in its life. Games like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace might have looked very pretty by the standards of their time but they were clunky, linear things with little replay value and the bad smell they left after their initial vast hype is only now beginning to dissipate. Recent titles like Dear Esther and Heavy Rain leave me wondering what that amorphous combination of film and computing could have managed in the intervening years were it not for the long shadow of the laser disc.

But mostly I suspect that the lack of progress in this space is due to the worship of difficulty on the part of game designers everywhere. The people in the driving seat of game releases have, up until very recently, been my generation, that same generation who had an association between challenge and gaming seared onto their developing adolescent brains from hours of coin-op play. To people raised on that cultured that celebrated challenge as the be-all and end-all of games, the idea of something sedate, easy, to be consumed and appreciated for reasons other than its difficulty is anathema.

The same people are doing a lot of work on mobile and tablets. They’re responsible for games like Super Hexagon, a game of such intense difficulty that progress for most players is measured in terms of seconds, not even minutes. But the interesting thing about this is that in many ways mobile gaming is a return to the early days on coin-ops because both formats have an inherent interest in keeping games short, albeit for very different reasons.

As a result high challenge games work exceptionally well on mobile. And as the format eats further and further into console and PC gaming it’s worth remembering that while difficult games have value, they don’t entirely play to the strengths of those platforms, which is rendering long, compelling, media-rich experiences.

This isn’t about bashing difficult games on consoles. When they’re built around the concept of their challenge, cunningly designed as Dark Souls is to make it a central feature of their game on top of which other involving aspects of play can be assembled, they can be superb. But the continued existence of fake barrier erected in many other games can simply lead to repetition. Don’t be phased. Enjoy games on whatever difficulty settings appeal to you most. And hope that now a new generation of developers is leaving the old god of challenge for mobile, where it properly belongs, we’ll see a whole lot more experimentation and innovation in the next hardware generation.