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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Review

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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.

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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.

Brakketology Goes Pimping for Darkest Dungeon

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There are a lot of games in the pipe that I’m excited for. Like really excited for. Like, man, you guys just don’t even know. Pillars of Eternity? Wasteland 2? The Witcher 3? Dragon Age 3? The iOS edition of FTL? I’m pretty much agog for these titles. So when I tell you that, with the possible exception of Witcher 3, there is no game I’m more looking forward to seeing than Darkest Dungeon, take me seriously. Well, maybe not seriously, but perhaps with an extra grain of salt. We don’t want to go overboard here.

The point is, it’s Kickstarter has launched and I don’t just want to see this tactical dungeon crawler meets psychological horror mash-up meet it’s goal of 75k. I want it to leave that goal so far in the rear view mirror that… well that it can’t be seen anymore, I guess. (Well, that line fell apart fast. Ah well.) So, watch the trailer below, check out the plethora of details on the Kickstarter page, and if you are so moved, help this project get made. Sure, it could end up imploding into so much vaporware, but I’ve got a Good Feeling about this one and I’m almost never wrong. Except when I am. But I’m not this time. Mark it down – this is going to be great.

After the break, a link dump…

My schedule has been nutty the past couple weeks, hence the lack of these posts. I’ve been trapped in New York because of snow –in Atlanta– I’ve been sick, I’ve been juggling kids and work because their schools haven’t found a week yet this year that where they didn’t feel the need for multiple delays or outright cancellations. They’re worse than the game industry in this regard and it’s entirely possible my kids will still be in school come July. The point is, there’s been a lot of new shit, man. But I’ve been collecting a lot of links. Lots of ’em. And now I’m dumping them all out so I can start collecting anew. (And free up some bandwidth to write about the amazing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Coming soon.)

Football for one. After quite a long journey, good friend of the blog Bill Harris, released Gridiron Solitaire into the wild. You’ll find it on Steam for a mere $10. Brandon and I talked about it quite a bit on this week’s JtS and while it’s not a perfect game, it is good… and addicting… and maddening. If you take the plunge, Bill (H.) wrote up a new player guide that you’ll find here. Congrats, Bill!

The Wolf Cometh. The second chapter for A Wolf Among Us is out. I haven’t gotten into it yet, but the trailer looks delicious:

Yeah, I’m gonna have to play this:

Saga! If you missed the trademark spat between Stoic Entertainment and King it’s worth catching up. In short, Stoic are the good guys. King is full of terrible people. Done. The Story.King Responds.Stoic says, “Bite me.”

Not Quite Microleague. Well, not yet, but OOTP Developments is finally —finally– taking the franchise in that direction with 3D ballparks and modelling in-game ball flight. The plan is to take it further in the next edition. I’ve wanted this to make it into OOTP for a long time now, so fingers crossed.

Well that only took a year. Tomb Raider is in the black. Here’s a thought for Eidos. SPEND LESS MONEY MAKING GAMES.

Dammit, now I have to buy one. 5 Wii U Lies. I love it when Barnes finds something he really, really likes. Except when it’s going to end up costing me money, which this might.

Nobody tell Bill. There’s a Dark Souls 2 trailer.

I never did play Dark Souls, having lost my mind trying to tackled Demon’s Souls, but this looks like the kind of thing that ought to get a Dark Souls fan excited.

It’s not quite dead. When 2k unceremoniously announced the 2k baseball franchise was kaput it looked like there would be no new America’s Game for Xbox players this year. Not so, because MLB Advanced Media is bringing back RBI baseball! Yes, a game coming out this spring with no screens and no feature list, based on a NES-era franchise that’s been gone for 20 years. Oh yeah, and it’s developed by the MLB itself. What could possibly go wrong? (Hint: Everything.)

Gone Home. Danielle, you all might remember her, wrote something beautiful about Gone Home. Go read it. As much as we miss seeing her voice appear on this blog, I love seeing her byline pop up at Polygon.

Swanky! Stardock recently posted about the new game engine they’ve licensed from Oxide Games. It’s bananas:

Obviously, this is merely a tech demo, but it’s nifty. Anyone else want to see a Robotech game using this engine?

Pillars! Update 70 has a bunch of cool details about Pillars of Eternity.

 

 

Gone Home Review

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You arrive at the doorstep of a mansion. Your parents recently moved there with your kid sister but you are seeing it for the first time because you have just arrived from your backpack trip across Europe. It’s dark, stormy, and the place looks like it’s been ripped out of a King novel (one of the good ones). No one is home. The lights flicker. The TV is on but it’s just white noise. You enter the house looking for signs of your family.

It’s difficult to talk about Gone Home without venturing into spoiler territory. The game, if you insist on calling it that, is all about the story. There are no controls to speak of, no inventory to rifle through, no health meters, no reflexes are required, your amazing hand eye coordination is meaningless, and there is nary a weapon in sight.

Ah, so it’s an adventure game!

No, it isn’t.

There is no “adventure” here, either; at least not in the typical way we tend to view adventure games. There are no “puzzles” to solve, no riddles to think your way through and no dialogue options from which to choose. If you thought a game like The Waking Dead was devoid of actual game mechanics then Gone Home will feel like a school project.

But that’s part of what makes the “game” work. In Gone Home you are merely along for the ride; a passenger on a ghost train that only reveals itself as you muddle your way through a seemingly abandoned mansion one room at a time.

Is that enough? Is sitting down in front of your PC for two hours (literally) and piecing together an interesting story worth your $20? We like to debate the merits of “value” of a game when discussing its critique and while I still strongly believe that price has no place in the evaluation process of a game, (then again neither do stars, ratings, or any other ridiculous measuring stick) but in this specific case you need to at least know what you are getting into.

Gone Home is short – two hours short, but that’s somewhat irrelevant. More than that, the writers know you are playing a videogame where you are wandering alone inside in a spooky abandoned mansion that looks like it should be a terrifying place to wander around alone – it plays on that emotion at every possible turn. And this is where it’s difficult to really talk about Gone Home without giving anything away, and I do think you should play the game, which is really all a “used to be game critic” can offer, right? I’m glad I played it, but I’m not nearly as happy that I spent $20 to do so.

That said, the writers and designers of this game deserve great praise for their ability to tell an engaging story via spoken dialogue (journal entries), sound effects and music, Post-It notes, and by strategically placing mundane objects around the house that help you slowly piece together what happened to the family that lives there. It’s an amazing achievement that the writers can tell such an emotional story via post cards, letters, and travel brochures. As far as pure storytelling is concerned Gone Home is equal to and in most cases is far superior to anything you see in today’s so-called blockbuster videogames. Of course since the game is all about the narrative – it better be damn good or it simply won’t work.

But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by Gone Home. Not because of its length or its lack of any real gameplay, but because it knows…the game knows I play videogames and it knows it IS a videogame and it takes that fact that uses it against me; when you strip that away you are left with a sad, emotional and ultimately wonderfully told story trapped inside a mediocre game.