PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Games

The Mundane and the Magical in 'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter'

Who knew that golden, verdant fields of wildflowers and ancient gods of unspeakable evil were so complementary?

The following post contains spoilers for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you play as Paul Prospero, a hardboiled detective who arrives in Red Creek Valley to search for the eponymous missing boy. It’s a game inspired by “weird fiction” (think Lovecraft and the like) which means that Prospero has a few tools most detectives don’t. The dead, for example, can send him messages which allows him to view the exact circumstances of their demise. The game is full of supernatural moments, but they exist within a world that the developers have, nevertheless, made an effort to make still familiar to us. When seemingly benign actions lead to spectacular situations, it makes even the smallest decisions feel important.

Ethan Carter goes to great lengths to ground its setting in reality. The places that you see feel like they could actually exist and some of them actually do. The audio complements the scenery. For instance, the sound of your footsteps is a constant companion and their tone changes depending on whether you’re walking through a grassy field or scrambling down a gravel road. You don’t see many signs of life, but you hear them as different types of birds call out in the forest and trees limbs creak as the wind moves through them.

The game’s mechanics also follow this true-to-life philosophy. Aside from the very big exception of your ability to communicate with the dead, Paul Prospero is a pretty normal person. Your options as a player are straightforward: you pick up objects and examine them for clues. You walk around the town (you can run if you want to get somewhere faster, but it’s not required). You examine things carefully by leaning towards them or crouching down. There aren’t any military-grade weapons, and you can’t jump twice your height. Basically, you’re performing largely mundane actions in a familiar environment.

That is, until you unlock an ancient gate separating our world from the realm of a monstrous, ocean-dwelling elder god. Ethan Carter's world is cohesive, but once you find a seam it becomes clear that a larger mystical force sits just beyond the seemingly-normal facade. Nondescript items and old buildings give way to scenes of fantasy and horror that are rendered with just as much care as the world’s more realistic aspects. Suddenly, all the mundane details of the world can be viewed through a new prism. Maybe something is hidden in that open field? Is that odd noise a sign that a secret has been revealed? Perhaps this room’s layout has a hidden meaning behind it?

Ethan Carter juxtaposes its true-to-life detail with its larger-than-life sequences, using their dissonance to enhance each other. Paul Prospero seems like a pretty normal guy in terms of his abilities, which makes his ability to use inanimate objects to evoke psychic visions seem even more extraordinary. Red Creek’s landscape and architecture makes it seem like a realistic place, which makes the occult influences and trans-dimensional shifting even more unexpected and unsettling. The world’s details are meant to impress you and to inspire exploration. This exploration may not payoff every time, but when it does, the unexpected spectacle and the way that it is illustrated is a treat.

Ethan Carter opens with a message declaring that it won’t hold your hand when it comes to its mysteries, and it proves this within seconds of dropping you into the game. Without any direction, you have a few options about how and what to explore, including one that in most games would probably be marked as off limits by a contrived narrative device or a good old fashioned invisible wall. It’s more fun to experience or at least see it yourself, so I made a short video of it. It’s a perfect example of how The Vanishing of Ethan Carter painstakingly constructs a normal situation and hides something fantastic in it. Discovering the weird inside the mundane heightens the tension between the two, making each feel more extreme while keeping them entwined.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.