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.