'The Vanishing of Ethan Carter': The Weird and the Familiar

Most of the horror of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is derived from an eerie sense of dread created through the atmosphere that is established through the presence of the alien and the weird in an otherwise familiar environment.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Platform: PC
Publisher: The Astronauts
Developer: The Astronauts
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Release Date: 2014-09-25

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a game about stories. A young boy named Ethan Carter, who spends much of his time writing weird Lovecraftian fiction stories, has apparently stumbled on something ancient and evil in his own hometown and has gone missing. The player takes on the role of a psychic detective called Paul Prospero (aptly named after the protagonist of Shakespeare's The Tempest, a character associated with writing and with the ability to directly contact the spirit world) and directs him in his quest to locate Ethan.

The game itself is focused on exploration and puzzle solving in a rather beautifully rendered rural environment. The game rewards patient and thorough examination of the world, as the isolated nature of Prospero's investigation only really allows the story to be advanced through environmental storytelling and through reading the occasional scrap of newspaper or story left behind by Ethan himself.

The game is also a horror game, though most of that horror is derived from an eerie sense of dread created through the atmosphere that is established through the presence of the alien and the weird in an otherwise familiar environment. There are few outright scares to be had here. Instead, Ethan Carter prefers to tease the player with the implications of that which is strange.

The game's interest in exploring the nature of fiction and how it estranges us from the world at the same time that it lets us express ourselves about things we might be afraid to normally confront is actually largely mirrored in the gameplay itself. Most of the puzzles here concern mini-investigations in which the player must locate clues in the environment and then psychically reconstruct the events that took place in several locations. This psychic reconstruction largely concerns establishing a chronology between various pieces of physical evidence that suggest prior events. Once Prospero establishes this chronology, a psychic reconstruction of those events allows him to essentially view a cutscene that reveals what happened in the past.

In a strange sort of way, the game reminds me of the horror classic, The Seventh Guest, a game that motivated the player to solve puzzles throughout a haunted manor in order to witness cutscenes that revealed the plot of the game a piece at a time and not necessarily in sequential order. Piecing together what has happened to Ethan and his family is the chief interest of the game. However, the puzzles here are, for the most part, fairly easy to solve (not the mind bendingly difficult puzzles of The Seventh Guest). The developers want the game to focus on the idea of reconstructing and narrativizing the past, not in holding up that process through frustrating the player with obscure puzzle mechanics.

That being said, the game comes out and explains that it is not a game that wants “to hold your hand” on the very first screen after you hit “Play.” While I have described the main bulk of the nature of Ethan Carter's puzzles, there are a few more varied types and the truth is that how you play and how all of the puzzles work is not made immediately apparent in the game. Indeed, what I think is the weakest puzzle in the game, the one that probably most players will start with, is one that doesn't seem to present itself initially as a puzzle at all. It is easy to skip past such puzzles if you don't take the time to fully explore the world of Ethan Carter, so playing slowly and methodically is the best route to take and becomes a really pleasurable experience.

However, the game's conclusion did not immediately resonate with me. The revelation of what Ethan's situation is seemed a little underwhelming at first. However, after considering how that revelation relates to all of the memories that Prospero has reconstructed throughout his investigation, I realized how cleverly the game goes about establishing a direct connection between what you discover through gameplay and the real truth about the nature of Ethan's vanishing. The game is smart about linking these psychic events to the psyche of the titular character himself. As such, it tells a smart story about, well, the nature of stories.

Ethan Carter is soulfully constructed and its atmosphere is easy to get immersed in because of the detailed craftsmanship of the world. It is simple and fairly straightforward once you grasp how its various mechanics work, and it's also one of the better games that I have played this year.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

The husband and wife duo DEGA center their latest slick synthpop soundscape around the concept of love in all of its stages.

Kalen and Aslyn Nash are an indie pop super-couple if there ever were such a thing. Before becoming as a musical duo themselves, the husband and wife duo put their best feet forward with other projects that saw them acclaim. Kalen previously provided his chops as a singer-songwriter to the Georgia Americana band, Ponderosa. Meanwhile, Aslyn was signed as a solo artist to Capitol while also providing background vocals for Ke$ha. Now, they're blending all of those individual experiences together in their latest project, DEGA.

Keep reading... Show less

On "Restless Mind", Paul Luc establishes himself as an exceptional 21st century bard who knows his way around evoking complex emotions in song.

The folk-rock swing of Paul Luc's upcoming Bad Seed is representative of the whole human condition. Following his previous track release in "Slow Dancing", the Pittsburgh singer-songwriter is sharing another mid-tempo, soulful number. This time, it describes the way too familiar feelings of uncertainty and diversion can, at times, sneak up on all of us.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.