This post contains spoilers for The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
There's a saying when it comes to writing fiction. Never reference a better work in your own writing. You'll only make the audience wish they were reading that instead. The saying is only half true. In reality, the effect of making a reference to other pieces of fiction is generally an enhancement of the feelings an audience already has towards your work. Making a reference to a better work in one that the audience isn't liking, will make them wish they were reading that instead. However, making that same reference in a work that the audience is liking, will make them appreciate it as an homage or possibly as a deepening of the thematic message of the original. This goes for movies, poems, songs, and, yes, video games.
Ignoring for the moment that making a direct reference is complicated, it is a substantial risk because it can have the above effect of making the audience wish they were reading/watching/listening/playing the other work right now. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does refer to the works of H.P. Lovecraft and other genre fiction, but peppered throughout the game world are a number of side stories that have an unfortunate, detrimental effect. Those short side stories make me wish any one of them were the focus of the game instead of the Carter family.
The traps, astronaut, portal house, witch hut, and mine maze are all side stories that are seemingly unconnected to the main narrative thread of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. At least, until you reach the end and find you need to do them all to get to the game's ending. Each requires the player to do something different to solve the puzzles. At the end of each surreal sequence, the world reverts to normal. The space pod becomes a shack, the portal house becomes a one bedroom ruin, and the mine maze becomes a closed off, collapsed shaft. At the end of these sequences, you'll also find a very short story, no more than a paragraph or two in length (essentially an outline) that give context for the events that you just played through. There aren't a lot of details given, just the basic hook of an idea. It's those hooks that I found far more compelling than anything that the main narrative concerning the missing Ethan Carter and his dysfunctional family had to offer. Each story was evoking something basic within me. Either a tone, an image, or concept in those stories tickled all my brain and seemed to have potential as high concept fiction.
The traps sequence ends leaving a field littered with skulls that you can't help but walk over. It is possibly an image evoking a future world, like that of The Terminator, though the phrase "the killing fields of Cambodia" sprang into my mind for reasons I don't quite understand. It is an ominous phrase that evokes the right tone if not the history of such a conflict.
After chasing the astronaut, the player is abducted by a bright light. The sequence ends with the protagonist being transported through deep space in a small pod flanked by other small pods. I had seen Interstellar recently and could not help but get the hard sci-fi vibe of that movie from this moment. I stayed in that pod for a long time admiring the sense of presence that staring out the window granted me.
The portal house is exactly the type of weird non-Euclidean geometry of turning space back on itself that I relish, even if the final product of this sequence isn't so great. See the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Twisted" for another such example. The very act of abusing the laws of space-time are enough to get me excited, using them to act as a magical lock even more so.
The witch hut seems almost too simple. All you do is walk forward. However, as you do so, the witch presents you with questions to which your answers will pay for her help: "Do you admire thieves for their bravery or their greed?" or "Does Sin come from the heart or the mind?" They are just the right type of ambiguous non-sequiturs that might come from a good folk story that would have revelatory meaning further down the line.
And the mine maze is probably the most direct reference to Lovecraft, featuring a mystical gate dug out of earth where humans should not tread, an insane miner forever wandering the caverns, and, of course, a Cthulhu-like being coming through the gate as the chamber floods. It is the thing that should not be brought to Earth by a man compelled to complete a puzzle.
The Paul Prospero mystery also has the same type of promise in its beginning. The player is handed a mystery with its goal being to find Ethan, but as the Carter family narrative dragged on, I wasn't engaging with it. Weird otherworldly things were hinted at -- the mysterious Sleeper -- but were never capitalized upon. The family kills each other one by one, but this soon becomes rather repetitive. There are five members of Ethan Carter's family, and the story needs for each one to be killed off, but it seems like there is only enough revelatory material that advances the main narrative in the case of two of these murders. The characters end up repeating the same sentiments about sacrificing Ethan for the Sleeper or how hate feeds the Sleeper. The game delays answers, while never asking new questions.
There isn't enough material to last over even the short length of the game's running time. Looking at the short side stories, one could see how expanding any one of them to the same length could result in the same problem. The one sentence version of the main narrative could be: "Then one by one, the family members killed each other trying to get to Ethan." In that context, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter's pacing makes a lot more sense. It's a short outline of a story stretched over a few hours of play time. There aren't enough details added to develop, for instance, the drama of the father killing his wife or of the mother saving her husband by killing her brother. These are events that should be horrific and meaningful, not boxes to be checked off.
At the end of the game, it is revealed that all the stories, including Paul Prospero's investigation, are all fictions that have sprung from Ethan's imagination. These stories are a way for him to escape the rather poor family situation that he's living in. It's a twist that feels cheap because ultimately it doesn't reveal anything about Ethan or his family situation. We learned over the course of the game that his mother was overbearing, his father weak-willed, his grandfather was tired, his uncle was a bigot, and his brother a douche. And after the twist, it is again revealed that his mother is overbearing, his father weak-willed, his grandfather is tired, his uncle was a bigot, and his brother a douche.
The twist also acts as an excuse in this fiction for the poor pacing and lack of material in a story that has been stretched out too long. The Paul Prospero mystery feels like one of the outlines for a short story written by Ethan because it is one of those outlines for a short story written by Ethan. A story about a ten-year-old writer could be interesting. One written by a ten year old writer? Not so much. Each of the stories are good ideas, but the Ethan lacks either the skill or the experience to expand them into good pieces.
The short stories themselves do give us insight into how Ethan views each of member of his family. This works because they are such short snippets. The main narrative itself does the same thing, but concerns how Ethan views himself. However, Ethan never grows beyond that sketch of a diligent, persevering underdog. It feels as if the game stretched out a line like, "Ethan knew what had to be done and didn't look back," over the course of a full game instead of a two paragraph story.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter may present a kind of of escapism for a kid from a bad family, but it has nothing to say about escapism in that presentation. What we're left with is the imagination that Ethan used to escape from reality and the promise the stories offer us as players for an exciting adventure.
The promise is both enticing and a hollow vessel. It is somewhat ironic that the main asset of these high concept short stories, their imaginative promise, is also the downfall of the overall game. When it comes time to do so, the stories can't fulfill that promise. The pieces are ultimately better than the whole.