Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Ghost Town: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was released by Nordic Games in 2014.

Five months ago I shifted gears and began a strange and wonderful career in video game development. I fell into it by accident and, while I’m frequently astonished and overwhelmed with gratitude, it’s also illuminated a couple things for me. The first is that I am years behind on gaming news and developments. It’s like eleven-year-old me finished Ocarina of Time, spent 17 years doing some other inconsequential stuff, and woke up in a world where Virtual Reality is suddenly a thing and not in the kitschy, late 80s, "Burger King Kids Club" Kid Vid kind of way. Needless to say, I have a lot of catching up to do and this is how I can justify reviewing a game that’s two years old.

The other, perhaps more positive thing I’ve discovered is that no matter what I feel like playing, I’ll find someone within spitting distance who is just as excited about it as I am. This revelation has encouraged me to abandon the “fake it 'til you make it” model of fitting in with my co-workers and be upfront about the games I like (which are not always popular choices) and the games I couldn’t care less about. In the spirit of being my “most authentic” self, it’s time I admit that I fucking love point and click games. Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds and I’m still purchasing games that rely on a mechanic from the days of DOS. Successful point and clicks can boast some of the most ingenious video game storytelling – mostly because that’s literally all there is to them. So when a colleague suggested I check out The Vanishing of Ethan Carter it seemed like it’d be right up my alley. The horror adventure title from indie developer The Astronauts was distributed by Nordic Games. You play in the first-person perspective as paranormal investigator Paul Prospero, who responds to a fan letter inviting him to rural Wisconsin. The letter was sent by 16-year-old Ethan Carter, who has mysteriously vanished. Prospero arrives to investigate Carter’s disappearance and so the game begins.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter tells the player from the outset that it won’t hold your hand and, true enough, it forgoes the conventional introductory tutorial stage and instead launches directly into gameplay. Fortunately, the controls are minimal and fairly intuitive. There’s neither an inventory system nor combat to deal with so your options are limited to walk, run, zoom, and a traditional “action button” that allows Prospero to interact with the various objects scattered throughout Ethan Carter’s open world. While the mechanics are nothing to write home about, the open world itself is the star of the show. The dev team built their sleepy mining town from the ground up using photographs to create incredibly realistic visuals. Dense, lush landscapes are beautifully lit by a sad, perpetual sunset and accompanied by an appropriately mournful score. The game world is somehow entirely void of other NPCs, however, giving the impression that Prospero is wandering a ghost town. Thematically, the sense of desolation works well for the story that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is trying to tell but the unfortunate trade-off is that the open world often feels like a waste of effort. There are a seemingly infinite number of nooks and crannies to inspect in Ethan Carter’s load-screen-free town of Red Creek Valley but there’s not a single thing of note in them. Believe me, I checked.

And this is where I have to play Danny Downer and shit on yet another thing everyone loves. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter did very well critically but the allure of the point and click adventure is the emphasis on exploration and making logical connections among the pieces of information one finds. While the game is visually stunning, it’s also astonishingly linear. Prospero can interact only with the bare minimum of items in the game and these are essential to the game’s completion. While the open world concept does indeed allow players to skip clues and start investigating wherever they like, a check-in system at the end of the game highlights locations on the map where they missed information and even provides a fast travel option. Sleuthing becomes a checklist and the game’s safety rails are suddenly, and unattractively, visible.

As is customary for this style of game, the puzzles in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter make up the bulk of its gameplay. By and large, my favourite of these was a one-off that required the player to reconstruct an abandoned house room by room using only the view from each doorway as a guide. It was innovative and I can’t recall ever doing anything like it. A big whopping miss for me was another one-off, this time a totally incongruent puzzle I casually refer to as “Cthulhu Zombie Stargate” during which the player must locate a number of corpses in an abandoned mine (?), free their spirits with the action button (??), then get their ghosts to stand on four totally illegible symbols on a platform in order to unlock a doorway covered in hieroglyphics that transports the player to a giant underwater squid (?!?!?). Considering the vast differences between these two, it might surprise you to learn that the rest of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s puzzles are exactly the same: you stumble upon a grisly scene, locate four or five essential components of the murder (weapons, blood stains, etc), and then use Prospero’s psychic abilities to establish a timeline for the events based on a few tableaux of the characters involved. The concept is novel the first couple of times but feels agonizingly repetitive by the third murder – not to mention that it seriously begs the question of how Paul Prospero keeps stumbling onto these untouched crime scenes in a town full of no one.

Something about murder is endlessly fascinating and successful games like the Sherlock Holmes series have made solving a slew of grisly cases jolly good fun, but Ethan Carter’s formulaic murder-solving setup feels comparatively hollow. For this, I blame the unfortunately weak narrative. Writers Tom Bissell and Rob Auten adopted a Lovecraftian angle, weaving a muddled tale of an evil force known as “The Sleeper” that dominates psychically sensitive Ethan and his weak-willed, vaguely abusive family. Through some half-baked game lore, it’s suggested that Ethan has awakened The Sleeper by stumbling into a secret room in an abandoned house and now his freshly possessed family is trying to murder him to lull it back to sleep. Ethan’s mother, father, uncle, douche-bro brother, and grandpa are each possessed to varying degrees and slaughter each other in the mad rush to find Ethan. Beyond the lack of emotional connection I felt to the story due to its borderline nonsensical plot, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter commits the even bigger offense of culminating in one of my absolute-bar-none-biggest pet peeves: the cop-out ret-con ending. Suffice it to say that a smarter English grad would have remembered what she learned in another life about that first, greatest Prospero in The Tempest and the common understanding amongst Shakespeare scholars that he acts as a stand-in for his writer. Alas, that painfully obvious connection only occurred to me this afternoon.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter gets points for being experimental and gorgeous, even if it fails in a couple of crucial arenas. For obvious technical reasons, 3D modellers seem to be big fans of it and H. P. Lovecraft enthusiasts might glean something I missed from its homage storytelling. Through its scoring, mysterious and intriguing voice-overs from Paul Prospero (Marty Allen), and photorealistic graphics, developers The Astronauts prove themselves to be masters of mood setting if not traditional game development. I’m interested to see what they come up with next and whether or not they can couple this skill with engaging gameplay – but, in the meantime, if I want to feel melancholy for four hours, I think I’ll just rewatch videos of last week’s US Presidential election instead.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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