Released to rapturous critical acclaim in 2014 with its heartfelt tale and stunning presentation, PC indie darling The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t new per se. But whilst it slowly crept onto other platforms – starting with the PlayStation 4 in 2015, and then Xbox One in early 2018 – it’s only now made its Nintendo debut courtesy of a new Switch port that has been released with surprisingly little fanfare.
There’s a cynical, cheeky part of us that reckons if you’d wanted to have played it by now, you probably would have done so. But if this brief but potent experience has somehow passed you by or you’ve never really understood its appeal, this might be just the excuse you need to explore it for yourself and find out why The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’s remarkable story of melancholy and mystery has stuck with so many players.
It’s hard to describe precisely what The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is. In press materials it’s described as a horror game, and whilst there are certainly horrific elements, there are few jump scares and you’ll spend most of the time wandering through a sunny forest and abandoned buildings, crunching through autumnal leaves as you carefully follow in Ethan’s footsteps.
Others have described it as a walking simulator, but that moniker – which has somehow become a synonym for “boring”, as if games without traditional combat aren’t worthy of existing in their own right – is also a tad misleading, as it’s so much more than that, too. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is, at heart, an immersive mystery… and it’s your job to solve it.
That’s easier said than done, though. The game’s first message to you insists it will not hold your hand and we can assert with stony certainty that this is unflinchingly true. Your adventure begins as you emerge, blinking, from a dark tunnel, and from there you’re essentially on your own, with nary an inventory item nor tutorial prompt to help you on your way.
As this kind of storytelling has matured in scope and ambition we’re probably better at navigating these type of experiences today than in 2014, but we can’t help but admit that even now, this kind of freedom can still feel more overwhelming than liberating. Sometimes the tension so skillfully crafted through its careful storytelling, striking visuals, and masterful music can dissolve into frustration when you can’t figure out what on earth you’re supposed to do next.
Even those of us who were gaming before the internet may not realise how lazy we’ve become, unconsciously relying on those glittering key items and handy waypoints. In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, however, there are no such crutches; instead, you must carefully survey your surroundings, hunting for clues, learning as we did that so little in this world is accidental.
Despite his titular role, Ethan Carter remains stubbornly elusive for much of the game. You play as Paul Prospero, a psychic detective drawn to the quiet, sleepy town of Red Creek Valley to find Ethan, a local boy who purportedly shares the same supernatural ability. There’s no right or wrong way to progress, which means you’re free to peruse the forest and its environs at your own pace, permitting yourself to get distracted – frequently, if you’re anything like us – by the stunning set-pieces and glorious scenery.
Ethan’s story is revealed to Prospero by way of his unique ability to build a psychic storyboard, piecing together events bit by bit. These neat puzzles can be taxing if not quite cerebral, but most of the clues you need will be secreted somewhere in the immediate area. These flashback sequences will occasionally frustrate as much as they challenge, however, and you’ll sometimes find yourself having to laboriously backtrack across familiar terrain to scour for the next clue.
It’s not an easy game to play, though. As you slowly piece together the events that led up to Ethan’s disappearance, you’ll witness the devastating dysfunction at the heart of the boy’s family, and it is not for the faint-hearted. These are mature and, at times, distressing themes, and developer The Astronauts is not so shy as to pull its punches.
You see, it’s the sun-soaked setting that makes the disquieting sequences all the more unsettling. Is that really a severed body dumped on the railroad tracks as the sun dapples through the trees and birds chirp cheerfully in your ear? With a limited cast, scant dialogue, and Prospero’s supernatural skills, this dreamlike fugue blurs fact with fiction, settling upon you like a musty old blanket that you can’t shake off, not even when the credits roll.
Other puzzles require you to reconstruct crime scenes in a way not dissimilar to the recently released Lovecraftian tale, The Sinking City. Again, these are often objectively grim affairs and again, the game deploys admirable restraint in leaving you fully in charge at all times, but the more you learn about Red Creek Valley, the harder it is to ignore the rot sitting at its core.
The Switch port seemingly doesn’t offer any added value from prior versions, so if you’ve bought this previously on another platform, it would be difficult to recommend it again given it’s merely a port and nothing else. That said, it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful games to grace the Switch to date, running equally well both docked and undocked, and its casual, exploratory nature makes it a great companion to the morning commute (pro tip: don’t forget your headphones).
As the credits roll on this brief but powerful experience, you’ll realise a lot is left open to interpretation. For some, that’s to be expected. For others, it’ll be infuriating. Prospero rarely seems to be in a hurry – even when he bloody should be – and as such, his plodding pace is very much a gamer’s Marmite; you’ll either love it or hate it… but good grief is this a mystery worth solving.
Striking score and visualsA dark, melancholy tale with plenty of twists and surprisesA delightful selection of otherworldly environments
Lack of hand-holding can lead to a lot of wasted time and effortLaborious backtrackingEasy to overlook key items
Review copy provided by The Astronauts