I never tire of walking around and looking at stuff in video games, as in life. Walking around and looking at stuff, I’m going to suggest mostly because it just occurred to me right this minute, is one of the great joys of being human. Or being a dog, I guess, but make no mistake friends: dogs can’t play video games, and that’s why they spend so much time licking their own genitals.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you’ve probably heard, is one of the best-looking video game places thus far in the young history of video games to walk around and look at stuff in. What you’ve heard is true. It is breathtaking.
The sounds of loons hooting on the lake, the rustling of leaves and the quiet sussuration of the wind, the play of slanting sunlight through the foliage, and all that’s lacking is the damp autumn smell of leaves to put you right there. It is — as long as you don’t stray too far from the path they developers want you to walk — utterly convincing. It’s a triumph, and I salute the artists and developers who made the place. I recommend it without reservation as a quiet, beautiful (if somewhat eerie) virtual place to visit.
I mean, just look at this:
Q: Is it a good game?
This is what I’m not entirely sure about. Before I attempt to explain why, and why you might have a different experience with it, let me tell you this: I fucking hate puzzles. In everyday life, things can be puzzling, and sometimes it’s even worth the effort to unbefuddle myself. In games, I have very close to zero patience for them. From the artificiality of old-school text adventures that I played decades ago — PUT DUCK INTO TEAPOT — right up to tagging ghostly events into chronological order in Ethan Carter, puzzles seems arbitrary and fake and just infuriate me. I consulted walkthroughs to figure out how to play this game. No, I am not ashamed.
The game tells you it isn’t going to hold your hand. That’s fine. I’m a big boy and I proudly wear my big boy trousers. But it turns out, after wandering around for 30 minutes clicking on shit with no idea what I’m supposed to be doing or why, getting almost annoyed enough to just delete the thing from my hard drive, I guess I like having my hand held.
There’s a moment very early on in the game when this truly amazing sequence of events kicked off — I hesitate to spoil anything, so let’s just say it begins with a chase through the woods — that did not feel like a puzzle and solution pair at all, even though I did have to figure out a sequence to begin it. (The developers of this game just love to make you figure out sequences.) I enjoyed it immensely. It was a high point in the game for me, rarely reached again in the short few hours that followed, because it began and ended organically and serendipitously, without me being made aware of the gamey-ness of the whole thing, without being taken out of the world, without having to search and seek and scour for clues to what I was meant to do, and without — and this is the big one — having to alt-tab out and google ‘the vanishing of ethan carter walkthrough’.
So — and I am very much aware that many or even most other players of games might feel differently, I am compelled to say, not really. For me, it’s not all that great a game qua game.
Q: But is it a good experience?
That it most definitely is. And as I have written before, I am very much aware that I am, as a gamer, all about the experience. Hell, as a human, I’m all about the experience. And Ethan Carter delivers. How much of that experience beyond the simple one of walking around looking at stuff in that place will be memorable, time will tell.
Q: Do things go whoosh bang kaboom in satisfyingly dramatic ways?
There is, as I approach the end of the game, as far as I am able to tell, almost no whoosh bang or kaboom whatsoever. I mean there’s a pile of rocks that do kinda go crackboomcrunch a bit, but that’s about it. There’s this psychic woobly thing that you can trigger by holding down your mouse button when prompted to, but I’m going to tell you: several hours into this game, and I still have no goddamned idea what it’s supposed to do other than kinda hover there and go wooblewooblewooble. Kind of a let-down in the drama department.
Q: If I am a person who likes to pull my underwear up over my skull and dance around like a human crab, will I like this game?
You are a person of discernment and sophistication, and this game will be right up your alley.
Q: Is it fun?
This is a tough one. If you like wandering around in beautiful virtual places, it sure is fun, in a quiet kind of way. If you enjoy puzzles and the solving of them, I suspect you might find it and them fun. If you’re down with ritual sacrifice and murder and profanation of graves and all that, well, you need to probably report yourself to your local authorities so they can keep an eye on you, but yeah, this will be up your alley. Your nasty, dark, unholy alley.
I really like Ethan and the whole Vanishing thing, but the kind of fun I’ve had might not exactly be the kind of fun that many players of games are looking for. But it’s possible that that lines up in some way with what the developers were trying to accomplish and if so: huzzah!
The Bottom Line on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
- $19.99 at launch