Stunning Graphics Can't Save a Mediocre Adventure Game
I love mystery games. I love detective novels. I love adventure games. On paper, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is going for something I should love. Instead, I found the game to be kind of a mess. While the game might be one of the best looking titles in recent memory, it feels closer to a loose collection of concepts with no connecting tissue to make it a complete video game.
Ethan Carter plays much like a first-person adventure game in the vein of Myst. While you could call it a walking simulator, it focuses more on small sections of gameplay rather than exploring a world. Walking from one gameplay section, or scene, to another takes a couple of minutes. Approximately half of these scenes involve crime scene investigations, while the others are more one-off sections.
Crime scene investigations are fairly cut and dry. You look around for objects in the environment you can investigate. The game asks you to locate all of these objects before it allows you to try to recreate the chronology of events that occurred there. Only the first of these crime scenes required any real thought, and this was largely because the game didn’t explain either what it wanted or some aspects of the game’s controls. If you’ve played any of the Frogware Sherlock Holmes games, LA Noire or games of similar ilk, you’ll probably find these sequences to be underwhelming and simplistic.
It doesn’t feel as if there’s much of a cohesive concept or design behind Ethan Carter’s gameplay. This is not a long game. I say this not to complain about the game’s length, but to point out that it feels weird that a game this short didn’t pick some kind of core gameplay mechanic it could explore in depth or build on between sequences. While the crime scene investigations might be dull, they at least fit what the game is going for and feature mechanics that are explored through multiple sequences. But the other sections all feel lame and unchallenging.
Good puzzle/adventure game design is about creating scenarios where you make the player feel smart. The challenge should come from solving a problem, riddle, or puzzle that feels fair. Not one of the puzzles or mysteries Ethan Carter presents feels creative or challenging. Any time I found myself stuck, it was a result of not understanding some aspect of the controls, and not in a good way. For instance, let me compare this to The Talos Principle. That game gives you only the most basic information about the game’s controls and then uses increasingly more complex puzzles that build upon earlier concepts. It’s difficult to lay out why each of these scenes didn’t work for me, and yet there isn’t a lot to spoil. Instead of competing against the logic of a puzzle, any challenge in the game felt like it was from trying to compete against the lack of information the game was providing.
Even if I step back and look at this game as a walking simulator that has some fairly basic gameplay, the game doesn’t really succeed as one of those games either. While the game’s gorgeous scenery offers some inherent reward for exploration, there is little other reason to seek out every nook and cranny of the world. The game requires you to pretty much finish everything, thus removing any real sense of satisfaction from exploration. The same applies to letters and lore items. There aren’t a lot of these items to discover, and they’re all pretty much required and located after mandatory scenes. On top of this, you never hold onto these items in any sort of log so you can try to piece together the deeper mystery at a later point.
For a game that touts that it isn’t going to hold your hand, the game ultimately makes sure that you experience pretty much everything. There isn’t any particular reason narratively why the game stops you if you missed something, but rather it just puts a big roadblock in your way saying, “Hey, you didn’t do something here.” You are allowed at this point to warp back to a scene you didn’t complete, though you will later have to walk back to the roadblock after completing it. There is one shortcut total I can recall in the game,, so there is the potential for the player to have to walk most of the length of the game a second time. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the experience per se, but it does make you question why the roadblock is there. If the developers wanted you to complete every scene, why not just stop the player from proceeding until they finished those scenes as you come to them?
It would be remiss of me not to mention the game’s autosave system. Save systems are kind of like referees: if you’re bringing them up, it’s because something went wrong. There is no means of manually saving your game. Instead, the game tends to autosave only upon completion of a scene. I noticed it during my first play session when I had little clue what was going on and found on my next game session that it hadn’t saved in a good forty-five minutes. It became less of an issue for me as the game went on, though.
The game’s narrative is pretty scattershot. As mentioned earlier, contrary to many walking simulators, there aren’t many narrative cues outside of what you find after solving a scene. None of the game’s cast stand out as all that interesting, including the game’s titular character. It did not help that a great deal of the central mystery felt fairly obvious by at least midway through the narrative. I personally like to evaluate the quality of a mystery by asking myself how the story holds up minus the solution to the central problem, and Ethan Carter unfortunately has little going on of interest outside of this.
The one thing I can say positively about this game without hesitation is that it is gorgeous. Even playing this about a year and half after initial release, the visuals remain stunning. There are some low-resolution textures you might notice at times, but otherwise I found little to fault with the game’s graphics.
The more I think back on this game and try to find more aspects I enjoyed about it, the more I find myself remembering something else about it I didn’t like. The game did not work for me as a walking simulator, mystery game, or adventure game. It remains a technical showpiece thanks to its stunning visuals, but graphics are not enough to elevate this otherwise pedestrian offering.