If you have not yet played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, read no further, go buy yourself a copy, play it, and come back. This will still be here later, and you’ll be only depriving yourself otherwise.
Let me tell you a story.
I stumbled across the astronaut completely by accident. I was wandering in the Wisconsin wilderness, admiring the fir trees and strewn boulders, the light rays peeking through the canopy and the crunch of amber duff underfoot. It was just before dusk. I knew vaguely that I had something more important to be doing, but I was content to just wander for a while, to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature.
I briefly looked away at my phone, distracted, and nearly tripped over the control panel embedded in the ground. Had it always been there? It couldn’t have appeared just as I looked away, could it? Things don’t just appear out of thin air.
The scuffed chrome housing and glowing buttons were in strange mechanical contrast to the wilderness around me. Faintly humming, it stuck awkwardly out of the orange-brown pine needles like a hitchhiker’s thumb. In hindsight, maybe that was on purpose.
I pushed the buttons, one, two, three, four, an ape poking at a monolith, something he’s never seen before and can barely comprehend, because that’s what you do when confronted with the unknown. That’s how the story goes.
I gave chase to the space man who appeared before me, sprinting past saplings, thin branches whipping my face, and again when he teleported further away in a blinding light. I ran after him, because that’s what you do when something runs away from you.
I marvelled at the ship that erupted from the ground, that sucked me through a wormhole and across the universe, catapulting me through the heavens and dropping me into the inky void of space. There were others. Was this a zoo? A conclave? A cosmic practical joke?
This is where the story ends.
I was dropped back into the forest, mind reeling. Agog. Games don’t do that. They don’t surprise you. They have established, staid precedents they have to follow. You accomplish a series of increasingly challenging tasks and are rewarded with a small cut scene. You follow a series of way-points and unlock a door to the next gated chapter. You combine the items and arrange the mirrors and outsmart the wizard and you reach the next save point. Spaceships stay in space games, zombies stay in zombie games, quaint murder scenes stay in quaint puzzle games. That’s how games are supposed to be. Right?
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter doesn’t play by these rules. I’m not certain the developers even know they should. They shouldn’t. Like a great movie plot twist, it’s always one step ahead of you. Like that astronaut, just when you think you’ve caught up, it jumps away. Leading you down a garden path. In the mines below the Carter house, I knew I’d sussed out the real plot. This was Lovecraftian horror, and I was back in my comfort zone. I know how game makers hide clues in mazes. I was back on sure footing. I arrange the symbols, fight the boss, save the world. I’ve done this a dozen times in a dozen games.
I’ve heard this story before.
I was wrong, and delightedly so.
Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is a movie about magic tricks. To make you understand the wonder of a simple magic trick, it has to show you one. Nolan tells you he is going to fool you, he tells you exactly how he is going to fool you, and then he fools you. The movie is greater than the sum of its parts, because it uses a story about being tricked to make you feel the excitement of being tricked.
Ethan Carter is a game about stories. To make you understand the spell that stories can cast over us, the power they have to transport us to other worlds, it tells you a series of stories. You see them from a distance, safe, removed. You learn from them. You’ve outsmarted it, you know what’s going on. You know the story behind the story. Then, just when you think you’ve solved its riddles, when you’re sure you know what kind of game you’re playing and you’ve sorted out what’s really going on, it pulls its master stroke.
From behind your computer screen, mouse in hand, a world away, you’re not really a detective, strolling through a rustic Wisconsin town in a frozen hour of near-dusk.
You’re just another part of the story.