The Vanishing of Ethan Carter will haunt you. Just not in the way that you think. It’s a thoughtful haunting. This paranormal detective story doesn’t rely on spooky attics and creepy monsters for traditional scares. It relies on the breathable space between things—and on your evil brain—to bring out the bad thoughts in your head.
Welcome to Red Creek Valley. There isn’t a more picturesque location this side of The Witcher 3. Evergreens cover the hills so thickly you can almost smell the pine needles. Water cuts along the valley bottom so coldly you can imagine your toes freezing from the fresh snowmelt. Any screenshot you take is going to look like a subdued Thomas Kinkade painting. To say it’s lovely is just being coy.
Red Creek Valley is a bastion of industry and wealth amidst the gorgeous landscape. There are freight cars on the tracks, mine shafts in the hills, and a full-on hydroelectric dam walling off one end of the valley from the other. The rest of civilization is nowhere to be seen, but Red Creek is a monied pocket. Despite the money flowing through its veins, the entire place is low tech. Beyond the cliffside elevator shaft and the speeder rail car, there’s not a whole lot of technology between you and the investigation. It’s lonely. And it’s a relief.
You are Paul Prospero, a paranormal detective with an inside voice that sounds a lot like a Max Payne monologue. You’re deeply empathetic and uniquely qualified to take on the ghost story you’re about to step into. A strange letter from a boy named Ethan Carter brought you to Red Creek Valley. But now that you’re here, it’s looking like this missing persons case is turning into something nastier and more brutal than the painterly landscape looks capable of hosting.
You can run and duck, but the walking pace and deliberate lack of a jump button gives you time to soak in the details—with your feet on the ground. Once your eyes stop bulging from the God rays coursing through the tree branches, you can start to look into the rich surroundings. The architecture runs from ancient Nordic to English cottage, and nearly every building has a function in the investigation.
The main puzzles go a little something like this. You find pieces of a crime (which are sometimes pieces of a dismembered body) scattered across a hundred-yard murder scene. You put the improvised murder weapons back into their positions prior to the murder taking place (hanging an axe back on the wall, or putting a pair of scissors back onto the office desk). You inspect the recently dead body. You watch four or five spectral lights rise up from the body and soar out into the murder scene. You approach these ashy spectral lights and watch them form into a frozen, holographic moment taking place during the murder. You place the frozen-in-time events in chronological order (one, two, three, four, five). Then you “visualize” the entire scene and watch it play out—ghostly hologram-style—from beginning to end.
If you placed the events in the wrong chronological order, the scene dissolves and cuts itself off, and you retry putting them in order again. If you placed them in the correct order this time, then the scene indeed plays out, front to back. The ability to reassemble a crime scene and visualize the outcome is your greatest power. This is why Ethan Carter wrote that strange letter to Detective Paul Prospero in the first place. Ethan knows that Paul is up to the task. You’ll watch a family self destruct, and you’ll slowly put the pieces together as to where this Ethan Carter has vanished off to.
As you creep around dark corners, boarded-up buildings, and creaking forests, it’s not the scenery that’s scary. The scenery is pastoral. It’s beautiful. It’s occasionally mundane. No, the horror comes from the motives of the murderers. It comes from the nasty, simple shapes of the murders themselves. It’s all the more frightening because it’s juxtaposed against the picture-perfect Red Creek Valley. But just because there’s nothing lurking in that darkened church, doesn’t mean you’ll want to hang out in there either.
Horror fans, you’ll have to take a chill pill on this one. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t torture-horror, splatter-horror, or cannibal-horror. It isn’t monsters, aliens, and zombies. Or is it? Is The Vanishing’s psychological-horror enough to extract that type of anticipation out of you? It certainly did for me. The fight-or-flight releases you get from in-game scares can be few and far between. So, an acutely stressful level of “is something about to happen?” can build up to toxic levels in your system. It’s just subtle enough, just clever enough, to make you think that you might not be playing a horror game after all.
You can play in your living room with the lights off, if you want. Chill night air pouring through your cracked window might up the ante a little, too. But there aren’t boogeymen around every corner. There isn’t a Slenderman right behind you. There isn’t a pig-masked executioner in the basement. And that’s what does make every corner, every blackened and burned room, or every time you look over your shoulder, that much scarier. Your imagination—you, the player’s—just might be the death of you in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
You’ll come across water-damaged pages of a stories written on notebook paper. It’s all presumably written by Ethan. Despite Ethan himself coming off as a bright, level-headed boy, his writing heads into dark places. Again, it’s all too subtle to be out-and-out grotesque. The Vanishing isn’t trying to gross you out. It’s trying to unnerve you. It will likely succeed. The Vanishing is in the vein of Myst, where an island of inhumanity is populated by puzzle pieces and torn-out notebook pages. There are just enough gears, levers, and railway cars to make the setting inhuman enough for the entire setting to be slightly unsettling.
When you’re locked into a murder mystery, your mind takes note of a lot of things. Since you’re playing a video game, you’re not sure if you’re paying too much attention to details because it’s a murder mystery, or because it’s just a video game. Like, why have all the clocks stopped at 7:00? Is that on purpose, or is that a developer shortcut? Or why are there a million candles lit down in this cavern? Did the devs just need to create superficial light sources in the darkness, or is there somebody down here actively operating? Just know that much of The Vanishing is intentional and often logical. It may even have you looking up names and Bible verses you read on tombstones, just to contribute to the veracity and plausibility of the story.
Everything takes place in a pseudo-open world. Within Red Creek Valley, you may approach the scenes in any order you like. It doesn’t make sense to run past the hacked-up body on the railroad tracks, but you can, and you’re welcome to solve that piece of the mystery later. When the opening slide informs you that the game is “a narrative experience that does not hold your hand,” then that’s what it means. It’s not going to put up arrows or leave a breadcrumb trail leading you about. But it’s not trying to stump you either. The puzzles are sensible enough. I never once referred to a walkthrough, and I’m the type of person quite willing to do so in puzzle-heavy games. If you appreciate the walking pace, and you thoughtfully comb the countryside, you’ll unearth every bit of evidence you need to make The Vanishing a haunting little tale from beginning to end.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile