Andrew Poznanski, Adrian Chmielarz, and Michal Kosieradzki, founders of Polish, indie game dev studio The Astronauts, are possibly new names for you. Their previous works, though, just may ring a bell. Originally founders of People Can Fly, these guys were involved with Bulletstorm, Painkiller, and Gears of War: Judgement. Now at the helm of an eight man team, the new studio’s debut title is upon us.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a atmospheric mystery played from the first person perspective. The mood and environment, from the incredibly detailed visuals to the eery sound design, are just as much a focal point as the puzzles themselves. In the game, you play as Detective Paul Prospero. Prospero has received a disturbing letter from Ethan Carter and he heads to Red Creek Valley, the player’s playground, to unravel the mystery of his disappearance.
The gameplay centers around Prospero’s ability to communicate with the dead. With that ability and his keen sense of observation, players are tasked with recreating crime scenes and placing events in the right order to gain understanding. The HUD on The Vanishing is very clean and seeing Prospero’s thoughts flash across the screen as you gather evidence ends up being great design and I hope it influences the genre in the future. There are also various puzzles influenced by short stories and news clippings left behind . Those bits aren’t just placeholder as you move on to the next murder scene, you just don’t become fully aware of the underlying narrative influence until later in the title. And it’s a doozy.
With the environment essentially serving as a character in itself, it’s no surprise that The Vanishing absolutely shines graphically. Using a method called Photogrammetry, The Astronauts didn’t allow an independent budget to affect the visual output.
“With photogrammetry, we no longer create worlds while isolated from the world, surrounded by walls and screens. We get up, go out there and shot photos, lots of photos. And then some.”
This method allows them to start with photo realistic 3D models in their engine and work toward a style fitting of the “dark tale” that is The Vanishing. On top of all this, they spared no effort with the music and ambiance. The music ques at the right times, often when entering an area with a major puzzle to solve. During the in-between time, the world around you is increasingly haunting. Headphones are certainly a must when playing.
“This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand”
Those words are what welcome you as soon as the game starts and the statement rings true from beginning to end. From the open, you’re allowed to wander anywhere within Red Creek Valley and tackle the mysteries in whatever order you wish, and there’s not even the slightest hint on where to begin. As the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, a haunting reality starts to set in and that’s really where the game shines. Players may left a bit wanting considering their input is of a rinse and repeat nature for the most part, but your true evolution as you progress takes place mentally as you uncover each and every clue. Everything has a reason in The Vanishing, no matter how ridiculous the happening just may be. For example, at one point you end up high in space amongst the stars in a clever nod to the developers. Left field right? It still fits perfectly.
Oftentimes, with any sort of entertainment focused on an overlying “mystery”, there are disappointments. Expectations are built up and things are swayed one way or another in the final moments. On the surface, Ethan Carter has an incredibly cliche ending but, when you look back on the events you’ve helped to unfold, an incredible experienced is lain before you. Much deeper than initially expected, The Vanishing‘s “weird fiction” influences are woven into the fabric of the game and it’s truly evident in the finale. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is writing at its best and an indie title that should be in the usually AAA dominant conversation for one of the best of the year.
This review of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is based off a digital copy for the PC which was provided by The Astronauts.