Atmospheric, first-person games largely focused on environmental storytelling—known by the tongue-in-cheek term "walking simulator"—have risen to prominence on PC lately, which marks a Renaissance for a type of experience that first sprung to life with 1993's Myst.
Of course, the Miller brothers' breakout hit places more of an emphasis on explicit puzzles than the games it would later inspire, but their creation sold itself primarily on the promise of immersion: Myst wasn't just a game, it was a place. And, thanks to those newfangled CD-ROM drives, Myst could sell its various environments more convincingly than any game had done before—there's a reason its logo features a silhouette of the player being tossed onto the game's titular island.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter picks up where Myst and its various sequels left off—spiritually, that is. Though its setting doesn't strive for the outlandish, and its puzzles feel more natural to the world around them, Vanishing's Red Creek Valley provides a convincingly lived-in and unbelievably detailed backdrop that feels ripped from faded pictures and jittery home movies, rather than the work of 3D modeling software. Around every corner, you'll find yet another reason to pick your jaw up off the floor thanks to the unrelenting beauty of Red Creek Valley's winding forest pathways, distressed, turn-of-the-20th-century architecture, breathtaking vistas, and all the other visual elements that lend this wholly fictional location a distinct sense of history and presence.
Thankfully, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter concerns itself with more than just sightseeing. As the spiritually gifted detective Paul Prospero, you're given one objective upon reaching Red Creek Valley: Find out what happened to Ethan Carter, a boy who contacted you about certain supernatural issues when no one else would help. From the outset, The Vanishing provides absolutely no guidance: The circumstances behind Ethan's disappearance contain a series of mysteries, but the order you stumble upon them—if you manage to find every one—isn't at all dictated by the game. Of course, you're kept on somewhat of a leash in terms of how far you can explore, but these limitations rarely feel artificial: Vanishing's valley setting also acts as a subtle way to keep your movements somewhat confined.
The "gamey" parts of Vanishing can be found in its crime-solving segments, which happen whenever Paul finds a corpse. After tracking down all the necessary pieces of evidence in an area, he can eventually figure out the logistics of a murder, but often, he'll have to use his powers to find it all. If the scene indicates something might be missing—a hole where a rock could have been, for instance—Paul receives a brief vision of the item in its current location, and a shove in the right direction. Once he's obtained all the evidence, three-dimensional stills of the crime-in-progress pop up throughout the area, and Paul has to use his keen eye for detail to place them in the right order—sort of like the finale to the courtroom trials of Danganronpa. Once Paul chronologically assembles the various "stages" of a murder, the events play out as they happened, bringing him steps closer to learning Ethan's fate.
Developer The Astronauts may take a hands-off approach to player guidance, but the world they've created never feels intimidatingly huge. And that's mostly because it's so fun to explore. Looking back at my journey, The Vanishing managed to covertly steer me towards its final destination, though I didn't mind the few times Red Creek Valley had me absolutely lost. Simply put, it's an amazing setting to just exist in, so even wandering aimlessly has its rewards. The Vanishing's sublime visuals—which have to be seen in motion to be believed—work together with its emotionally intense soundtrack to expertly craft the atmosphere of any given area. Though music plays perpetually throughout, it never feels overbearing, and, at times, it seems to react dynamically as you work your way through different locations, giving the various parts of Red Creek Valley their own unique texture.
While I generally enjoyed their hands-off approach, The Astronauts' focus on player freedom starts to get a little creaky by the time you reach the game's finale. If you haven't found and solved all of Red Creek Valley's mysteries by this point, you're provided with a hub to fast-travel to their specific locations—it's helpful, but feels a little dissonant with the game's tone. And since there's no way to fast-travel back to this hub—not one I could find, anyway—my last hour with The Vanishing had me warping to an unsolved mystery, then trudging alllll the way back to the hub so I could warp out once again to solve the next one I missed. This didn't ruin my experience by any means, though it feels strangely inelegant for a game that typically excels at everything it does. And it should be noted that one specific puzzle featuring stealth gameplay and an annoying jump-scare strikes me as strangely unsophisticated for The Vanishing, but thankfully, it doesn't take much time to figure out.
If I sounded embarrassingly effusive throughout the course of this review, you'll have to excuse me: I'm trying my hardest not to. But, when those credits rolled after five short hours, I viewed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter as not just a video game, but a triumph—and, like last year's Gone Home, an experience that will stick with me for years. The second wave of these environmental storytelling games is still in its infancy, and sitting down with something like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter makes me want to play nothing else. If you have a PC, you owe it to yourself to witness the impact these atypical journeys can deliver.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, few modern games look better than The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The Astronauts poured their hearts into making Red Creek Valley a believable setting, and it shows.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter boasts an amazing soundtrack that never manipulates or feels overbearing, despite playing almost perpetually throughout. It's definitely one of the best soundtracks of the year.
The game strives for minimalism, so you won't be staring at a UI. Everything you can interact with, though, is clearly marked, so you'll rarely (if ever) be annoyed by hidden objects.
The Vanishing tells a complete story, though its stinginess with the minor details will have you wanting to replay it in order to connect the dots you couldn't the first time around.
Do you have a PC? Is it reasonably up-to-date? Well, if you haven't played The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you're missing out on one of the best games of the year. Developer The Astronauts has crafted a masterful mystery in an unbelievably beautiful and atmospheric setting, and raised the bar for what this kind of an experience can be. And, for an extremely reasonable price of admission, you, too, can find yourself never wanting to leave its well-crafted world.