Before I say anything else: If you haven't played this game and have even the TINIEST degree of interest in it, go forth and do so. Right now. This thread will wait.
Now, the spoiler-free stuff first. Things I liked:
- The world. My god, the WORLD. Yes, it's small, but it is gorgeous. I think I spent the first five or ten minutes just staring at rocks and trees.
Less instantly apparent (but no less appreciated) is the amount of thought that's gone into laying some things out. For example, there is a point in the game where one can find a pair of scissors; the location of the scissors is a call-back to a scene that the player encounters WAY back at the beginning of the game. (No, seriously; look closely.)
- The part where someone has very obviously spent some quality time with Weird Tales
and Amazing Stories
and other pulp magazines.
- The "detective" mechanics. In a game this minimalist in the way of "mechanics" as we know them (there is not even a journal or an inventory), it's very important to provide at least some context for the player. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does this by having your detective character "think" his way around a clue when you encounter one. Here's a broken thing! How did it get broken? By accident? On purpose? Many of the little floating 'thoughts' are incorrect, obviously, but that's not the point; the point is to prime the player with a hint of an idea or two, and in our play-through this worked rather well. I'd love to see this employed in a more "straight" detective narrative.
- The way Our Hero's psychic powers are handled. One can only read so many journals or listen to so many audio logs; it's nice to just get to witness the scenes myself for a change.
- The handling of "scenes" to tell the game's story. The storytelling in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is node-based, after a fashion: the world is relatively open and allows one to 'solve' (or miss!) its scenes in ALMOST any order. I say almost because there are some examples of 'gatekeeping' in which one must have completed a particular scene to unlock a different location.
This openness DOES mean that it's possible (even easy) to miss a sequence and have to backtrack, but we successfully located all of the sequences on our first pass with little trouble - but see spoiler zone for further comments on this. (This may be due in part to my "wander around looking at everything in a leisurely but thorough fashion, driving Beige kind of insane" playstyle, of course.) For the most part, though, I feel that the slightly-nonlinear presentation contributes a certain ineffable something to the experience.
- A story that is open to some degree of interpretation and that has layers, without going "LOOK HERE ARE SOME IDEAS YOU SHOULD THINK ABOUT" at me.
Ok. I'm going to get spoileriffic in here now. Ready? MASSIVE SPOILERS for the story of Ethan Carter below. You have been warned.
One thing I did not care for quite as much was what I am coming to think of as the "True Detective" phenomenon; that thing that happens when
a media product begins with a weird-fictional premise, often presenting it tantalizingly, but then stops short of going all the way with it.
I understand why people do this; it can be hard to sell Average Audience Member John and Jane on eldritch things from beyond spacetime and whatnot.
However, if you're going to
explicitly reference Call of Cthulhu, down to "That is not dead which can eternal lie," in one of your sub-scenarios, I feel that you're missing a potential opportunity. You've shown how you can do weird-fiction horror in that over-the-top way; now is your chance to do something different.
The Ethan Carter devs don't do this, instead opting for a rather dark variation on the safer "all just a dream" ending in which we are the product of the dying dreams of a kid trapped in a fire. But consider: What if "The Sleeper" had instead been a kind of genius loci, one that had developed an interest in a lonely, angry kid with a powerful imagination? Perhaps the titular vanishing might have been that spirit merging with or co-opting Ethan as a replacement for itself. Our encounters with the products of Ethan's imagination could then have been the product of a human mind unused to its new position. But I digress.
This said, the game as it stands is a fine, poignant piece of work. At about the halfway mark of the piece, we worked out that Our Hero Paul Prospero
was likely fictional, a product of another of Ethan's stories. This is hinted at from very early on - there's the ominous hint that Prospero somehow knows this will be his last case before anything has happened, for example, a suggestion that this has all already been written.
The elements of "imagination made flesh" that we see
in the form of Ethan's stories scattered throughout the world also are suggestive: either we're in someone's head, or the thing that lives here - whatever it is - is for some reason using the products of a child's imagination...but to what end?
The key here, really, is the content of the sub-scenarios:
each of the stories we encounter is indicative of Ethan's feelings about one of his family members. The old man surrounding himself with traps and covering himself in 'sap' is his implied-alcoholic grandfather. The beast is his brother Travis, removed in Ethan's imaginings to a place where he can no longer taunt or harm his younger sibling. The alchemist is his surly, judgmental uncle Chad; the lone miner toiling endlessly in the dark is his failed-inventor father; and the witch story is a troubling representation of the way Ethan imagines his mother feels about him.
The story of Paul Prospero is a grand sorting-through of Ethan's feelings about his family and about himself.
Ethan and his family are haunted by "The Sleeper," a being powered by rage and pain. The rage is easy enough to understand: we repeatedly see hints of the ways in which Ethan, with his daydreaming ways and imaginative leanings, is isolated, misunderstood, or sometimes even hurt by his family members. The gruesomeness of the deaths seem to reflect the degree of hostility Ethan perceived toward himself, with the worst reserved for his brother and mother. Some deaths are sympathetic by contrast, even redemptive - one wonders if he perhaps felt some sympathy for his father, also a big dreamer dismissed by others in the family as a failure.
The "pain" part is a bit more speculative. I think my current inclination is that the pain "The Sleeper" feeds on is the pain of being stifled: it's suggested that Vandegriff's preferred method of inflicting suffering is to wall people up, much as the family was originally going to do with Ethan. Stifled creativity, stifled dreams - his father's suicide attempt thus feeds The Sleeper as well, despite not being fueled explicitly by hate (unless you feel that self-hate counts, which it certainly might.)
Moreover, throughout the game we are repeatedly told that Ethan means to "burn the room" in the Vandegriff house - the room that supposedly awakens the Sleeper just by entering it. The game's ending shows us that this room is actually Ethan's private retreat, the place he goes to work on his stories and indulge his creative imagination. The story-version of Ethan actually acts on this intention, as well, immolating himself along with the heart of his work, though not before venting that rage on the family members that have made him feel so much that this work was worthless. He's internalized the negative sentiments from his family enough that he's essentially begun repressing himself, even though the pain of doing so is feeding that rage-monster inside him.
Yes, of course, the ending of the game actually implies that
everything we have been seeing is all just a dream - specifically, the pre-death dream of a boy dying of smoke inhalation from the moment we click "New Game". But it's one of those dreams where everything we are seeing is a reflection of the dreamer; The Sleeper is Ethan, as are all the family members and Prospero himself - a hero of insight and reason summoned to help Ethan sort out everything he needs to in order to let go and move on. This he does, slowly and carefully untangling the threads of relationships, emotion and creativity to reveal a truth.
This has already gotten too long, though - at least, if one's got all the spoiler tags open - and I don't want to hog the floor. So...who else has commentary?