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Mysteries in the Mist: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

by Angry Jedi » Mon Sep 29, 2014 8:30 am

Surprised no-one has made this thread yet, so here we go!

All right, Squad, there's a mystery afoot, and detective Paul Prospero needs our help to solve it. A young whipper-snapper called Ethan Carter has disappeared, but before he left, he sent word to Prospero to come look for him.

Preliminary reconnaissance by Private Timmy suggests that not all is as it seems up in the mountains, but he wouldn't give any further details. We're going to have to get boots on the ground to get to the bottom of what is going on here; perhaps this Carter child will be able to shed some further light on it all when we find him.

--

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a first-person adventure game from indie developer The Astronauts. The game warns you at the outset that it will not hold your hand at all, and, short of a few on-screen button prompts, it's true to its word -- not only do you have to figure out the story for yourself, but you also have to figure out how the mechanics actually work, too.

Although described as an "open world", the environment which you'll explore in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is actually relatively small compared to some other worlds, and you'll find yourself progressing through its several "episodes" in a naturally linear fashion -- though you do have the freedom to simply run past an area and come back to it later if you wish. Although small, the world is, however, beautifully crafted, with wonderful detail and some absolutely beautiful visuals. You'll pick your way through overgrown forests, creep around abandoned houses and explore a seemingly long-abandoned churchyard. And everywhere you go, strange things will happen, with each bringing you one step closer to the truth behind the vanishing of Ethan Carter.

I don't want to say too much more about the game or its story in this initial post as part of the joy of the game is discovering both of those things, but I did want to kick off a thread and get us started talking about it, because if there was ever a piece of Squad-bait, this game is absolutely it. Feel free to be as spoileriffic as you like below, but please use spoiler tags as appropriate

If you're wondering, the game will take you about 3-4 hours to complete, and I recommend doing so in a single sitting if you have the time and opportunity.

Over to you.
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Re: Mysteries in the Mist: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

by Rampant Bicycle » Mon Sep 29, 2014 3:57 pm

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
Spoiler: show
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
Spoiler: show
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
Spoiler: show
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
Spoiler: show
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:
Spoiler: show
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
Spoiler: show
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? :)
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Re: Mysteries in the Mist: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

by Angry Jedi » Tue Sep 30, 2014 10:31 am

We've already talked at length about this, and you've covered a lot of the things I feel above already, too. I will reiterate that I really liked the swirling random thoughts thing when you looked at something; it was a great visual depiction of someone's thought process. It's not the first time I've seen this technique recently, too; Jane Jensen uses it a bunch in Moebius.

Going to spoilerise the next bit just in case.

Spoiler: show
I enjoyed the "weird fiction" aspect of the game, but by the time I reached the end I found myself thinking that it would have been great to play a straight detective game with similar mechanics and no supernatural elements at all. You could keep the "chronology" stuff intact -- I really liked this, and Danganronpa proved that this mechanic can also be used in a non-supernatural context -- but just dial back some of the weirdness and still have a compelling game.

The reason I say this is that games have sort of done weird for years. It's their bread and butter. Games go to fantastic places that other media doesn't explore anywhere near as deeply. Part of this is perhaps because we're accustomed to weirdness -- early video games were based around conflict between man and monster, devoid of narrative context, and as time has progressed we've kept the conflict aspect and just wrapped it in more layers of narrative. Some games ditch the "monsters" -- whether real or imagined -- with some success, and it would have been nice to see Ethan Carter do the same, with a straightforward story about a detective trying to track down a missing kid. (In fact, having not really followed the development of this game, that's sort of what I was expecting, and while I don't think "disappointed" is the right word to describe how I felt when I discovered what it was really about, I certainly find myself wondering What Might Have Been.)
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Re: Mysteries in the Mist: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

by Alex Connolly » Thu Oct 02, 2014 11:28 am

I'm with Pete in that, as much as I liked this game...

Spoiler: show
...I damn well wish someone had the guts to not do a bloody supernatural/weird mystery. At least, keep it at a Chris Carter's Millennium level. This could have been a great, no-frills procedural investigation tale. No Heavy Rain super spectacles, no Two Souls ghosts, just raw, quiet intrigue. Sure, have the cool gear like that spaceman in the forest and the frankly amazing pod moment high above the cloud banks etc., but this sleeper allegory and all that...it was okay, but made me wish exactly for what Pete wrote.

Outside of that, quite enjoyable. Not mind-blowing, but beautiful and quiet. Polish voice track certainly is the way to go, as that English one was a bit nothing.
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Re: Mysteries in the Mist: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

by Beige » Thu Oct 02, 2014 2:34 pm

Didn't even realize there WAS a Polish voice track. A loser is me.

And yeah, why are games afraid to strike out on just "it's a mystery" territory. TV sure as hell isn't.

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