There are games that get the pejorative label ‘walking simulator’ slapped on them. These are interactive storytelling experiences in which the actual game elements are relatively light. Dear Esther would be a perfect example of this group, as well as the slightly more gamey Gone Home and The Sailor’s Dream. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is again one step more gamey, but will still turn off people who dislike mostly just walking around an environment, trying to uncover a narrative.
TVoEC drops you into a leafy, autumn game world that looks amazing if your graphics card is up to it. It doesn’t hold your hand as you start to wander around, exploring. There is a gruff, noir detective voice-over that makes it clear you are looking for the titular Ethan Carter. But the forest and the abandoned Twin Peaksian town that you comb through, soon turn out to contain some X-Files elements and it becomes clear that the story is taking place in Twilight Zone territory.
Apart from an interesting segment in which you redesign a house – which sounds boring, but we’re not talking regular interior design – the puzzles are intriguing but not challenging. You will come to a location with a body and find elements in the area around it which, when investigated, will reveal a tableau from around the time of death. Once you have found a few of these tableaus, you try to arrange them in the right order to figure out what happened. You press ‘play’ to check if you got it right and if you didn’t , the playback will come to an abrupt halt. You can keep trying until you get it right, with no penalty other than wasted time.
This game is about the journey, not the destination. And you should take your time getting there, really scouring the environment for anything odd, as otherwise you may miss some vital piece of the story. If that happens – and there is one vital bit near the beginning you can easily accidentally bypass – you will have to backtrack to any area that you didn’t solve. Even though you didn’t know there was anything to solve there. The game won’t ‘end’ until all the major pieces are in place. The process of uncovering the game’s twisty tale is engaging and the game doesn’t wear out its welcome, ending while the going’s still good. The ambiguous finale does let the game down a little, being not twisty enough and a bit predictable overall even if some details may surprise. If you enjoy story and atmosphere combined with some light puzzling, the game is an easy recommendation.