[Update: The Xbox One version of the game currently appears to have some minor frame rate issues, with a constant stuttering effect while moving. The issue seems most pronounced on the original Xbox One, less so on the S and X, while selecting an unlocked FPS seems to reduce the impact on the last two platforms.]
“This game is a narrative experience that doesn’t hold your hand,” The Astronauts proudly proclaims of its creation, before going on to almost immediately prove that a little hand-holding wouldn’t hurt. If I start by picking holes it’s only because there’s an irony to the fact that Ethan Carter's aspirations to be more than a game are let down by the fact it hasn’t quite worked out how to do that.
There are moments of genuinely magical storytelling here; personal experiences you craft from your movement through a beautifully realised and atmospheric world. Then there are bits where you’ll do that most game-like of mechanics – walking around the scenery mashing the ‘make something happen’ button. You’ve missed a trick and, without a hand to hold, the story stutters to a halt as you backtrack, prod, curse and plead for whatever you’ve missed to reveal itself.
However, for the most part it works, and when it does it’s fascinating. There’s an almost Dear Esther quality to it at times: an ambient wander-’em-up as you walk through a beautiful environment, taking it all in. It’s a beautiful looking game, and simply standing in a heavy, damp forest listening to unseen animals hoot is a narrative in its own right. But these moments are balanced out with puzzling: wandering murder scenes like a supernatural Colombo to put the pieces together, or dealing with far more eldritch and reality-shifting situations. All of this is possible because you’re a some sort of paranormal investigator called Paul Prospero, a detective called to a small american mountain town - all but forgotten and reclaimed by the forest - after receiving a letter from Ethan Carter. And that’s all you get, which is is where the game draws its strength.
As soon as it starts you can just walk, letting the view take you where it will, the backstory mysterious and pieced together as you progress - the sense of not knowing is a magnetic and sinister lure. It’s such a pretty place that it’s almost a shame about all the murders. These form one of the core puzzle mechanics – you’ll find a grisly scene laid out before you, with bloodstained objects and other potential clues that you use to deduce what happened. Interacting with things can produce a swarm of words like ‘blood’, ‘whose blood?’, ‘accident?’, that show Paul’s thoughts on the crime and help guide you. Occasionally these words hover in a cloud that coalesces as you look around to reveal a psychic vision of some missing part that must be restored. Some clue that will complete the story. Once all of the pieces are in place a ghostly memory of past events unlocks via numbered segments that have to be correctly ordered to reveal what happened.
To explain any more would spoil the whole point of the game. This is an interpretive experience that’s shaped by your exploration. Take the left fork in the path or the right? Check out that house or push on over the hill? That lack of hand-holding means you can go anywhere, find anything in any order and it’s a credit to the developers that, for the most part, your choices usually lead to something. However, that lack of hand-holding does rise up to bite the game’s potential repeatedly. In the very first puzzle I found myself stuck, not because I hadn’t found what was needed but because I hadn’t found a specific thing that ‘activated’ a component of the puzzle. It’s indicative of the struggle between the Vanishing’s two core ideas – it’s an experience the developer wants to be personal to you, but it’s also a game – and they don’t work unless you press specific buttons at the right time.
Curiously enough these occasional stutters and halts will likely be as personal to you as your take on the story. For example, during one investigation a set of clues apparently led to the entrance point to a new area. To my mind this was clearly telling me I had to go to this new location – a new location I dutifully wandered for ages, at a complete loss to what the game wanted. The story dissipated, leaving the mechanical pursuit of progression. Eventually (some Googling might have occurred) I found out the clue I followed wasn’t a clue at all, despite an ‘investigate’ prompt that lit up when it was looked at. The actual thing I needed was miles away, hidden behind an object there was no apparent reason to have ever looked behind (and crucial prompts often don't appear until you get up close). If I hadn’t relented and looked it up I’d have likely done a complete lap of the game’s open world in search of a break.
Developer The Astronauts seems aware of this weakness. You’re free to reach the closing moments however you want. There’s nowhere you apparently have to go, nothing you have to see. Until you reach a critical point where a mechanic drops like a gate that effectively shows you all the things in the game you missed, and won’t let you trigger the ending until you’ve backtracked to tick them off. Until then the game is yours to craft, but afterwards you have to do what you’re told. It chips away at the memories you’ve made, laying out the structure and crumbling your story between its fingers as it makes it clear some narrative beat you crafted in your head was incorrect as far as the game was concerned. You did it wrong: go back, get it right and then you can have an ending.
Part of the issue is that, while this is meant to be an experience hugely open to interpretation, much of it comes through Ethan’s eyes via short stories that incorporate and fictionalise locations and events. There seems to have been a sudden last minute lack of confidence that you won’t ‘get’ it if you don’t have all the bits. The studio wants to both give you the freedom to make of it what you will, but also to control that interpretation by ensuring you go here, see that.
Issues aside, curiosity and suspicion still pushes you on to find more fuel for the ideas forming at the back of your mind. It mixes the simmering unseen threat of Lovecraft and shades of Silent Hill’s decaying, subliminal rot with an inventive detective mechanic as you crouch over bloodstained patches of grass thinking about what may have been. There are moments here that are hard to forget, even through the technical and design tangles that drag it down in places.
A previous version of this review appeared in Gamesmaster Save up to 49% on GamesMaster in the MFM January sale and get 2 free eBooks.