Review: The Vanishing of my Preconceptions

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As we enter our third year on the current generation of game consoles, I for one can’t shake the feeling that, compared to past generations, this one is a bit different. I will not pretend to be a video game savant, nor will I pretend to be one of those gamers who plays all of the big releases. The fact of the matter is I don’t have the stamina for that kind of lifestyle, although I wish I played more than I currently do. All of that aside, the point I am trying to make is that many people, myself included, have often wondered what the big leap was this generation. What will be this generation’s defining factor? If I’m being honest, I think it will be the oft-labeled “walking simulator.”

So what spurred my desire to write about this topic? Well, other than the fact that many in the industry still refer to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as “next gen” when discussing new releases that appear on consoles both old and new, I finally got around to playing one earlier this week, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. This game, along with a few others, has been on my radar for a while now, and it’s one I have been wanting desperately to play so I could try my hand at what many call a first-person, narrative-driven experience–what a mouthful. The Gone Home‘s, the Rapture‘s, the Firewatch‘s–I want to play them all, but I was hesitant amidst the constant backlash. And within the first couple of minutes I could not believe how breathtakingly beautiful this game was.

As someone who gets restless and starts feeling physically and mentally drained after gaming for an hour or two–thanks, mom–I  was surprised to find myself four hours later watching the end sequence play out. Try as I might, beating a game in one sitting has never been a feat I have accomplished, but there was something about my time in Red Creek Valley that begged me to stay; pushing me forward until I found out just what happened to Ethan Carter, and why his family chose to be so mean to him. I wanted to solve every bit of this world’s mysteries, and like a good book, there was not a single part of me that wanted to stop until I reached its gut-wrenching conclusion.

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For the uninitiated, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter plays out like a good murder mystery. The only difference being that it is completely solitary. There are no character interactions throughout the entire game as you, paranormal investigator Paul Prospero, try to find the boy who reached out to you via snail mail. Along the way, you come across many dead bodies and hidden secrets that nudge you towards the revelation at the end of the game. From an abandoned house to an intense, empty mine, Red Creek Valley is yours to explore in whatever order you wish, as there are no way-points or directional cues, which serves as both a strength and a weakness for the story at hand.

The gameplay is simple, but effective, for the most part, as you investigate certain areas for clues related to that location’s mystery. The best practice for these is to do them yourself, regardless of your skill level. There’s a certain level of adventure and reward in successfully working one of the mysteries, something that is lost if you just follow a list of steps. I know this because I had a guide open as I made my way through the game. Its main purpose was to point me in the right direction so I could eliminate some of the backtracking, but I eventually had to glance for guidance on two mysteries, and two others I had to follow step by step.

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This ultimately became my biggest issue with the game because there’s a lack of consistency when dealing with some of these mysteries; more specifically, the Two Houses and the Mines Maze. The former expects you to memorize the layout of a three-story house and replicate it in another, while the latter completely changes the tone from mysterious and intriguing to terrifying. By the time I hit the Two Houses puzzle I had decided I was in it for the long haul, and I had not the time nor the energy to sketch the layout of a house. The Maze, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely because there are jump scares, and since I had people sleeping in my actual house, I decided against solving this side-puzzle the honest way.

These two puzzles aside, the rest of the game is so much fun to play through, and knowing where to go for the side puzzles is essential because it allows you to stroll through every last inch of this incredibly beautiful world. I found myself constantly stopping my progress to look at the surrounding environments. The way the water rustled as it went downstream, the waves of greenery in the light wind, the way the sun reflected off the water, and how shadows were created when it was blocked from view. It’s amazing to see how far video games have come. That is, until you see the character models and are reminded that the technology has yet to be perfected.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter blew me away because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It blew me away because whenever you see gameplay videos for games like this, the comments are filled with people throwing around the term “walking simulator” in a pejorative way. But why is that? Each generation has a certain genre that it latches on to, and while there is no evidence stating this is the case with these first-person narrative games, it very well may be the reality we face once we reach the end of this console cycle. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 had a big emphasis on shooters, and while they still exist, their influence is less apparent. For those who aren’t fond of games cut from the same cloth as Ethan Carter, just remember that nothing lasts forever.

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