The very first thing you see when you begin a playthrough of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a black screen with the words “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand”. It’s both a challenge and a warning. “Bring it on”, I thought to myself. After no small amount of both frustration and wonder, I completed the gorgeous independent Lovecraftian adventure mystery questioning whether maybe some handholding is necessary to maximize player enjoyment. How very casual of me.
The thing is that the game tells you literally nothing and then punishes you later on for its own learning curve. The very first segment of Ethan Carter places you into a beautiful forest with random traps which it invites you to examine, the “examining” consisting of some weird effect the player has no comprehension of at the time. Moving on, you make your way to the first murder scene with precious little idea of just what to do. Nowhere does the game suggest what’s expected of you or when it’s time to move on. If you want to walk straight to the end of the game world without doing anything, you possibly could.
Turns out that my intrepid nature of always looking for what’s next worked against me here because I found out at the end of the game that I needed to seek out and examine every trap in that very first area, whereas I just thought they were there for effect and had moved on. This meant I had to take a somewhat lengthy trek back to the very beginning of the game, which I found annoying. I was halfway through the game’s world before I even figured out what I was supposed to do with the murder scenes. Sure I felt stupid, but like I said, my nature as a gamer is to push forward and explore the limits first before working within them.
While the relatively small open-world of Ethan Carter is just about the right size to get away with the player having no goddamn idea what to do, I can’t help but think that this approach simply would not work for most games. I mean, the narrative experience here is only a few hours long -with very little replayability since the game forces you to do everything before revealing the ending- and most of the time we like a good, long, drawn-out story.
At the end of the day, the game is a momentous experience and a refreshingly hardcore and artistic take on the mystery/puzzle genre with the prettiest scenery I’ve ever seen in a video game to boot. But it also shows why we have handholding in most video games. Because left to our own devices, gamers are just too different and free-spirited to be confined to a proper narrative without any rails. We’re liable to just spin our wheels and spend all day looking for glitches and exploits or marveling at a particularly pretty effect where the sun shines through the leaves of a tree over a lovely lake. Some RPGs go so far as to provide mini-maps with little breadcrumb trails to make sure we don’t get lost and end up on the wrong side of the map having forgotten completely what we were even doing. Given my spectacular talent for getting lost, I actually appreciate this at times.
A lot of gamers don’t have the free time they once had, and they want to wring every last drop of awesome out of a game in the minumum amount of time. This can lead to a lot of frustration when you don’t know where to go or what to do. Hours spent backtracking in the days of the old school led to memorable triumphs in games like The Legend of Zelda when you finally found that dungeon you were looking for, but modern gaming has become less aimed at kids on summer vacation with countless hours to spend on nothing and more accomodating to the adults who grew up gaming and now don’t have the spare time to fully appreciate the joys of hardcore gaming because the investment is more than they can afford and the sustained stress now outweighs the joy of discovery.
Like I said, Ethan Carter‘s small size accomodates this style of gaming, but I wonder if there isn’t a fair balance where maybe we don’t need an in-game breadcrumb trail to follow, but at the same time the game can make its expectations a little more clear. I can’t deny that the indie game’s “fuck you, figure it out” approach wasn’t a bold and interesting stroke in a game with plenty to recommend it, but at the same time it could have and should have been done a bit better.
Gamers have long lamented the non-interactivity of the cutscenes that most AAA games use to advance their narratives. Reducing the player’s control and essentally forcing them to watch short films in between gaming segments to understand the narrative is something that the industry should probably start moving away from. Aping film and television is only going to hold interactive entertainment back as the medium strives for further player immersion.
Ethan Carter has that much right, with most of the story presented as flashbacks obtained by examining evidence and reconstructing the scenes, which then play out in the environment as you look on. There’s no HUD in real life, no dissembodied voice telling you what to do, no waypoints telling you where to go, and nothing to tell you when you’ve finished a task and it’s time to move on. So if we want a more realistic and organic-feeling experience, eliminating some of these tropes is a good place to start.
But at the same time, you don’t want to miss out on the best moments in the story. How can you know a player won’t look away or be digging through the in-game trash looking for loot when something awesome happens if we don’t have cutscenes? And with a massive open world, how will players know what to do or where to go without waypoints and whatnot? There’s got to be a fair balance between realistic immersion with minimal handholding and practical playability that allows everybody to get the most out of the experience.
This brings to mind the Half-Life and Bioshock series’, which seem to me to be a good starting point. Aside from maybe aiming your POV for you to catch some great cinematic story moments, these games trend heavily towards letting the player experience the game and story in-game on their own terms through their own eyes. They tell you what to do, and then they more or less let you go about it. Other characters have expositionary conversations and character building moments as you look on, and you are there to witness them from your character’s perspective rather than watching a series of short films about them after being pulled out of the gameplay.
Combining this with Ethan Carter‘s approach towards open world puzzle solving where all of the elements are simply out there in the in-game world waiting for you to discover them (or not) and figure out how they all piece together would make for a pretty immersive experience, providing the game finds a way to let you know that you’ve still got things to do before you have to backtrack through the entire game looking for something you missed. Then again, providing consequences for the things that were missed, like a less-satisfying ending, could increase replayability and encourage the player to try again and get it right.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is definintely an interesting experiment in open world gaming that brings up a lot of questions about which way gaming should trend. Maybe getting rid of all that extraneous information and letting the player explore the landscape the same way we would in real life is the wave of the future.