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Video Game / The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an Environmental Narrative Game by The Astronauts (who consists of former People Can Fly staff). In 1973, the paranormal investigator Paul Prospero receives a fan letter from 12-year old Ethan Carter, inspiring him to journey to Ethan's hometown of Red Creek Valley, Wisconsin. Upon arrival, he learns that the town has been abandoned for well over a decade after a mine collapse killed off its economy. Furthermore, the Carter family's house had recently burned down in a fire, leaving no survivors.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is set in an open world environment, in which the player can roam around and explore at will. The player can use paranormal abilities in order to solve crimes and puzzles, such as sensing where important objects are located and reassembling the timeline of events tied to a certain death.

The game was released on PC on September 26, 2014. The game has since been ported to Unreal Engine 4, which allowed its release to the PlayStation 4 on July 15, 2015. This version was also released on the PC under the name The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Redux, and is free to anyone who owns or purchases the original game.

Definitely NOT to be confused with professional wrestler Ethan Carter III.

This game provides examples of:

  • The '70s: The game takes place in 1973.
  • Aborted Arc: Possible In-Universe example; completing the grenade and diver easter egg earns the achievement "Unfinished Story," implying it was something Ethan was developing but dropped. Or couldn't get to finish before he died.
  • Abusive Parents: And uncle. Ethan's mother is remarkably determined to kill him, even compared to the rest of the family. Chad and Missy are verbally abusive to him in real life, too.
  • Alien Geometries: The house next door to the Carters has this as a result of a request/prayer the owner made to some sort of Eldritch Abomination. Specifically, you must recreate the layout of the Carter house in order to access a hidden room in the attic of the other house.
    • A lesser example: You start the game having just came out of a tunnel. If you turn around and walk all the way back through the tunnel, you end up coming out the same side. You also get an achievement for it.
  • Anti-Frustration Features: The Unreal Engine 4 version added some of these to address player complaints. The biggest one would have to be at the very end of the game where you must solve all of Ethan's "story" puzzles to view the ending cutscene (see But Thou Must! below). In the original, you would have to slog all the way back to each of these puzzles and then slog back to the end. In the updated version, you can fast travel from the end of the game to each of these puzzles, and each puzzle has a warp point nearby that will take you right back to the end.
  • Arc Words: "It is time for The Sleeper to wake up". The Sleeper is eventually revealed to be a dying Ethan.
  • Big Brother Bully: Ethan's big brother acts like a jerk towards Ethan throughout the game, even before his family starts losing their minds.
  • Body Surf: The Sleeper moves from body to body.
  • Bond Villain Stupidity: For people who really want Ethan dead, the Carters have trouble using more efficient methods and instead try to use some death traps like tying him to railway tracks and sealing him in a crypt with brick and mortar. Can be justified by how the Sleeper is woken by suffering, thus the desire to give Ethan a painful death, and the fact that it's all in Ethan's head anyway.
  • But Thou Must!: Ethan's story missions all appear to be optional and a fair share of them are very easy to miss unless you explore thoroughly, but the game won't let you access the ending until you've completed all of them.
  • Chekhov's Gun: One of the items which needs to be located at the cemetery (the location being a Foreshadowing in itself) is a broken oil lamp. An accident with one of these is what causes Ethan to become trapped in the burning room.
  • Creepy Crows: Multiple times throughout, often heard cawing throughout Red Creek Valley, and several of them even for a ritual.
  • Death Is the Only Option: Ethan's father kills himself in an attempt to weaken the Sleeper.
  • Demonic Possession: The Sleeper befalls all family members save Ethan.
  • Downer Ending: Arguably. The game has an open-ended structure, but the end of the game has Ethan locked inside the burning building. It is not clear what happens afterwards.
  • Dying Dream: Ethan's last story comes to him during his death at 7:05 PM at the Vandergiff house.
  • Dying Town: Red Creek Valley has been abandoned for well over a decade after a mine collapse killed off its economy.
    Paul Prospero: No trains had been through here for a long time. That was part of a pattern. Large pieces of this country were thrown away, doomed to become, and then remain, the worst versions of themselves. Beneath all that rot, dark things grow.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Several, in fact:
    • The main plot makes frequent allusions to something called "The Sleeping One", an entity that appears to have enthralled Ethan's family, who now wish to turn him into a sacrifice.
    • The mine-sidequests culminates with you summoning one, putting you face to face with an enormous tentacled underwater creature.
    • Somewhat subverted, however, when it's revealed that both of the above examples stem from Ethan's imagination.
  • Evil Matriarch: Missy, Ethan's mother, is the one most hell-bent on sacrificing Ethan to The Sleeping One. This may be because she accidentally set the fire in the house.
  • Fantasy Americana: Red Creek Valley has an unnatural vibe to it, being an abandoned mining town in the American Midwest where supernatural phenomena occurs. Subverted however when it turns out that there are apparently no actual fantasy elements; the entire game is just Ethan's Dying Dream.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: In the final Cut Scene, Ethan is told to stop being Mr. Imagination by his brother and uncle. The father doesn't comment negatively about his vivid fantasies which grants him a Heroic Suicide in Ethan's Dying Dream.
  • Foreshadowing: Any Genre Savvy player will know that Prospero's statement about this being his One Last Job can only mean doom.
    • The newspaper article about the fire at the Vandergriff house at the very beginning of the game foreshadows the conclusion.
    • The Steam badges you get for solving the deaths of Ethan's family are named after the five stages of grief in the Kübler-Ross model in chronological order of their deaths, foreshadowing that someone there is dying throughout the events of the game.
  • Gorn: Ethan's older brother, Travis, gets both of his legs graphically severed by a rail-car.
  • Guide Dang It!:
    • Whenever you need to find an object to finish a scene, a bunch of copies of the word will flutter about the screen. What's not immediately apparent is that if you look around, eventually the words will coalesce into one, at which point you're given a mouse prompt to show a vision of its location.
    • An optional Easter Egg involving a sniper rifle. It's not mentioned or implied it exists anywhere in the game and you would have to be the world's best guesser to figure it out without help. it involves finding a pinecone near the woods where you chase the astronaut, and the pinecone turns into a grenade. Then you throw it off the bridge at a specific spot and find the body of a scuba diver below the dam. Near him is a sniper rifle. After you pick it up the diver's body turns into a piece of driftwood.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Ed, Ethan's grandfather, lets himself burn to death to allow Ethan access to the Vandergriff Mansion's inner sanctum.
  • Heroic Suicide: When cornered by an axe-wielding Travis, Dale, Ethan's father, kills himself with a pair of scissors to avoid falling under the The Sleeping One's thrall, and make him stronger.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: The Sea-Thing, Gnaiih. The giant monster, resemblant of HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu, emerges from a portal in a mine and submerges the world.
  • Lovecraft Country: Though the game is set in Wisconsin, Red Creek Valley could fit right into Lovecraft's New England; it's a small isolated mining town set in a picturesque autumn landscape, quiet and ordinary on the outside, but dark and foreboding on the inside.
  • The Maze: The mine maze, featuring the cursed miner.
  • Nested Story Reveal: Towards the end, when we learn that everything going on before was a Dying Dream by Ethan.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The game has this vibe; nothing in the game will actually harm you (even the single enemy will just boot you back to the entrance of his domain and let you try again), but the environment is entirely abandoned, eerily quiet, and extremely realistic, which makes wandering the valley quite unsettling and creepy.
  • Occult Detective: Player Character Paul Prospero.
  • One Last Job: Early on Prospero states that this will be his last job before retirement.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Both Ethan's older brother and uncle routinely call him a "faggot" for being so invested in writing stories.
  • Portal Door: There is a puzzle where you enter a house, and a portal appears on each door which lead you to a room in another house. There, each door is substituted by a similar portal, where you can change the destination. Your task is to reconstruct the correct layout.
  • Posthumous Character: Just about the entire cast, not once during the entire game does Prospero encounter a living person, the entire plot plays out through Paul "sensing" flashbacks of their murders. Ethan appears to be the only survivor but this is subverted come the ending; in reality everybody but him is quite alive and well, Ethan had only imagined their deaths as part of Prospero's story.
  • Save Point: There is no save function in the game. You start over from designated areas.
  • Scenery Gorn: The game is set in an abandoned Ghost Town which is a scene of a series of murders.
  • Scenery Porn: One of the most successful examples of it and arguably the most prominent feature of the game, the scenery is consistently stunning throughout and the valley in the latter half in particular is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The developers used photogrammetry to make the environments and foliage as realistic as possible.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Ethan had released a malevolent spirit known as the Sleeper when discovering the secret room.
  • Shear Menace: Ethan's father uses a pair of scissors to commit his Heroic Suicide.
  • Sherlock Scan: Prospero demonstrates this ability when examining crime scenes, with white text popping up providing insight and ideas about how the death occurred. This ability is noticeably flummoxed by Ed's burnt and thus mostly featureless corpse, with most of the scans coming back with "..."
  • Stopped Clock: All of the clocks in the town are stuck at 7:00, which is what time it is on Ethan's digital clock when the house starts burning and Ethan starts imagining Paul Prospero's story. In the post-game, the clocks move to 7:04, the same time that Ethan wakes up from his Dying Dream. The one at the train stop is set at 7:05, the same time that Ethan dies.
  • Tomato in the Mirror: The end reveals that Paul Prospero is Ethan's last story, conjured by the latter to solve the mystery of his own death. Paul, however, seems to be accepting of it, almost as if he has been aware from the start.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Red Creek Valley.
  • Unexpected Gameplay Change:
  • The Unfavorite: Ethan, at least to his mom, once the Sleeper gets to her. Chad and Missy are both verbally abusive to Ethan and implicitly condone, if not outright encourage, Travis' bullying. The "Witch Forest" story implies that Missy tells Ethan she wishes she'd never had him so often that she wrote him an apology card to spare herself the inconvenience of actually apologizing to him.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Ethan unwittingly unleashes the Sleeper.
  • The X of Y: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.
  • Your Mind Makes It Real: Ethan has the power to make whatever he writes become reality. At least he does in the story you are playing, which Ethan is writing in his head as he dies in the burning house. The real Ethan doesn't actually have this power as revealed by the ending cutscene.