Dark visions cloud The Astronauts’ open-world crime thriller, The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter
Publisher/developer: The Astronauts Format: PC Origin: Poland Release: 2014
There’s blood splattered across the front of the railcar we find abandoned on a rickety bridge over a lake. As we draw near, the word ‘Inspect’ hovers over the mess, and selecting it fills our vision with a swarm of observations: ‘Fresh blood’, ‘Human?’, ‘Few days?’ and then, ‘Clean ground…’ There’s no further exposition, leaving you to conclude that, whether it’s the result of an accident or foul play, the incident must have happened elsewhere. Developer The Astronauts is particularly proud of the light touch with which it has implemented its 3D interface, and it has complete faith in you, too.
“Voiceovers are the wrong way to go about it, because we trust the players,” game designer Adrian Chmielarz tells us. “You can see that there is blood, and that it’s a railcar, and it’s not really that hard to figure out what happened here. And, yes, some players might miss the fact that there is no blood on the ground, so it probably happened elsewhere, but people that care and pay attention will be more rewarded.”
It’s a setup The Astronauts hopes will allow players to more easily inhabit the skin of Paul Prospero, letting them play detective rather than simply controlling one. It’s still rough in form, and will be refined over the coming months, but Chmielarz is confident that the studio has struck the right balance between what he describes as “intrusive narration”, which disrupts immersion, and leaving players to their own devices.
The Astronauts’ 3D interface abandons crosshairs and any kind of HUD in favour of floating verbs and nouns, highlighted simply by focusing on them. It’s an elegant system.
“Originally, we did it the old-school way,” Chmielarz explains. “You approached an item, clicked Examine and the hero commented. But the comment cannot be directly about what is on the screen. As a player, you see some severed legs, and if the hero says, ‘It’s severed legs,’ then even with some extra words for flavour, that’s just redundant. If the comment reveals more info, a connection that the player might have missed – for example, ‘Severed legs… I should go back to the railcar and take blood samples’ – then that’s leading the player and turning them into a FedEx puppet. Not to mention that at this point the hero and the player are supposed to have exactly the same knowledge of the world. If the hero knows more, that’s breaking the fourth wall and exposing the designer/director. And if the comment is just for extra flavour, then this is a dialogue between the player and the character. But the hero and you, the player, are supposed to be one and the same entity! There shouldn’t be any dialogue between the two of you.”
Prospero won’t be silent like Gordon Freeman, but his voice will be restricted to ambient narration. “Like the narrator in Bastion,” Chmielarz explains, “if the narrator himself was the hero and talked only during idle or super-crucial moments.” The point is that the narration will never intrude on your ability to draw your own conclusions. Chmielarz hopes that some players will go even further and attempt to analyse clues and objects themselves, only clicking Inspect to see if they missed something.
Right next to the blood on the railcar is a slot for a crank handle, but the tool we need is missing. This provides an opportunity to try out another of Prospero’s powers of deduction, although this one is less grounded in reality. Once the slot is inspected, multiple instances of the word ‘Crank’ float about near the centre of the screen, getting farther apart or closer together depending on which way Prospero turns. Once they overlap, the word glows yellow and you know you’re facing in the right direction. You can then hold the Vision button to see the object in question. It could be nearby or farther away, but clues can be gleaned from these brief glimpses. The crank is next to water during this particular vision, for example, so now we know the general direction to travel in, and to head down to the edge of the lake below the bridge.
This memory reveals that the victim who lost his legs had previously tied Ethan to the railway. Whether he intended to harm the victim or was simply a creative bully is unclear at this stage.
This ability is a manifestation of Prospero’s supernatural intuition, which enables him to tune into the memories of the dead. A distance down the railway line, two severed legs lie on the sleepers, and following the trail of blood along a path leads to the corresponding mutilated body of a teenage boy. An option to sync with the boy’s memories appears when we look at the body, but something isn’t right and it can’t be activated. Prospero’s power, it turns out, relies on all the pieces of the puzzle to be where they were before an incident took place, and solving this problem constitutes much of The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter’s gameplay.
There are other clues nearby: a length of rope that’s partially tied to the railway line, a bloodied rock, a canister of fuel and a patch of dry vegetation found a short way away. In the current build, inspecting the dead grass triggers a ghostly blue vision of the railcar in its original position, but The Astronauts is still deciding whether or not to keep this transparent hint system in place.
A subtler system that will definitely stay is the automatic tagging of objects and clues that you find, a word or two hovering just above each new object. It’s an effective visual metaphor for Prospero’s increasing understanding of a crime scene, and sidesteps the break in immersion that checking a list in a notebook would surely bring about.
Once you think you’ve found all the relevant evidence and returned everything you can to where it was (we replace the bloodied rock in a pile of stones and reverse the railcar back to the dead grass after a short search for the crank at the lake’s edge), it’s possible to sync with the strongest memories of the corpse. Blue wisps float out from the body towards crime scene ‘hotspots’, and more blue visions appear, each one playing out a few seconds of the events that transpired before the person’s death.
The patch of dead grass suggests that the rail car spent some time here before it was moved. An upended fuel can rests just next to it, too. You’re free to ignore all of this and explore the world, however.
Watching each one adds them to your own memories, which can be accessed at any time. Do so and they float in front of you without pausing the game, alongside the option to visualise the crime. But now your task is to establish the order in which they happened – a vision in which the boy is crawling away from his severed limbs can’t precede one in which he is walking, for instance. Get it right and you’ll see the crime play out in full, before all those wisps float back to the corpse, creating its first memory as a ghost. This in turn floats to a new location, and by following it you’ll see one final vision, which will provide a hint as to where to go next.
The severed-legs crime is the first you’ll encounter, taking place five minutes into the game, but it’s nonetheless an elaborate, tiered puzzle. The Astronauts is remaining tight-lipped on how many mysteries the final game will contain, or how much of the large, fully explorable world later conundrums will cover. But we’re already itching to delve deeper into Ethan Carter’s macabre tale.