“Ethan’s letter started out just like any other fan mail, but soon there were mentions of things no little boy should know about.” An old railway through a dark tunnel, a bluish portal, and a muddy forest trail. Grass and branches swinging in the gentle wind. Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective, receives a letter with a strange call for help from a missing child by the name of Ethan Carter. His latest case begins here.

Red Creek Valley and the joy of exploring

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was developed by The Astronauts and released in September 2014. It is a first-person mystery game with thriller and horror elements. The player takes the role of Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective investigating among the mountains of a fictional location in Wisconsin, the Red Creek Valley. The game is the debut project of the Polish indie developers, yet it proves to be technically impeccable.

The creators manage to capture mood with both remarkable graphic detail and visual impact. From the look of a river through wide grassy fields to the crack on a rock on the side of a trail, everything is extremely polished. The Astronauts used photogrammetry, a 3D-modeling technique with which to create photorealistic environmental assets from high-resolution photos taken in the real world; Star Wars Battlefront and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice are two other examples of games whereby it was used.

It’s a delight to explore the game world thanks to the game’s attention to detail. In addition, lighting cues and a disquieting soundtrack help create a twisted atmosphere. Both in style and aesthetic, the game is reminiscent of other first-person adventure games like What Remains of Edith Finch, Dear Esther or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Loading screens are completely absent from the game as well: from beginning to end the player takes a long, uninterrupted walk through the Red Creek Valley.

On the trail of a missing kid on the other side of reality

“When the police won’t help you, and the priests don’t believe you, you call on Paul Prospero. You call on me.”

The game shows its supernatural side from the very beginning of the story. The inspiration from characters like Dylan Dog and Martin Mystère is clear, but from the first case, the player understands that Paul has something more: psychic powers. The protagonist runs through a series of hand-crafted traps hidden by dry leaves. Clue after clue, the detective recreates the scene, thus being able to see what happened thanks to his magical abilities.

The clues in the game appear as a series of little blue lights on the ground. When the player interacts with these clues, still, frozen visions of a moment in time that occurred during the crime appear. It is the detective’s job to rearrange the pieces of the puzzle to find the truth. As the game progresses, a disturbing situation is slowly revealed. The player finds crime scenes with bodies, bloody objects, and macabre rites. The perpetrators of these crimes are always the Carters. The pleasant Red Creek Valley that now frames the horrific events now seems increasingly desolate and motionless.

“The Magician”, “SAP”, and other stories

During the game, Paul finds several short stories written by Ethan Carter as crumbled pieces of paper. Initially they seem like regular collectibles, but as the case unfolds their importance appears more clear. During the past dialogues that Paul can perceive, the Carter family frequently orders Ethan to stop leaving these stories lying around.

Ethan has grown up in a hostile environment where every type of creative thinking was suppressed. The art of Ethan has become his refuge, a melancholic, fairy-tail reflection of reality. “SAP” tells the story of an old man in the woods, quenching his thirst with tree sap. Another story is about a magician who makes potions that allow him to see the future. In both cases they turn out to be a fantastical interpretation of Ethan’s reality, as confirmed by clippings of newspaper articles found nearby. The old man represents Ethan’s grandfather and his drinking problem, while the magician is actually Ethan’s uncle, who ran a distillery producing and smuggling alcohol.

Ethan and the value of art

This is the behavior that underlines the life of an artist. Exorcising the pain in an environment where he feels an alien by creating another one with his art. At the end of the adventure, the player understands Ethan’s cry for help. The profound need to find someone to understand and free him. Detective Paul Prospero, wandering around the Red Creek Valley, investigating him, studying his stories, is the first person who appreciates Ethan Carter for who he really was, without fear or incomprehension. The only thing an artist needs.