Every other Tuesday, Humble Bundle brings out a brand new bundle of discounted video games for interested players. Featuring sharp discounts that can amount to several hundred dollars saved, new bundles are popular offerings in the gaming community. Now, the Humble Unreal Engine Bundle has officially launched, featuring a variety of new and old Unreal titles available on the Humble Bundle store.
I’m dumb; the Internet has ruined my ability to think critically and solve puzzles.
This is basically how I felt while playing The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The sad part is, 12-year-old me would have cruised through this game I beat Riven “almost” entirely on my own, and that game had some ridiculous and incredibly difficult puzzles. I tried playing its predecessor Myst recently, and gave up just after half an hour. Well before YouTube walkthroughs, gaming forums, and a simple Google search, people were often forced to keep a little notepad to jot down notes, symbols, and random bits of information in order to, you know, actually use their brain to figure out what to do and where to go next.
So congratulations to The Astronauts studio, you’ve made me use my brain again—and it was a humbling experience.
In The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, you play as Prospero, a detective who specializes in the paranormal who has been tasked with unraveling the mystery behind the titular character’s enigmatic departure from reality. You begin the game by emerging onto some abandoned railroad tracks, and from there you can go wherever you like in whatever order you prefer. This freedom is lovely at first, when you’re just walking around exploring things, but if you’re used to even remotely linear gameplay, you may find it frustrating to constantly trek back and forth searching for a clue you missed. The eeriness of the world in Ethan Carter will occasionally fall to the wayside when tunnel vision takes over during a puzzle.
On the other hand, this freedom is important, because you’ll definitely want to spend some time just soaking up the atmosphere. Despite the often-downgraded ports we’re used to receiving here in the console ghetto, Ethan Carter retains its absolutely stunning visuals. From the bucolic (yet still unsettling) forest to the dungeon crawler-esque mines, the game touts sharp visuals and stunning lighting. Framerate is never really an issue with this game as there aren’t multiple characters, combat, or particle effects to eat up memory and slow everything down. Ethan Carter takes a deliberately slow pace, for obvious reasons, and thus never has the chance to get clogged up and slow right down.
As far as sound goes there’s nothing to complain about; the music won’t blow your mind, but does a decent job of increasing and decreasing tension and emotion as needed. The game’s sound design really shines with the little things: creaking wood, rustling leaves, the soft thump of footsteps in an abandoned building. What’s important though, for a game that’s based entirely on the unraveling of a story, is the voice acting. Most of the game’s story is told through flashbacks as Prospero solves puzzles and puts the pieces together, and despite never actually interacting with anyone, you get a feel for the characters and the events that went down in this small Wisconsin town.
For most people with half a brain and a bit of patience, or several other major qualities I lack, the game can be finished at a comfortable pace in 4-6 hours. If you’re like me, it might take a bit longer, especially if you’re one of those types that prefer to take their time and absorb the atmosphere. I’ve heard complaints that a $20 price tag might be too high for a game this short, and there’s pretty much zero replay value, but the production is super tight and the visuals are impressive enough to let that slide. If you like atmospheric puzzle games, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pick this up if you missed out on the PC release last year.
I recently reviewed Kholat, a horror/adventure game that wasn’t particularly successful at telling its story or scaring the player.
I love October. I love the weather, the colours on the trees, and, most of all, Hallowe’en. To celebrate this most spooky of holidays I’ll be discussing topics related to horror each week of the month in a series of articles called . . . OCTERROR!
This article discusses key plot points from both The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Among the Sleep. Please don’t read on if you’re wary of spoilers for either game.
It’s easy to forget just how scary everyday things can be from a child’s perspective. When we’re young and don’t yet have the tools to make much sense of our worries and fears, the world can appear to be a truly terrifying place. The kind of unpleasantness that most of us are able to brush off as adults—being yelled at by a family member or watching a loved one change under the pressure of stress—take on greater dimensions for kids. It grows to monstrous proportions, intermingling with a naïve, magically infused view of the world to turn into something unthinkably horrible. This mixture of innocence and trauma snowballs into an overwhelming sort of fear that is almost impossible for adults to remember experiencing. It’s no wonder that videogames seeking to recreate these memories are so often tinged with horror.
In The Astronauts’ The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a detective investigates a series of murders apparently spurred on by paranormal forces. In the course of exploring the mountain village where these crimes have taken place, he encounters surreal visions that ultimately reveal themselves to be the product of Ethan Carter’s—a frightened child who feels out of place within his family—active imagination. In one instance the detective chases an astronaut through the woods and ascends to Earth’s atmosphere in a spaceship. Once the daydream finishes he finds a science fiction magazine that Ethan has been reading. This magazine serves as fodder for his imagination to create an exaggerated version of his desire to escape his dreary family life. In a more frightening example of the same idea, the story sees Ethan’s verbally abusive uncle depicted as someone who’s plotting to murder the boy and hide his body in a crypt as part of a sinister sacrificial ritual. Ethan’s love of pulp horror stories mixes with his unease around an overbearing family member to turn an insensitive uncle into an occult-minded killer. While Ethan Carter isn’t always the scariest (or most well-executed) game around, its portrayal of the potency of childhood terror is an uniquely effective take on both the horror genre and coming-of-age stories in general.
Krillbite Studios’ Among the Sleep is an even more intensely focused take on this concept. In it, players assume the role of a two-year-old boy who awakens in the middle of the night and sets out across his darkened house hoping to find his mother. Accompanied by a talking teddy bear, the boy finds the ordinary dimensions of his home turned surreally threatening. Raincoats become looming monsters; closets become confusing mazes. By the end of the story, the player discovers that the toddler protagonist’s fears revolve around the erratic behaviour of his single mother, someone who’s struggling with an alcohol problem, a difficult divorce, and the stresses of raising a child on her own. Rather than provide this information outright, Krillbite filters the narrative through the imagination of a two-year-old, making the kind of emotional trauma that an adult can accept at face value take on grotesque and horrific proportions. The anger and drinking that makes the boy’s mother frightening mixes with the fairy tale book he’s familiar with to turn her into a horrendous witch; his father’s lack of involvement in the boy’s life means that the man becomes an enormous, shadow-faced stranger when viewed from a child’s perspective. Of course, a two-year-old can’t understand why his mother—someone who is ordinarily a source of love and comfort—can become so frightening out of nowhere, so in his head she becomes an outsized, overtly menacing monster.
Both Among the Sleep and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter attempt to visualize the manner by which children break down emotional trauma in their attempts to make sense of it. The decision by both studios to explore this idea through horror makes a lot of sense when we try to remember just what it was like to deal with these kinds of issues as kids. Our youth is characterized primarily by naivety and unfettered imagination. When good things happen to a child—a birthday party or holiday celebration—they seem incredibly wonderful for this reason. (Can a birthday ever be better than it was when we were four or five?) When the opposite happens—when the world becomes a confusing, hostile place—the results can be overwhelmingly terrifying. By exploring the former viewpoint, Among the Sleep and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter offer two of the most unique takes on horror in recent memory.
Love horror? Pick up the Horror Issue of CGM.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens with a line of text telling players that the game they’re about to play is more concerned with providing a “narrative experience” than in holding their hand. This is a statement of intent that is as worrying as it is intriguing. On one hand, a game so upfront about its desire to emphasize its story over everything else hints at a level of pride in the quality of that story. On the other, it also arrogantly asks its audience to embrace whatever they’re about to get into on the developer’s terms—to trust that any confusion they might experience due to a lack of overt structure is intended as part of the experience. This involves a level of trust that developer The Astronauts doesn’t always earn.
Ethan Carter follows the (wonderfully named) Paul Prospero on his search for a young boy who has mysteriously disappeared. Prospero arrives at Red Creek Valley, the rural village where that boy—the game’s namesake, Ethan—and his family live, only to find evidence that a series of gruesome murders has taken place in and around the Carter’s abandoned home. The game’s setting is a stunning creation that immediately draws players into its world. Red Creek Valley’s dense forests, river-filled canyons, and Bavarian-styled mansions are rendered in exceptional detail. The impressive visuals are coupled with rich sound design and a haunting, plaintive soundtrack to create an absorbing (and eerie) atmosphere almost immediately upon taking control of Prospero. Though not a horror game in the traditional sense, Ethan Carter is filled with intriguing tension and the disquieting sense that things have gone horribly wrong.
As superb as the experience of simply exploring the game’s environments is, unravelling the plot’s mystery isn’t very enjoyable. The fundamental issue is in how Ethan Carter drip feeds new discoveries through its navigation-based puzzles. Red Creek Valley is a large place and the clues necessary to fill in the game’s back story can be located just about anywhere. Finding the entrance to a mine shaft or the rock that was used as a murder weapon may involve carefully scrubbing through the seemingly endless bushes of a forest with no ready landmarks to serve as reference points. Too often, figuring out how to progress the game—to keep the momentum that its story sometimes gathers—is a frustrating process that feels like searching out a needle from a haystack. It’s possible to miss sections entirely, only to be forced to seek them out as the plot nears its end and points out what the player missed along the way. In its effort to disguise the artificiality of its game’s setting, The Astronauts have made it far too difficult to engage with it at all. The studio may pride itself on avoiding holding the player’s hand, but the level design isn’t intuitive enough to make this a good thing.
Another issue is that the puzzles based around piecing together the background of the many murders Prospero encounters aren’t satisfying to solve. The reason why one character has killed another—and how they accomplished it—can be pretty easy to figure out once the player has found a few hints and examined the gristly aftermath of a killing. Just the same, it’s necessary to search out every (often very well-hidden) clue in order to trigger the cutscenes re-enacting the crime and, more importantly, fully explaining its motives.
The annoyances of poor puzzles and confusing environmental exploration are unfortunate—Ethan Carter’s story would be a lot easier to appreciate if presented in a different way. The Astronauts provide a solid premise with the game’s plot set-up and an engaging cast of characters in the Carter family, but any potential for sustained suspense is marred by the frequent downtime that aimlessly navigating Red Creek Valley’s expanse entails. Even though the story often entices with its unexpected plot revelations and surprisingly nuanced examination of family life, it also frequently staggers to a halt by refusing to help the player continue to engage with it. It all adds up to make for a profoundly frustrating experience: one that comes so close to being truly exceptional that the problems it suffers from become more irritating than they would be in a less ambitious game. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a shining example of how to create an enthralling atmosphere and a setting that begs to be explored. It’s just too bad that actually interacting with these elements of the game doesn’t live up to their potential.
It’s amazing what you can do with instant noodles and coffee. A mere plastic bag full of empty carbohydrates and salts, when mixed with a sufficient catalyst of caffeine-riddled bean cinders, propels men and women to extraordinary feats of creativity and engineering. Sometimes. Ooh, but if they can afford the kinds that have freeze-dried little pieces of meat flecks in them? With some protein, they’re super extra likely to make something cool.
Screenshot Saturday, a showcase for independent games in development, displays some of these starchy brain-children. The people behind the pictures below probably had the fancy ramen.
Diluvion by Arachnid Games
From the creators of the award-winning and entirely pen-illustrated adventure game Ballpoint Universe comes something entirely different. Diluvion places you in a kind of brass tea kettle or other manner submarine and sets you to exploring the depths of an unnamed abyss. The other inhabitants, of course, are largely unhappy about your presence there. Deep sea torpedo battles and giant crustacean monsters hiding in the darker reaches await.
Karmaflow by Karmaflow
Your run of the mill puzzling, platforming, adventuring fare. Except for the fact it’s also a full-blown rock opera featuring the likes of Dragonforce and Cradle of Filth members as voice talent. These crooning rockstars provide exposition through song as the orchestrated opera progresses according to your decisions. Karmaflow won’t need to be remotely fun to play, I think, to generate a vast amount of interest as it nears completion, but the crew plans to make it enjoyable anyway.
Expect live theater performances to coincide with the release of the game early next year.
Wings of St. Nazaire by Day, Simon, and Hoffman
Retro sensibilities and modern design can be a beautiful pair. Take Wings of St. Nazaire, for example. Howard Day’s baby is a labour for the love of space explosions and science fiction in the vein of Wing Commander and X-Wing. While the other picks for this week might entertain loftier notions of emotion and design concepts, Wings feels remarkably pure.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter by The Astronauts
The founding trio of The Astronauts are, wouldn’t you know it, the same three responsible for founding People Can Fly (Painkiller, Bulletstorm). Their first game under the new moniker is far less enthusiastically violent. This is a “weird fiction” horror tale with wide swathes of landscape that remains completely indifferent to your presence, some psychic insights into murder scenes, and a rather fascinating method of generating realistic game assets from photographs. Expect to wander and explore with nary a firefight in sight.
The team is building a great deal of content and space with no in-game purpose other than to be, but a very explicit external function. Idle content, they posit, does wonders for selling the world and sense of immersion and believability. Details beget credibility, and Ethan Carter packs a lot of detail.
Transmigration by Transhuman Design
Joseph isn’t a happy man. His life is an indistinct blur of company work and sleepless nights. He’s considering transmigrating.
Look at this. Then join the rest of us in wondering what this is all about.