When the main character of your story goes by a moniker like Paul Prospero, you should expect some strangeness from the time you spend with it. While Vanishing keeps up it’s end of the bargain in this respect, along with an immaculately created environment to explore at (usually) your own pace, it starts to unwind towards the end seemingly not able to keep up with the tale it is weaving.
Our lead arrives in the town Red Creek Valley looking for the eponymous Ethan Carter, a young boy who has been writing him letters about the strange goings on in his town. When the letters dry up, Prospero decides to pay him a visit. Very quickly things go south, as he finds the body of a recently killed member of the town. Luckily enough, Prospero’s ability to look into the past by touching objects involved in an event suit this situation just fine, and so begins his investigation into the bizarre goings on in the town.
Parsing the “game” part of Vanishing out from the experience for a second, this was almost the detective game I have always wanted to see. Upon arrival at the scene of some unfortunate event, various parts of the environment are highlighted with text descriptions hovering above them, prompting for investigation. After obliging, it starts to emit Prospero’s thoughts, evoking the modern BBC Sherlock in it’s presentation. Fresh Corpse? Undisturbed Surroundings? Looks…calm? After some groundwork in putting the scene back to it’s original state, Prospero witnesses the crime as it happened and is tasked with putting the scenes in the order they occurred, a task that involves equal use of observation and frustrating guesswork. Once the scene has played out, it normally leaves some kind of clue behind for where to go next.
On top of the detective work scattered throughout the town there are various strange events that Prospero will come across, normally by walking into them by accident. In these events the worlds of the real and no-so-real bleed into each other, creating a dreamlike feel where your never quite sure what is coming next. While no two are the same, they vary equally in quality of execution. Some of the more simple ones are also the best, while the more elaborate scenarios just infuriate more than entertain. A particularly poor section in a mine caused me to immediately reach for GameFAQs due to the combination of obvious solution and infuriating mechanics and implementation.
When faced with an experience such as this, your investment is totally in the narrative. In this respect, Vanishing starts promising and then completely fails to stick the landing. If you have played enough games of this style, you can probably guess the ending a good hour before it arrives, but it’s what the game asks of you in it’s final sections that is the ultimately disappointing part. What starts as a seemingly huge environment that allows for exploration on your own time, with rewards for the dedicated explorer, actually comes back to bite players who have not been thorough. There are 5 “scenes” that need to be…well…seen before the game will reveal it’s conclusion, which are scattered all over the town, including a difficult to spot event at the very start of the game. This potentially requires an enormous amount of backtracking, completely ruining the atmosphere that it has sought to create up to that point.
When I finally got to see the ending, it seemed almost forced. Despite being a cool scene visually, the conclusion doesn’t do much more than the twist you probably saw coming, leaving you with more unanswered questions than is probably healthy. While I don’t always expect an experience like this to tie everything together neatly and close the book every time, I do expect for the characters involved to have had some kind of evolution, for there to have been a point in the last three hours. Vanishing utterly fails to do that. Unless there is another level of interpretation that the game failed to reveal or hint at, I was left immensely unsatisfied, and without a good justification for feeling as such.
It’s important to say that the atmosphere Vanishing creates is astounding, while it lasts. Red Creek Valley is a location that feels infected by a pathogen that you can’t see, hear, or feel. There is clear evidence of life, but it’s quality or duration is unknown. Not since Last of Us have I seen a place so believably dilapidated and ripped from the arms of those who lived there. The environment seems to go on to the horizon, while keeping you within it’s invisible walls with some clever smoke and mirrors.
Vanishing has a number of great ideas, and is phenomenally successful at creating a location that feels like it has been stumbled across. The mystery holds up for about half of the 2-3 hour play time, and then starts to fall over itself trying to find a way to wrap up all the strangeness you have witnessed up to this point. It left me with a profound feeling of ennui, completely lacking in profound conclusion or progression of the characters involved. Perhaps this was the intent, but if so then everything up to that point might as well not have happened. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is something you should play, preferably in one sitting, and preferably ready to accept the lacklustre final section.