"This game is a narrative experience that will not hold your hand" states a title card at the beginning of Ethan Carter, and it's not fucking kidding. After arriving at the sleepy (read: ominous) Red Creek Valley, invited by the eponymous character himself to solve the paranormal mysteries that haunt the town, it's essentially up to you in which order you solve the game's eight or so connected cases. There's no HUD, no waypoint, no follow the man: it doesn't so much as not hold your hand as drop you off in the woods and tell you to work it out yourself. What follows is a beautiful game, albeit one that can be hideously frustrating in the early going as you find your feet. Or, more accurately, someone else's.
Red Creek Valley is an industrial town comprised of dense woodland, a dam, a few houses, a cemetery and a mine, among others, and it's in these locations that players (as supernaturally attuned Detective Paul Prospero) have to deduce just what happened to make Ethan's extended family lose their shit and start murdering each other. Prospero solves the crimes by finding evidence dotted around the general scene: when enough puzzle pieces have been accrued, Prospero can 'touch' the deceased to reveal images of the victim and perpetrator in various stages of the act. It's then up to the player to arrange these in chronological order to visualise the killing and move the story forward.
It's an interesting system, and one that asks you to think logically, which of course is rather the point when playing a game about a detective. It provides the mechanical backbone to what is also an incredibly alluring game, one that wraps you into its world easily and skillfully. There's an uneasy beauty about the dilapidated houses and dense woods of Red Creek, with its permanent if muted sunshine, and the game coaxes players through expertly, providing just the right amount of dread when necessary. One moment, which I won't spoil, genuinely unnerved me in its easy combination of idyllic setting and surreal occurrences. (It also made me think that this engine would make for a great Blair Witch game. And then I remembered it wasn't 2000.)
The downside to Ethan Carter's free-roaming, hands-off, non-linear storytelling is that occasionally it can needlessly obfuscate important clues. A lot of this is due to how good the game actually looks - it can be difficult to discern important elements against the backdrop they're hidden in. One example, attempting to find a hidden entrance to a mine, has already caused at least a third of the internet to melt with fury. Sometimes, I found myself having missed crucial information in the form of NPC dialogue and, with no notebook or questlog (that I could see, at any rate) was left wandering aimlessly, recreating the old pixel-sweep of bygone adventure games. At one point, I had to draw my own map of something, which I must admit was oddly engaging.
Update: You can repeat the dialogue, but only by going back to the scene and visualising it again, which is a bit frustrating.
Despite these issues, Ethan Carter has an undeniable draw. It's best to experience the story, which can be approached in the order of your choosing, fresh, but it's no spoiler to say that the game makes intriguing (if, sadly, telegraphed about midway through) use of a narrative that could have been utterly pretentious.
Cribbing from mystery novels, Lovecraft etc, these influences may have led The Astronauts to merely fall back on tired old tropes and be done with it. Instead there's a nice level of invention and reason to the interlocking - and at times bizarre and impossible - family tragedies that occur. Clocking in at around 3-4 hours of play if you want to see it all (and get lost in the woods for a while), it's easy to forgive Ethan Carter's various failings when the story's conclusion rolls around.
After years of playing games that tell you to - no, insist upon - doing things in a certain way ('Follow the man! 'Return to the mission zone!', 'Obey, peasant!') Ethan Carter's hands-off attitude is admirable. It will also no doubt infuriate those raised on a steady diet of tool-tipping and checkpointing, friendly developers ushering you through lovely worlds as quickly as possible. It is entirely possible to miss the first set of puzzles: I did, and also had a phone call from a friend, near-insane with frustration, wondering what to do next.
This is, of course, the point. The game sets out its stall with a message that seems more like a warning the longer you play. It's commendable that The Astronauts thought that players would be able to put the pieces together themselves, and having the freedom to roam around solving crimes like a Countryfile Sherlock Holmes is enjoyable.
But I still can't help but think that the game would have better served with the first (encountered, you can complete the cases in any order) mystery being just a tiny bit more obvious - I literally stumbled across the solution. I'm not saying that the game should have a glowing arrow or any of that noise. But it is entirely possible to miss vital clues, which are needed to unlock the next round of evidence. There's difficult, and then there's maddening, and sometimes Ethan Carter tips too far towards the former.
That said, after getting used to the game's rhythm I enjoyed every minute. Very few developers give players the opportunity to use their own initiative, and although Carter isn't perfect, watching it all come together as it does - from your own work - makes all the frustration worth it in the end.