[Spoiler Warning] The following post is a story examination of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. If you have any intention of playing through this game, stop reading at this point.
In my opinion, the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a story about writers for writers. In order to make this examination, we have to look past the initially presented narrative and dig deeper into the meta story.
Mechanically, TVOEC makes a brave attempt to introduce a trope that should be fairly familiar to movie goers: The “Unreliable Narrator.” If you’re unfamiliar with it, the Unreliable Narrator is a mechanic used where the story is told from the point of view of a narrator whose delivery of the story is not necessarily accurate. The narrator could be any number of things such as insane, lying, deceiving, utilizing misdirection, has poor situational comprehension, etc. To translate that into English, the story being presented to us at first is not the actual story being told. There are any possible number of plot reasons to do this. From a storyteller’s perspective we tend to use this in order make the puzzle pieces of our story more obfuscated until the big reveal towards the end of the narrative. Well known examples of an Unreliable Narrator include Fight Club, Memento, and The Usual Suspects.
In my view, TVOEC utilizes the unreliable narrator from the perspective of the player. Our protagonist is supposed to be a paranormal investigator by the name of Paul Prospero. When we examine the story from this character’s perspective, there are many times where the puzzles presented in the game give us information that we cannot truly confirm are happening, and we must simply take his word for it. There are no other witnesses to the events of the game, therefore we must operate off the assumption that the things that he says are occurring are factually correct (yet this is not the case).
Early on in the story we learn that Ethan is a bit of a young writer himself, with many of the puzzles in the game based around his incredibly brief but damn interesting short stories. It is made very apparent that Ethan has a wild but rich imagination that is severely under-appreciated by the family members around him.
Over the course of the story the player can begin to put together why Ethan writes the way that he does. It is revealed to us through the bits and pieces of story left lying around, as well as the protagonist’s reconstruction of the events leading up to the end that Ethan is emotionally abused by his family. From my take, Ethan uses his storytelling as a way to escape from this abuse by imagining ‘better’ and more vivid worlds. Worlds that he has control over. Almost anyone who has suffered in ways like this can tell you that being able to exercise some kind of control when you have little or none is a very powerful drug for the mind. In the case of Ethan Carter, it’s his only way out.
The most important thing that TVOEC brings to the table here is something that many content creators cringe away from (and potentially holds them back): The willingness to not have a happy ending. The story does not end on a happy note, save for the personal interpretation that Ethan did get away from the people that were causing him the most harm in the world. Even with that potential point of view, the world that Ethan Carter inhabits suffers from the loss of someone who sees worlds and places different from this one, a person who dreams and shares those thoughts with others.
The world is filled with all kinds of stories, stories that end in all kinds of ways. This particular story that we were subject to, shows us that sometimes life doesn’t turn out the way that we want and bad things will often happen to those whom we don’t feel deserve it.
Life, however, tends to not care about what we want.
After I finished this story examination, it was shared with the creator of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Adrian Chmielarz. This was his response.