The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter opens with a screen warning that it doesn’t “hold your hand.” So many games make this claim anymore that it’s starting to come across as kind of snotty and condescending. Ethan Carter’s lack of hand holding isn’t in the difficulty sense, like Bloodborne or 1001 Spikes. You can’t die, and there are no real stakes besides extending the delay of the unfolding story. Instead, it doesn’t hold your hands in the sense that you’re given no instructions at all. No tutorial, no hints what the game’s primary mechanics are, or what your end goal is. So, in my first attempt at playing Ethan Carter, I ended up missing the first four of ten “puzzles.” The fifth one is neither a puzzle nor possible to miss (I think). The first one I actually stumbled upon and solved was the sixth one. Of ten. This is the kind of not-hand-holding that a sadistic swimming instructor with a growing body count would believe in.

Ethan Carter is an aimless wandering simulator that occasionally gets interrupted by an interesting plot. I’ve never been into Lovecraftian type of horror, so when I found the story to be good, I was a bit surprised. However, I missed nearly the first half of it, so I decided I would break a personal rule of mine. I try to avoid using walk-throughs when I review games. Now, I had stumbled upon a couple of the puzzles, but I didn’t realize they were puzzles or would unlock the plot. The game doesn’t imply any of that. When I solved the graveyard sequence, I decided to just start over from the beginning and have someone send me a list of the general locations of the puzzles. Just having that list and the knowledge that there were puzzles to complete totally changed my enjoyment of the game. It was okay. Okay is better than “God I’m bored out of my fucking skull.

Ethan 2

Needs more Grim Grinning Ghosts.

I hate doing this with any game, because it’s 2015 and nobody should give a shit about graphics anymore unless they are mind-blowingly awesome. I don’t know if the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is quite that good, but it’s probably the most gorgeous indie up to this point. To put it in perspective, my mother walked into the room while I was making my way through a forested area and asked what movie we were watching. Movie. Until she said that, I hadn’t stopped to appreciate how damn good-looking Vanishing of Ethan Carter is. Now, that story wouldn’t have happened if I was in many of the areas of the game, especially ones that take place in a mine, or ones where there’s rushing water. The cave section looks like any other cavern level in a first-person game, and rushing water has that creepy uncanny valley effect, slightly life-like but undeniably off. Probably the most off-putting thing about the presentation is you don’t feel even close to a real person. You feel like a camera hovering six above the ground. The lack of humanity in the player-character made it nearly impossible to ever feel immersed. Which is a shame because the world created is photo-realistic at times and that kind of goes to waste.

I’ll go spoiler-free on the plot as much as possible. It’s pretty obvious early on that some kind of twist ending was coming, but Ethan Carter still manged to fool me with it while still feeling like I wasn’t cheated by the context. It wasn’t like Braid’s “deep” twist ending where, spoiler alert on a game eight years old: the main character of Braid was part of the Manhattan Project and felt guilty for creating nuclear weapons, with the world of Braid being his escapism to alleviate his guilt. Yea. I haven’t met a person yet who didn’t blurt out “where in the fuck did that come from?” when they experienced that ending. But Braid is popular and pretentious allegories pulled out of thin air are all the rage in Indieland, so I expected Ethan Carter to end on one. It didn’t. The ending was satisfactory in a Twilight Zone sort of way and felt real. I guess you can’t ask for anything more.

SPOILER WARNING – SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU WISH TO AVOID

Not that the story doesn’t occasionally devolve into raving lunacy. The most random happening involved an encounter with an astronaut. I think it was meant to be a jump scare when it first appeared, but it was so random that all I could do was laugh. This eventually led to a section where I was floating through space in a scene I swear was ripped straight from that God awful piece of shit movie Contact. Even after finishing Ethan Carter, I’m not entirely sure what the point of that part was. The studio behind this game is named Astronauts, so maybe this was meant to be an in-joke for them. Another failed attempt at scares occurred in the cave area, where you’re being stalked by a ghost while searching a maze for five dead bodies. I wasn’t aware that this was considered the most terrifying section of the game by most people due to “jump scares” that happen during it. This is because I found all five dead bodies and solved the puzzle in it without ever having the ghost catch me. In fact, I only caught a glimpse of it once and heard it two other times. Given that Ethan Carter’s form of horror is based more on atmosphere and characterization, I’m surprised it would even try to do jump scares. I think I enjoyed the experience more than others did as a result. Jump scares are something anyone can cause with a plastic bag full of air and a floor that doesn’t squeak when you try to sneak up behind someone. Lowbrow and easy. Creeping people out with an unnerving atmosphere takes skill, and Ethan Carter pulls it off.

They should've sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful. I had no idea.

END OF SPOILERS

The writing is not bad at all. The cut scenes have pretty decent voice acting. Ethan Carter does almost nothing wrong in terms of plot and storytelling. It’s the method of delivery that I feel doesn’t serve players properly. It goes back to the “hand holding” thing. What is so wrong with pointing players in a direction? Shadow of the Colossus is similar to Ethan Carter in the sense that you have a vast open world with specific areas you need to discover. You’re not told how to discover them, or what to expect when you get there. You hold your sword up and it points the direction, and that’s it. Nobody would accuse that of being an example of hand-holding. So that opening “we don’t hold hands” bit almost feels accusatory against players. “Oh, you didn’t find the stuff we obscurely hid? What, you expect directions? What kind of pussy-whipped casual gamer are you?”

Maybe the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a glorified tech-demo, as some of my readers on Twitter suggested. While there are a couple creative puzzles, most of them come down to finding items and returning them to their locations. A few times you’ll be required to look at a few different dioramas and place them in sequential order. If the puzzle design had matched the art quality, Ethan Carter would have been something very special. I do reject the notion that Ethan Carter is an “experience” more than a game. It’s a game, and a perfectly fine one. I don’t think it will withstand the test of time, or be particularly memorable. As technology gets better and games that look like this become more common place, its relevance will fade. Ultimately, I did enjoy it when I played it “my way”, with general instructions to the locations of the ten puzzles. Others enjoyed it without those, liking the sense of discovery. Others still got sick aimlessly wandering around without any clue what they were doing and quit. I can’t help but wonder if Ethan Carter would have benefited greatly by giving players two options: to play the game with or without direction. If they had done that, all discussion of the game would have been centered around its merits instead of its abstraction. Ethan Carter can stand on its own merits. It’s a quality game, even if it’s so militantly against holding hands that it comes across like a six-year-old afraid of catching cooties.

Ethan logoThe Vanishing of Ethan Carter was developed by Astronauts
Point of Sale: PlayStation 4, Steam

igc_approved1$19.99 walked away from Ethan Carter feelings like her eyeballs were gently massaged by the graceful hands of God himself in the making of this review.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Advertisements

That Trivia Game

Some people feel I review too many trivia games at Indie Gamer Chick. I don’t know how to respond to that. I guess I’m such a fan of You Don’t Know Jack that I keep looking for the next evolution in video game trivia. And you would think that would come from the indie scene, where irreverence and quirkiness are a way of life. But it hasn’t happened yet. Or at least I haven’t found it. Probably the most inspired entry in the genre I’ve found is Triviador on Facebook of all things, which mixes Trivial Pursuit with Risk. Not a wild idea or anything, but it’s a step in the right direction. Otherwise, your only options for stuff that tries to be a little more than a glorified pop-quiz are the Scene It series, and those aren’t exactly magnificent or anything. I’m more than a little surprised that indies seem to phone in the trivia genre. Maybe it’s good for getting your feet wet in game development, which is why nobody really takes risks with it.

Wait, there a tube other than YouTube?

Wait, there a tube other than YouTube?

By far the most unambitious title in the genre I’ve run across so far is That Trivia Game, which recently hit the PlayStation 4. I literally only have two positive things to say about it. First, I never stumbled upon a question where the correct answer was in fact not accurate. More than half the trivia games I’ve played on IGC have had that issue. Second, there’s full voice acting for all the questions, although the puns and barbs the host throws at you sound half-hearted and are never funny.

As for the actual game, there’s four rounds in That Trivia Game. In the first, you answer five questions from a subject of your (or one of the other players) choosing. Correct answers net you 250 points. You then are given one final question in that round, where you can wager as much as 750 points. In the second round, incorrect answers in the multiple choice disappear, and you get more points for answering before they do. In the third round, you simply get more points for answering quickly. The final round is almost identical to the Jack Attack round in any You Don’t Know Jack game. Answers to a question appear one at a time and you must buzz in when the correct one is on-screen. The first person to get it gets 1,000 points, while every incorrect answer costs you 1,500.

I guess for a $10 indie trivia game, I expect more. The play style is as basic as possible. There’s no online play, so unless you have extra controllers and people up for playing with you, you’re stuck with an utterly brain-dead AI opponent. Besides the occasional question based around a photograph or drawing, there’s nothing resembling personality or edginess to the trivia presented. And, the gameplay isn’t always right. Take the third round, where the points decrease at a steady rate. There’s nothing wrong with this style, except the countdown should ideally wait at least a second or so, long enough for you to read the question. It doesn’t, and thus unless you blindly stab at one of the answer buttons, it’s impossible to get the maximum point value out of it.

This is the only time you wager points. It's at the end of the first round, and you can't even bet the maximum amount of points (which at most can be 1,250). So very lame.

This is the only time you wager points. It’s at the end of the first round, and you can’t even bet the maximum amount of points (which at most can be 1,250). So very lame.

Most of all, the value sucks. $10 nets you the much more entertaining Scene It! on PlayStation 3, and you can nab You Don’t Know Jack on PS3 or Xbox almost anywhere for $15 or less. Or you can pay nothing and find hundreds of free trivia apps all over mobile phones, online, or on Facebook. This is one of those rare games where I have no choice but to factor in the price. Anything but free is too much for a game like this. And even if it were free, I’m not sure it’s worth the space. It’s just plain boring. You could dig up a corpse that was buried ten years ago and find bones less bare than those of That Trivia Game.

That Trivia Game logoThat Trivia Game was developed by The Game Room

$9.99 is drooling at the prospect of 1 vs 100 returning to Xbox in the making of this review.

 

Contrast

Do you know what the irony of Contrast is?  It became the replacement PlayStation Plus PS4 launch game when Driveclub didn’t make its deadline.  That makes me laugh, because there is no way that Driveclub could have been more unfinished than Contrast.  Here’s a game whose concept I loved before I even tried it, and even while I was playing it, I so wanted to love it.  And, in a sense, I did.  But, like someone with an elderly dog that keeps making a doodoo on the carpet, at some point you have to admit it’s over and put it down.

Really, there isn't a whole lot of contrast in contrast. Levels range from dank and dark to dank and dark.

Contrast at least fills the indie quota of being dark enough to cause clinical depression.

Contrast takes place in a stylized 1930s art-deco world.  The idea is you play as on over-imaginative young lady named Didi, who defies her mother’s wishes by sneaking out of the house and going on an adventure of sexual intrigue, betrayal, and discovery.  Honestly, I thought the story was heavy-handed and boring.  The setting did nothing for me, mostly owing to how damn empty and artificial it all seems.  Perhaps if the world had seemed more alive, I could have gotten into it.  But the world of Contrast seems so drab and lifeless, as if nothing fun or whimsical has ever graced it.  Which is really fucking bizarre because of how damn cool the hook is.

The idea is, gameplay can shift entirely into your shadow on a surface as long as there’s a light projecting it.  I love this idea, even if it’s so shamelessly convoluted in the ways they had to implement it.  I call this “Aquaman Syndrome” because it reminded me of how the Super Friends scriptwriters had to come up with the most roundabout ways imaginable to include Aquaman in the show, like having Lex Luthor steal the plans for a Doomsday Device that was hidden underneath a fish store.  So, you’ll spend a lot of time in Contrast moving light fixtures around, so as to make sure all the shadows cast are exactly the right height and right size that they can be platformed across.  Then you’ll spend the next three weeks readjusting them over and over again while cursing the Gods that Watch Dogs fell behind schedule and you’re stuck doing this instead.

I have no idea why, but at times this game made me think of Castlevania 64. For no reason at all, but that's what popped into my brain.

I have no idea why, but at times Contrast made me think of Castlevania 64. For no reason at all, but that’s what popped into my brain.

I can’t stress enough how tough it is to properly calculate where to line up those shadows when it’s up to you to project them.  Maybe it was just me, but I often could not get a feel for the sense of scale the game required.  It also doesn’t help that many of the puzzles are timed, with the shadows reverting back to their original positions if you don’t move quickly enough.  Early in the game, one of the puzzles took place in an enormous, sprawling room where I had to position lights, elevators, and platforms just right, or else I would have to go back and position them all again.  Gateways had similar puzzle designs, but at least there the controls were tight and objectives and end goals were more clear, thus making the complex puzzles boil down to simple reverse-engineering.  Here, I typically was never sure exactly where the final landing point was, and the controls were loose and sloppy at best.

I didn’t make it much further past that room at the hotel, in the first fucking chapter.  Yes, shameful as hell of me, I admit.  I should hang up my critic card and shoot myself or something.  But here’s the thing: Contrast is clearly not finished, and since it’s not, I don’t really feel under any obligation to complete the game myself.  It was not ready for prime time.  While running around, looking for things to dash into, I got stuck in walls no less than one hundred times over the course of a couple of hours of wandering around.  I honestly don’t remember any game where I clipped into walls even 10% as much as I did here.  More over, sometimes the glitches are just super random.  While running around a fire escape, she started jumping, without me pushing any buttons besides the control stick.  She just started springing up and down like she was busting for a piss while using a pogo stick.  Not only that, but she seemed to be jumping much higher than the natural jump mechanics allow for.  It’s one of the most randomly bizarre bugs I’ve ever come across.  It didn’t kill the game or impede my progress in any way, but just having it there made me feel like I was wasting my time at amateur hour.

Apparently, nobody told her that only monkeys point.

Apparently, nobody told her that only monkeys point.

Plus, as a showcase game for PlayStation Plus and PS4, Contrast sure is ugly.  It would have been ugly on PS3.  It looks more like an early PS2 game, and not a good-looking one.  Completing the “just now released after twelve years in the can” feel of Contrast is an unstable camera and clippy character models.  There is nothing “next-gen” on display here.  I’m so disappointed because the gimmick was solid and the setting could have held a lot of promise, even if the Film Noir thing is getting dangerously close to over-saturated.  This was a weird one for me, because I loved it for the first hour or so, even if I spent a lot of that aimlessly wandering around the lifeless city.  But as I came to realize how unpolished Contrast was, my love quickly was replaced by loathing, and I suddenly noticed how broken so much of it is.  How the phasing into the walls was touchy, slow in response, and not suited for the types of quick-actions the game sometimes requires.  Or how sometimes I would have to stab the square button multiple times to activate a switch, even though I was lined-up correctly enough to have the context-sensitive “PRESS SQUARE YOU IDIOT!!” prompt on the screen.  Or how I spent more time bouncing off invisible walls than I did navigating successfully to the next area.  So sadly, I must ask Contrast to take a seat next to Mortal Kombat Gold, NFL Fever, and Evergrace in the “victims of a launch deadline rush” memorial wall.  Contrast wasn’t quite as dead on arrival as those titles, but the last rites have been administered and its time to go all Old Yeller on it.  Bang.  Tears.  Fade out.

ContrastContrast was developed by Compulsion Games

Contrast was free with PlayStation Plus, normally priced $14.99. 

%d bloggers like this: