The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Developer: The Astronauts
Available on PC
$19.99

Rarely while playing video games do my thoughts turn to a poet’s musings, but as I tramped my way through “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” — the first game from the small, Warsaw-based studio the Astronauts — I was reminded of a famous quip from the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” Milosz’s remark dramatizes the risks of living with writers: You never know whether your words or likeness might sneak into their work. A player doesn’t have to progress far into the Astronauts’ first-person-perspective, supernatural mystery game to see how one family’s treatment of its youngest member bears signs of such anxiety.

In “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter,” players dip into the consciousness of Paul Prospero, a paranormal investigator, on his last case, whose physical attributes are never seen. At the beginning of the game, Prospero notes that he is the recipient of many letters from potential clients. One gathers from his world-weary voice that he is the sort who is perpetually behind on his correspondence. Yet a letter from a boy, the aforementioned Ethan Carter, draws his attention due to its familiarity with strange phenomena that slip the notice of most adults, let alone kids.

Intrigued by the letter’s urgency, Prospero sets out for the hamlet of Red Creek Valley where, since 1967, the Carter family has overseen the Vandegriff estate, which has been neglected by its heirs. Red Creek Valley’s verdant, rolling landscape looks stunning on the PC. If you visit the Astronauts’ website, you can read a detailed account of how the studio employed a process known as photogrammetry to convert individual photographs — taken throughout Poland — into contiguous, virtual building blocks. This digital alchemy makes playing the game feel like swimming through a painting.

When Prospero emerges from a train tunnel into Red Creek Valley, a cursory look at the surrounding wooded area reveals a wildlife trap. “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” uses the kind of simple point-and-click mechanics that have defined PC adventure games for decades. Clicking on the trap causes a fragmentary mental image to bubble up on screen.  Once similar objects in the immediate vicinity have been found and examined, the scene coheres. And, in this instance, the player is rewarded with a handwritten draft of one of Ethan’s short stories about a miser who coveted an area of land which he took pains to keep others from enjoying.

Pushing deeper into Red Creek Valley, Prospero’s thoughts take in the economic carnage caused by the flight of industry from the area. Soon he comes upon the severed corpse of a teenager who clearly ran afoul of a train. A thorough investigation of the scene reveals that the person in question is Ethan’s brother, who was murdered by their grandfather, who ran him over with a train car. An exploration of the Carters’ residence nearby reveals evidence of a siege — boarded-up windows and overturned furniture arrest the eye. So do the books — by such imaginative authors as Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson — that are scattered throughout the house. The books are the only amenities in this home, which otherwise lacks for diversions.

Passing between the rooms, one hears snippets of past conversations that latch upon Ethan’s unbounded curiosity. Alongside a maternal lament that he should re-focus his attention on practical matters lurks an ominous sense of worry and anger. Appearances suggest that Ethan’s curiosity guided him to a secret room in one of the buildings on the Vandegriff estate and that his trespass bodes ill for the family.

I haven’t encountered a game with such an unabashedly bookish personality since “Dear Esther,” which some wits have described as less a game than a glorified walking simulator. Like Dear Esther, the primary draw of “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” is its melancholy atmosphere, not its game-play mechanics; however, unlike “Dear Esther,” which is a game shorn of any challenge, the Astronauts’ work is not without its difficulties. Booting it up for the first time, one is treated with the aesthetic declaration that “this game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand,” which seems like the type of boast destined for endless citation.

Basically, that means there are no on-screen way-points or needling loops of dialogue to send you hopping from objective to objective. Although you eventually discover a map, it’s possible — if your cartography skills are as poor as mine — that you might end up sifting tediously through the game’s environment, searching for something to advance the story. Near the end, I thought I hit a bug and restarted. Alas, on my second go-round, I realized that I’d missed a puzzle that I hadn’t realized was a puzzle.

An interesting effect of leaving players to their own devices is that it opens up the possibility for boredom; this seems like an especially potent artistic challenge in our age of instant gratification. Crisscrossing the landscape while haplessly searching for something to click on, I grew to loathe those autumnal trees and the lichen-laden rocks, which made me empathize a bit more with some of the game’s characters. If anything, I wish there had been more dialogue in the game, which, for all its supernatural trimmings, is really about how guilt gnaws its way through family life.

It seems to me of little importance whether one works out the mystery early on. The Astronauts should have reason to feel confident that their simple, predictable tale is quietly affecting.

REVIEWER’S NOTE:

I played “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” on a 3.8 GHz, quad-core computer with a Radeon 6950 2GB graphics card on high graphics settings. (A PlayStation 4 edition is due out in 2015.)

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.