Investigating the story of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter [SPOILERS!]
- October 09, 2014
- 18 Comments
I have finished The Vanishing of Ethan Carter multiple times now, and I’d like to share my thoughts and findings on the game’s story. The game itself is a relatively short one, with simple game mechanics, but it grabs you from from the very first second with the following warning: “The game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” This message is the beginning and the end of the tutorial. Nobody forces the story to the player. It is entirely up to them how much of the story they want to take in. You can run through the game and get the basic understanding of what happened, or you can go slow and dive into the deepest and darkest corners of Ethan’s story — which is what I am going to do here.
The “no hand-holding” approach is quite a fresh one in the video game narrative world. In this post, I will try to let all of the clues I found form a bigger picture; I will try to solve this jigsaw puzzle of a story. Initially the plan was to make a tutorial material for narrative designers, but I think this analysis can also be interesting to any players who completed the game and wanted to know how much they missed, or simply wanted to relive the story again. My own warning, though: please do not read any further if you haven’t played the game yet. This place is full of spoilers, and they will ruin the joy of discovery that the game offers.
Disclaimer: All that is written below is my personal understanding of Ethan’s story. I’m not the developer, and thus I might have made mistakes, had incorrect interpretations, missed something important or found meaning where there wasn’t any. I can also totally feel the incompleteness of this work. If you find an error, please tell me in the comments. I will update this article whenever any new information becomes available, so keep looking for updates. The history of updates can be found at the end of the article.
When you combine all the story pieces together, it becomes clear that this is not a simple, one-layered story. The structure resembles an onion, offering multiple stories, with each story layer hiding another. And the first layer is the story of the player.
The Story of the Player
The player’s story is the simplest, clearest one. The player in this world is a guest. If you came to the Red Creek Valley allured by the hype and the beauty of screenshots, you might not even know anything about the game’s story at all. But the job is quite simple – control Paul Prospero, a supernatural detective, wander around Red Creek Valley, search for clues, solve puzzles and, ultimately, find Ethan.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an open world game. There are no loading screens and you can get from any point to any other point at any time. And that includes returning from the end of game (the burned house) to the beginning (the tunel). I found this map in the Steam community and marked all the important story points. Click to open the map in a new tab with a proper scale.
Without the tutorial and navigation hints the game still remains clear as for what to do. This is achieved with a simple solution – the player just does not have an option to do anything wrong. It’s a brilliant game design when all the excessive fat is cut from the game. No UI or resource management stand in the way. For example, there no such a standard thing like fatigue. You can run forever. But abusing it is your own decision. Rushing through the world is a bad roleplay for a noir detective. So the decision to run for long is the player’s decision, not Paul’s.
The opening minutes offer an interesting sequence of vistas. In the beginning the player is in the forest with no vista, there are only trees and a railroad. But a few moments later the player comes to the bridge and can see a huge area. They can notice a dam on the horizon and a train station in the next forest (if they are observant). This is a kind of story announcement not unlike Chekhov’s gun. In the same way when the player reaches the dam, they can see a couple of houses at the end of dam and at the bottom of it. They can experience the joy of recognizing the bridge, the place they visited before. Or they can recognize the house with the portals when they are at the bottom of the dam.
The player meets two kinds of enigma: a scene of crime and a mystical puzzle. The first kind uses a general template: find all the crucial items (using a vision to locate them in the world), place these objects where they belong, inspect a dead body, inspect the key memories of a crime, arrange them in the right order, watch the scene of death — and get a reward – a scene about Ethan himself.
Mystical puzzles, on the other hand, each feature unique mechanics with one general element at the end, when the player finds Ethan’s short story. There are five such short stories in the game:
1) traps in the forest and a short story about a sap-drinking old man;
2) an astronaut with a space ship and a short story about a fanged beast (remember that the developer of game is called The Astronauts);
3) a house with portals and a short story about an alchemist;
4) a witch’s place and a short story about a woman, her son and a witch;
5) a maze in the mine with an undead and a short story about an ancient sea-thing;
After reading each story we can hear a conversation involving Ethan, and additional extra notes appear near the page with Ethan’s short story. We will return to this feature in a second.
After solving all of the investigations and mystical puzzles the player reaches the sleeping Ethan Carter. Mission complete. The player’s story is over. Final cutscene. Credits.
The Story of Ethan Carter
The second layer of stories is the story of the “vanishing” Ethan Carter. This story starts with the name of the game itself, and then continues with a corpse of Ethan’s big brother, Travis. It’s nearly impossible to go through the player’s story and miss the bloody mess on the rails and around. So what this story about? Well, a little boy named Ethan is in trouble and only Paul Prospero, the supernatural detective, can help. Our first investigation — the death of Ethan’s brother — tells us that the boy’s family is obsessed with a being named the Sleeper.
In the big house right past the dam we can hear various dialogue bits between the family members, revealing the origin of this Sleeper situation:
Missy: You need to talk to your son. He was poking around in the old Vandegriff house again. Said he found some “secret room.”
Dale: Oh, really? Okay, I will go talk to him.
Missy: What did you do? What did you wake up?
Ethan: Nothing! I found a room. I walked into it. That’s it!
Chad: You can feel it, right? Something — something coming from the Vandegriff house.
Missy: I can feel it. Ethan disturbed the sleeper. He must be punished.
Travis: You have to help us. It’s the only way. It wants Ethan.
Dale: You’re crazy. You’ve all gone crazy.
Ed: Travis, leave the boy alone. I see how you’ve been looking at him.
Travis: You don’t even know, do you? You have no idea what’s going on.
Dale: Pop, they’re getting worse. They keep talking about this thing, this “sleeper.”
Ed: I know. What I don’t know is if it’s real or not.
Ethan: It’s not my fault! I didn’t mean for any of this to happen!
The Sleeper wants something bad to happen to Ethan. But if that means killing the boy, why do it in such a strange and elaborate way as we have witnessed in the first murder we investigated (Ethan tied to the tracks, about to be run over by the railcar)?
In the second investigation we find out that the Sleeper wants to make Ethan suffer (in this particular case, by bricking him up alive in a crypt). This is way for the Sleeper to “wake up”. The Sleeper has the power to control people. He totally controls Ethan’s mother, uncle and brother. Ethan’s dad and grandfather try to resist and help Ethan to burn this “room” – which seems to be the only way to destroy the Sleeper. But in the last moment the grandfather gives up and imprisons Ethan in the Sleeper’s room. This doesn’t stop Ethan, though, and he starts the fire that burns down the whole house. Everybody dies. Paul Prospero was too late.
Chronology of the family members deaths:
1) Mother kills the uncle;
2) Father kills the mother;
3) Father kills himself not be killed by Ethan’s brother;
4) Grandfather kills the brother;
5) Grandfather dies by accepting his fate (didn’t fight against fire).
We discover this story from the 4th point (Travis is the first corpse we find), and then we go in proper order from 1 to 5. Like in some movies (Fight Club, Megamind) where the action starts near the end and returns to the start. It adds intrigue when we see the death of Travis and then in the later scenes we seem him alive. But note that only one scene (#4) is not in the chronological order. Possibly the reason is that with more disturbed chronology it would be much harder to make sense out of the story.
There is also an interesting detail with the scissors. We see how Dale kills himself with the scissors. Travis drops the fire axe, because Dale did his dirty job for him. We can find the axe near Dale’s body, but the scissor are now elsewhere: we find them on spool of rope in the elevator cabin. I suppose that they may have been used by Travis to cut the rope later used to tie Ethan down to the rails.
The Family story
Of course, we can stay on the story about the Sleeper. A possessed family makes a bloody massacre and forces Ethan to burn himself alive. Case closed? Not so fast. We can’t ignore the final cutscene where all of Ethan’s family comes for Ethan, but an accidental fire breaks out. If you attentively analyze all the other clues, you can find another story layer – the story of Ethan’s family.
In the big house past the dam you can find a photo of the Carter family: Ethan, his grandfather Edwin, his big brother Travis, his mother Missy, his father Dale and his uncle Chad. From the cemetery scene we can know that Chad is the brother of Dale. Edwin is the father of Dale and Chad (Dale refers to Edwin as “Pop” in couple dialogs).
On the other side of photo we can find an important note: “On the day the photo was taken… Uncle Chad was mean, Dad was sad, Mom was mad, Travis was loud, Gramp was quiet”.
When we visit the rooms in that big house we can hear the family members’ conversations about Ethan. I suppose that this house is the family house.
Every mystical puzzle is about each of the family members. At the end of each puzzle we can find Ethan’s short story about one of the family members, and after reading the story we can hear that person’s voice, and after that one or two new notes about that person appear.
At the beginning of the game, if we don’t follow the rails but explore the area, we can stumble upon some traps. After “collecting” all five traps we get to a strange version of the forest, full of bones and skulls on the ground, There’s also a paper page with a short story titled “SAP”. It’s a story about villagers, a big fire, and an old man who drinks sap from the trees. After reading this story we can find empty bottles and a fire-damaged piece of newspaper near the page with Ethan’s short story. In this newspaper piece we read about a tragedy in a remote house. A house once owned by Albert Vandegriff, and taken care of by a family of six after his disappearance. Gayle Carter died in the fire, other family members escaped. Edwin suspected that the fire might have been his fault. The fire damaged the house, but did not fully destroy it. On other side of the newspaper page we can find an article about members of the Vandegriff family. They didn’t like the idea of living in the old house, and that is why they had the Carters family take care of it since 1967. Date on newspaper – 28th september 1973. The last digit of the year is lost due to the fire, but there is news about the withdrawal in Vietnam, and that happened in 1973.
By combining these facts I came to the conclusion that the grandpa was a drunkard and suffered from the guilt over his wife’s death. The newspaper mentioned the family of six, but with Gayle it should be seven, so there are two options: this happens before Ethan was born, or grandpa was out of house (in the forest with “sap”).
The next story is about the big brother. We find a strange object in forest, solve a simple puzzle, chase an astronaut, ascend to a spaceship, travel to space. After the event we can read a short tale called “Fangs”. It’s a story about a fanged beast chasing after lights in the forest. Analogically to the previous tale, the stupid and dangerous beast is the big brother. While Ethan dreams about space travelling, Travis vandalizes the cover of a science fiction pulp magazine. Note the date of this journal – January 1964. Comparing that to the date on the newspaper I came to conclusion that the pulp magazine is much older than Ethan. Maybe Ethan could not afford any new magazines.
In the house with portals we can find a secret alchemy lab and a short tale without a title. This tale is about a magician who made potions that let him see the future. Villagers wanted that potion, but the magician said no. People burned the magician’s house, but the magician escaped to a fireproof room and never came out. After this story we can hear Chad’s voice – this is the story about Ethan’s uncle. Alchemy lab equipment turns to a moonshine still. Another two-sided piece of newspaper appears. One side is about a moonshine still discovered by firefighters battling a blaze in forest. The police have been unable to determine who owned the still. It looked like the uncle had a still in the forest and grandpa often went there to get more booze. On the other side of the page we can find an article about a NASA-launched satellite which will broadcast educational programs over several countries. Big contrast with the moonshine affair. There are no date stamps, but it is easy to find out that the launch of ATS-6 happened on 30th May 1974.
After the two houses near the dam we can find a road fork, but if we get off the road and into the forest we get into a witch’s trap. Quite scary, resembling The Blair Witch Project movie. The witch teleports us around the forest and tells us that many people come to her with questions about the future, while all she wants is to know about the past. And she asks many strange questions:
Who would you rather see die: your mother, your father, or your best friend? Do you feel there is vanity in charity? Is cheating truly unfair to others? Does sin come from the heart or the mind? Does death bring peace or suffering? Would you rather be a leaf or a root? Is betrayal caused by inequality or injustice? When you close your eyes, whose voice do you hear? Would you prefer anonymity over notoriety? Do you feel victory when your words cause pain? Do you admire thieves for their bravery or their greed? Do you take that which you know you will not return? Do you love for yourself or for others?
You don’t need to answer these questions. Just head towards the light in distance. After a few teleportations you get to a tent surrounded by trees with torches. Here lies another Ethan’s short story. It’s a tale about a witch, a woman and her son. The witch told the woman she was to have a child. Woman cried a lot and lost her beauty. The child asked the witch to make his mother beautiful again. The witch told the boy she had lied to the mother about her child. The boy disappeared and the mother was beautiful again. On the other side of the page we can find the first version of the story, full of ink blots and scratched words. Seems that Ethan saw himself imperfect in his mother’s eyes. And that he is the reason why his mother lost her beauty.
After reading the tale a note from Missy to Ethan appears. Missy asks Ethan to keep her temper in mind, her “snake’s tongue”. So the mother is not only the beautiful woman from the story, she is also the witch. The voice that Ethan can hear when he “closes his eyes”. There are no time stamps or clues about the date (definitely after Ethan’s birth, of course). Also note that the ground around the tent is scorched. Maybe this is the place where the moonshine still had burnt down.
The last short story is the story of Ethan’s father, Dale. It can be found deep in the mines. It starts with a warning about a failed ritual and a “sea-thing”. This is the second spot in the game – after the astronaut – where some gamey skills are required. You need to be aware of the undead and hide from him. Also you need to find five dead bodies. Later, they appear in a special cave with an ancient gate and a floor full of strange symbols. When you collect all souls you need to enter the combination into gate. You need six symbols, but there are only five souls, the last symbol you need to guess. After the gate opens, the ancient sea-thing comes to our world and floods it. There’s also a bit happier side of this story – you can read the last tale named “THE CURSE OF SEA-THING”. A miner stabs others to prevent the ritual of summoning sea-thing. The sea-thing cursed the miner to wander around the mine forever and prevent others from summoning it.
After that we can hear Dale’s voice and two notes appear. One is from the Patent and Trademark Office about rejecting four dozen request from Ethan’s father. Date: 27th January 1973. The other is from Missy about Dale’s stuff in the basement. She calls it a lifetime of failures and threatens to burn it. Poor Dale, the loser-inventor. It might be that Ethan imagined his dad as an ancient powerful creature who can’t be free because of the treachery from one of the six people of Carter family (e.g. the wife). Or maybe he sacrificed himself to assure the happiness for all (saving the world from the flood).
Let’s look again at the facts in chronological order:
1961 – Family patriarch Albert Vandegriff, 71, dies in in an odd mine accident, the aftereffects of which nearly destroy Vandegriff Industrial and severely damage the local economy.
1964, Jan – Issue of Abstruse Tales that Ethan read and Travis vandalized.
1967 – Carters family lives in the Vandegriff estate as temporary caretakers.
1973, Jan 27 – Dale’s patent rejected for the last time (not exactly this date, but near). Dale’s dream to be an inventor is ruined.
1973, Sep 28 – Newspaper note about the fire in the Vandegriff house and the death of Gayle.
1974, May 30 – Moonshine still discovered in the forest.
Paul Prospero story
The stories don’t end there. We play as Paul Prospero, but he has his own story. He is the last Ethan’s tale.
Look closer how game starts. The detective speaks like noir cliche. But also, look at what he says! «If you’re kid like Ethan, you write. Plenty do.», «Ethan could drawn a map», «I was too late». All of this we face at the end. Ethan wrote stories and drew a map, but we were too late. The beginning of Paul Prospero story is the ending of Ethan Carter story.
But it’s not only Paul that was imagined by Ethan. The entire world that we see in the game is a dream of Ethan. For example, in the newspaper it was mentioned that the moonshine still was found in forest, but we find it in the hidden room of an old house. We find bodies of family members, but we can’t find the house they lived in. Look again at the family photo. We can see the house in photo as ruined as the house in the game. No one would ever live in such a house. Also the water pump is in a different place and faces a different direction, but that might just be a bug. Other houses in game are also all abandoned.
There more signs of unreality in the Red Creek Valley… The detective came on foot through a train tunnel — strange way to travel. The train station is in the middle of nowhere. The big church is located in the forest and there is no living place for people to come to Mass and fill in all the benches. The dam and the mines still work without any maintenance by anyone. We know that Dale, Missy and Travis were in mine, but the mine entrance was closed. The dam control room is closed from the inside and there is no other exit. The same thing with Ethan and Ed in the basement of the Vandegriff house: the secret entrance was closed when we arrived. And there is no road between the last bridge and the Vandegriff house.
All this world is a fiction of Ethan. He adds only those details that are needed to tell a story. Vivid images of his childhood. I doubt that the developers able to make a game of this quality have allowed all these discrepancies accidentally.
At the end of his story the detective finds Ethan and wakes him up.
Paul: Ethan, wake up. Well, kid. You stopped it. It was horrible, but you stopped it.
Ethan: Paul Prospero. Are you — are you really here?
Paul: I’m sorry, Ethan. I was late. Too late.
Ethan: You were. You were too late.
Ethan: I wrote about you. But I don’t know if I created you.
Paul: You made me real.
Ethan: I can’t go yet. I have to finish my story about you. I wrote stories about everyone.
Paul: I know you did. But my story’s done. And it’s a fine story.
Ethan: I can let go?
Paul: You can let go.
Ethan: What happens then?
Paul: Another story, kid. What else?
Ethan is surprised to see Paul, he didn’t expect him coming. But Paul is not surprised. He knows that he is just a part of the story. He knows more than Ethan. He knows when his story ends, when Ethan can let go and what happens then. Maybe Paul Prospero is something more than the dream of a child. Maybe he is something else. Subconscious? Death? An angel?
Paul: I’ve stepped through too many portals, been present in too many worlds simultaneously.
Paul: Do you know what ghosts are? They’re sad, evicted things. Memories without homes. What do the dead have to say? You’d be surprised by how little they know.
Real Ethan story
Sum up all the stories above and the final cutscene gives us the true story of Ethan. Or maybe it’s just another fairy tale. The game is a story about stories, so you never know.
Ethan’s family is horrible. Nobody respects him. Not quite surprising, then, that Ethan often escapes into his fantasy world. Sometimes he plays in the Vandegriff house, abandoned by Carters after the incident in 1973. He paints on walls and writes stories.
In the attic in Carter’s house we can find a chair with a book and few books on the table near the window. Look at these books: “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain, “From the Earth to the Moon” by Jules Verne, “The Island of Doctor Moreau” by H.G. Wells, Juvenilia of H.P. Lovecraft. A selection of books that a lot of boys would love. And Ethan loves to read. At least in one of the realities.
One day Ethan plays for too long and misses dinner. He is about to finish his latest story about a private detective. Meanwhile, the family tries to find him. Uncle was mean, father was sad, mother was mad, brother was loud, grandfather was quiet. Chad and Travis swear a lot, Missy gets angry and accidentally breaks the lamp. Old house on fire. Ethan trapped in room, suffering from the smoke inhalation.
At the rail station, the church tower and the dam control room you can find various clocks. All these two-sided clocks are frozen at around 7:00 from one side and 7:04 from the other side. The meaning of this lies in the final cutscene where Ethan lays asleep at 7:00 and at 7:04 the camera flies away from the body and up to the sky. The journey of Paul Prospero in Red Creek Valley is a 4 minute dream of a dying boy. Who wants to be saved, who wants to “awake”.
If Ethan dreamed about a rescue why did he need all these murders? A rude brother, an ill tempered mother, a disgusting uncle, a pitiful father, a withdrawn, passive grandpa – it’s all bad things, but something that many families have in common. If someone hurts you verbally, it’s not a reason to kill them. We see how the family tried to save Ethan. For example, Travis’ burning jacket means that he tried to save Ethan from the overwhelming fire.
Maybe Ethan looks differently at this situation. Maybe for him it’s not an accident, it’s a murder and he wants revenge. The family needs to be punished. Violent death to the violent brother. Stabbing the uncle for his meanness. Drowning the mother to chill her fire-like temper. Dad killing himself for being a failure as a father. Quiet death to the distant grandfather. Everyone got what they deserved in Ethan’s eyes.
Lots of details are still a mystery. Some stories are hiding deeper than the first look suggests.
The crow is one of most intriguing secrets. It’s featured on the game logo. We can find a crow statuette a and a crow-shaped ritual dagger in the cemetry. A flock of crows appears after Ethan escapes from the crypt. Corvus (crow in Latin) is a word that Edwin repeats few time and the password to the hidden room in the burned house. I can’t combine these clues into a story yet. Something important is still missing.
We hear a lot about Vandegriff family. What did it mean to the Carter family? Carters lived in Vandegriff house, walked in Vandegriff mines, walled up Ethan in Vandegriff crypt.
Who is Gayle and what is her role in story? We know she was Edwin wife. Edwin says to Ethan: “Your grandmother Gayle is protecting me from it.”, but when the grandfather imprisoned Ethan in the secret room, he walked up to one of corpses in the wall and said: “Gayle, honey – I wish there was another way.”
The tombstone in the crypt has this inscription “Here lies my beloved wife Amets Vandegriff Quoad Denuo Coeamus”. These last words looks like Latin, but I asked Google and it didn’t know what it meant. Maybe it’s a cipher.
Another potential clue can be found on the inscription under the statue of the armless Jesus. It’s the only one grave in the graveyard that has an inscription. Translating from German: “Here rests with God my beloved wife Thusnelda Schöneberg 1.3.1874 – 20.9.1934 1. John. 4. v. 16.”. This is real grave on Poland graveyard of Vang Stave Church. If you Google this church you will find very familiar images. It’s all going to be an alternate reality game.
Another interesting finding is the broken lamp in the church’s bell tower. We see how Missy holds this lamp in all scenes, then goes with Travis to catch Ethan. Did she lose the lamp while trying to climb the stairs?
Or the rift on the cliff that is too sharp and looks artificial. When you enter the rift the music start playing. When you exit, the music stops.
2014.09.30 – Original article in Russian
2014.10.09 – Translation to English. Added: chronology, grave information, strange rift, dialog quotes, many little improvments.