Electron Dance
23Apr/15Off

Ethan Carter vs Verde Station

ethan-vs-verde

Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) is a bit long in the tooth but it gave birth to the popularity of the “walking simulator”. Look, gang, if you really wanted to be offensive about it, you should call these games dog walking simulators, where the player is the goddamned dog.

Ordinary people felt free to dance naked on the streets and proclaim, “Let’s kill the gameplay!” But the original Dear Esther is 7 years old and if we’re still pumping out games where people potter about triggering monologues and weeping at eye candy then it suggests this revolution merely spawned an army of imitators: “Comrade, I make also great revolutionary walking simulator!”

And so to today's question: are there any new ideas in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (The Astronauts, 2014) or Verde Station (Duelboot, 2014)?

Careful, team, MASSIVE spoilers lurk below. If you want to duck out now, here’s the short version: I enjoyed secret-box-on-the-cheap Verde Station but had problems with it’s-not-gameplay-honest-guv Ethan Carter.

I know what you’re thinking because you’re just that simple. You’re thinking the Tale of Tales gang would be disappointed with both titles. Tale of Tales dream that developers stop shoring up games with an appeal to a gameplay mentality. If developers aren’t bolting on bizarre puzzles to justify a player’s presence in a world, then they’re arguing that, well, the story itself is the puzzle!

Both Ethan Carter and Verde Station are mysteries challenging the player to figure them out. They approach this in different ways. Ethan Carter considers the player to be journeying through mystery to a final endpoint where all is revealed, whereas Verde Station is far more fragmented leaving some players mystified about what it’s all about, Alfie. Ethan Carter's final cutscene is a story unlock, whereas Verde Station’s last scene is a total shocker that does not, in itself, answer the big questions.

HOWEVER. Both games refute the lazy pejorative “walking simulator” albeit in different ways.

Ethan Carter has you investigate the disappearance of a boy called Ethan Carter but the specifics of the details of how you came to be there and what you do is left intentionally vague, although a tiny bit more information is revealed in the prequel comic. The player's main task is to rebuild memories although how exactly this worked took me a while to figure out as it isn't wholly consistent.

The player only needs to walk around a bit to trigger the first memory yet the second memory is substantially more complicated, requiring you to relocate items back to their “original location”. This includes includes a railcar which doesn’t “snap to a hotspot” like other items do. It also doesn’t help that the verb “fix” is used to describe the process of returning items. Even worse, I had the misfortune to discover the pine cone/grenade early on, which disrupted my understanding of Ethan Carter’s relatively simple mechanics – because the grenade is the first step towards an easter egg, not part of the main plot.

ethan-carter-narrative-experience-hold-hand

I’m not sure how well this fits The Astronauts’ original intentions of killing the gameplay to serve player wonder and, even though the game flips the bird at the start with “we’re not going to hold your hand” it does and doesn’t. Later you need to reassemble ghostly echoes of the past in chronological order, and each echo is assigned a glowing number so you can put them in order. It’s actually difficult to figure out the solution from pure observation, so feedback coupled with trial-and-error make it more monkey work than an effort in reconstruction. And those shimmering numbers with supporting text tear up it’s non-gamey exterior.

Let's change the channel. Verde Station is the only game I’m aware of that has adopted the term “secret box”, a term I coined last year to describe a broad cross-section of games that focus on sharing secrets with players, diminishing the role of challenge. I put it out there because I hated the term “walking simulator”. Convention has games transmit rewards for beating challenge, but we’ve seen an explosion of games that are more about the code as an artefact to run your fingers over than an arena for sport.

verde-books

In Verde Station, you awake alone in a room and soon discover your purpose is to look after a small space station alone. I’ve played it three times – twice on Steam Early Access and once after the official launch. There are no puzzles to solve but story is still gated a la Gone Home (Fullbright Company, 2013). This brings up an interesting distinction between Ethan Carter and Verde Station. The latter is much more authoritarian about gating progress, yet the former more inviting to the explorer-player, save for the endgame. Which is the better game? The question is how you like your mysteries spun. If a player figures out the story in the first few minutes, then the player is consigned to watching pieces move into assigned positions - and this is one of the reasons why Gone Home gates progress through the story.

Give it some thought and you'll realise Ethan Carter also gates the story because most players are unlikely to guess the true nature of what is going on until the final cutscene. The Astronauts hope players find the weirdness beguiling enough to push on for the story skeleton key at the end of the game.

ethan-tree

Weirdness, indeed, is sometimes enough to see you through; I’m a big fan of David Lynch’s work despite struggling to understand most of it. But it’s an unstable storytelling tactic. Some will feel that they’re being strung along, the mysteries being eked out for the sake of length. French horror series Les Revenants (also known as The Returned) crossed the line because its characters either did not ask natural plot-resolving questions or refused to speak out just because. I could see the writers’ hands all over that thing and it drove me crazy. “Tune in next week to find out how, yet again, we avoid answering some fucking questions.”

Ethan Carter did not frustrate me as much as Les Revenants but it was in the same ball park. The player experiences several fantastical stories which turn out to be just that – fantastical stories that the vanished Ethan wrote. Although this does play into the overarching mystery, Ethan Carter is trying to have its cake and eat it. It teases players with the horror of disturbing a Cthulhu looky-likey or chasing an alien astronaut into a trap – but they're immaterial. Ethan Carter could be seen, uncharitably, as a stage for disconnected set pieces, the games The Astronauts could have made. “We didn’t make a game about space aliens, but we could have!”

There was something odd about the sketchiness of the preview information that made me suspect Ethan Carter’s story was going to be of the more “mundane” variety, more Gone Home than Dear Esther. I would’ve been fine with that which made it doubly frustrating when the game tried to bamboozle me with parlour tricks as it turned out I was right in the end: Ethan Carter pans back and reveals that the entire game is just another layer of fantastical story shrouding something human and grounded very much in reality.

I'm not surprised that some found Ethan Carter to be moving. It strikes me that a large swathe of its target market would be able to identify with a tale about a “misunderstood kid who loves writing fantasy”. This might sound like I'm accusing people of filling the story blanks with their own lives, but all stories are part author-magick, part reader-imagination. I found Passage (Jason Rohrer, 2007) upsetting:

Somewhere in your teens, you become aware of history as something you have existed in as opposed to something you have not. Some of us deal with the knowledge of time's arrow better than others. I'm terrible with it and suffer vertigo when I look back across the yawning chasm between now and the start of my life, seeing the past as a sequence of experiences that are locked and cannot be revisited. For this reason, Jason Rohrer’s Passage was a gut punch to my soul.

But in contrast my good friend Amanda Lange found it repugnant:

Passage, then. A game about a man, and a woman with no agency, who slows you down and holds you back, but sure is nice to look at, I guess.

ethan-dam

Verde Station also works hard to manipulate its players, but takes a different tack. As you move from room to room, time jerks back and forth, so information is fed in a discontinuous fashion. This can be explained later by oxygen deprivation but, remember, this is still a very game story thing to do. Insanity blurs your vision, low health upsets movement speed, oxygen deprivation upsets time. But, hey, whoa there. Let's not malign games as being the sole platform for this kind of story cheat. Consider how movie action heroes often behave like bullet sponges. Consider the relationship between Tyler Durden and the narrator in Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999).

But how Verde Station manipulates is interesting, even if overt. Like that stunning moment when you return to a chamber that was previously pristine yet now appears to be falling apart. This manipulation reaches a fever pitch with the ending when you become convinced, like the protagonist, that the station is an elaborate set-up and you’re not in space at all. The whole game is a brilliantly executed con: the con is there is no con.

verde-test

It's power is diminished on repeat plays as it becomes more obvious that the game is funnel, but this is always a problem with story games. Replays are really more about expedition, trying to uncover more data to explain what's going on.

Verde Station cleverly nudges the player through the same mental journey as protagonist, even though some of the concepts are a bit on the unrealistic side (the physical size of the complete station is ridiculous with all that dead space) but it never entertains suggestions of something supernatural or fantastical.

However, I fell in love with Verde Station when it hit Steam Early Access which is not quite the same game that was eventually released. I can’t help feeling the final game is a little more flabby, perhaps in response to early criticisms about length (Alice O'Connor: “it didn’t do enough with it, give enough to see and discover”). Players can also spot a ship coming to save the day right at the end of the game, to ensure players realise this tragedy is entirely “self-inflicted” - in Early Access, I assumed the station and occupant had been abandoned meaning suicide was probably inevitable anyway. Although it’s a useful addition, the timing is too convenient, revealing the writer’s hand more than I’d like.

I’ve yet to see environmental storytelling as coy and understated as Kairo, although that game confused many of its players, because Verde Station still needs to rely on lore in the form of handwritten notes scattered around and messages stored on terminals. But it might be better to see Kairo as a special case because I’ve previously discussed how limiting it is to tell a story in a dead world. Certain messages are corrupted a little too conveniently, so the world feels like a puzzle authored just for you as opposed to a real situation you’re trying to make sense of.

verde-smiley

However, Verde Station does makes you feel like you’re doing a kind of work in the station, a la Cart Life. Its tight space feels lonely and claustrophobic and you’re desperate to find new rooms, yet escaping from the “ship” into the “bottle” does not feel like a positive achievement but an omen of impending doom. Ethan Carter could not be more different encouraging the player to wander and wonder at a lush landscape, although it can occasionally feel overwhelming.

I admit I appreciate the intelligence of Ethan Carter much more having finished the game, and when I was mulling it over, I was reminded of the movie Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006) even though the latter is not a mystery in any sense. But I’d still have to say Verde Station was much more up my alley. Yet both Verde Station and Ethan Carter share some common ground.

First, they are thematically identical: developer stages a deception to mask a moment of tragedy. In Ethan Carter, the player discovers the tragedy, in Verde Station, the player engineers it.

Second, neither title befits the “walking simulator” moniker. Alice O'Connor observed it felt too “purpose-driven” for a walking simulator, a term normally associated with player passivity and I can say the same of Ethan Carter. They both show awareness that churning out pure “scout and trigger” games like Dear Esther, Gone Home or even THE RAPTURE IS HERE AND YOU WILL BE FORCIBLY REMOVED FROM YOUR HOME (Connor Sherlock, 2013) will lead to diminishing returns.

And so, reservations aside, it’s great to see both these games say no to “walking simulators”.

ethan-wood

Footnotes on Ethan Carter

  • Alternatively, Ethan Carter's Russian doll of stories-with-stories gives the game a more meta feel, like an artist statement about how stories have a certain reality.
  • Oh my God that auto-save system was the worst.
  • Eric Swain had some similar thoughts on Ethan Carter although goes further than I would.
  • There is apparently "more" that can be figured out about Ethan's life from all the metaphors and fragments on show - but I just wasn't invested enough to go back.
  • I’m tired of stories where personal demons are manifested as real ones, especially as “Aha! It’s a metaphor!” waves away every potential game/story schism. IGF Finalist One and One Story (Mattia Traverso, 2011) went to town on that. Ethan Carter dances around this territory.

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Comments (13) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I think I really want to play both of these! I was looking into Ethan Carter (need more fodder for a CoC game I’m running) but Verde Station wasn’t on my radar. Thanks for the article!

  2. I hope the post hasn’t spoiled your ability to enjoy them! They’re both worth the time if you’re interested in the non-gamey games.

  3. Haven’t played either but now I’m intrigued! You spoiled so little.

    Also I endorse any display of frustration over Les Revenants Second Half. The Netflix version is at least kind enough to be terrible from episode one.

  4. I really enjoyed The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Though that railcar puzzle had me completely stumped (mostly because at first I didn’t understand that I had to return things to their original positions). When I finally grasped what I was supposed to be doing, I couldn’t find the stupid rock and spent ages hunting around for it.

    But, my god, it’s dripping with atmosphere. I love 1920’s weird fiction anyway, so the pulp magazine flavouring had me enthralled. And just exploring the environment was magical – that rusting old town full of ghosts. Each environment told a story, and poking around beautifully designed levels without having to worry about shooting monsters was its own reward.

    Also, Cthulhu.

  5. @David: Ha ha, I think I should avoid Les Revenants’ continuation. It would be nothing but bad news for me, I think.

    @Uncaring Cosmos: Yes! The railcar was about the last thing I solved and I imagine this is a common problem. I think it was John Walker who was annoyed about having to retrace his steps back to the beginning to solve a puzzle – I’m pretty sure he was talking about the railcar. I know it’s not supposed to hold your hand, but the rest of the game is soooo patterned over “put this back, put this back, now it’s memory time” that the railcar stood out as awkward.

    What you say about dripping with atmosphere is actually what turned me against it. I just felt I was being fed setpieces without seeking sufficient justification. Of course it is all “justified” in a way, but only really in retrospect and it’s not particularly strong justification although it’s possible deeper knowledge of the story is buried in those tales. I was still fooled by mine sequence, thinking that perhaps this was the real deal. OH MY GOD I FELL FOR IT AGAIN.

  6. But I wonder if it really needs to be justified? I really loved Les Revenant precisely because it built up this amazing sense of atmosphere, and it never really explained any of the weirdness. Having said that, my wife hated it for exactly the reasons you outlined above (and she also hates Lynch, while I’m a huge fanboy).

    I didn’t feel that the lack of a “skeleton key” explaining and justifying everything in Les Revenants means the mysteries were eked out for the sake of length. I think the sense of mystery was the entire purpose of the thing, and any attempt at a reveal would just have spoiled things (à la Lost). Story, plot and are all secondary to atmosphere and the weirdly sublime.

    Having said all this, I was disappointed by the ending of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I wish they’d kept things more ambiguous and open. The developers have hinted that something else might be going on, though, so it might warrant another playthrough at some distant point in the future.

  7. Hey Joe Cosmos, sorry for getting back so late on this, was busy getting that video done! I think the Les Revenants triggered me because there were scenes which seemed to be primed for someone to explain something or for a revelation – but then we got nothing. It was like watching a soap opera flush with conversations like “There’s something I need to tell you urgently-” which are always interrupted by the sudden entrance of another character. Comparing with Lynch’s most perplexing works (Inland Empire is off the scale), you just don’t have those moments of tempting explanation, so there’s no frustration. You know that’s never coming and you can settle back and just enjoy the ride.

    It’s funny that I wasn’t disappointed by the ending because it made some sense of what I’d seen, because up until that point, I’d felt it was all a bit setpiece-based. I think there’s more about Ethan’s home life in there if you read between the lines but, as I pointed out in the footnotes, I just wasn’t invested enough to replay (even though a replay would not take too long).

  8. Yeah, that’s a fair point. There is a second season in the works, and I’m looking forward to giving it a go – but my wife has sworn off watching it because she found it too frustrating and meandering.

    Still, the quickest way to kill a weird, ethereal atmosphere is by giving things a straightforward, reductive explanation. I’d much rather never know what was happening, but have hints that things are going on behind the curtain.

    In horror movies, the monster is always scarier before they actually show the man in the rubber suit.

  9. It’s not just the weird stuff. There clearly seemed to be something dodgy about Simon’s suicide and the obvious question hung in the air, but no one seemed to voice it. Also, we follow some of the returned like Simon like core protagonists, but as soon as they joined the “collective” at the end, they became different people with no explanation as to this break.

    My personal jump the shark the moment was unrelated to revelation: having hot sex with a serial killer who eats women moments after finding out exactly that.

  10. Ah, I had completely forgotten about all that gubbins with the dodgy suicide. You are right, of course, that was quite soap opera-y. Likewise the cannibal kidnapper sex. Could have done without all that.

    But I didn’t mind that there was no explanation about the “collective”, or why Simon’s personality changed. In fact, quite the opposite – I would have been disappointed if they’d tried! Whereas the suicide stuff was fairly mundane (or, at least, corporeal) and probably had an ordinary soap opera-y explanation, I’m quite happy for the motivations and behaviour of the dead to remain alien and unknowable.

    I’m now going to apparently undermine myself, because Inland Empire is actually my least favourite film by Lynch. However, it’s not because it’s “too weird”, rather because there’s no contrast. It’s all weirdness, from the very beginning to the end. I love stuff like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, or Mulholland Drive because they paint a picture of normal American life that is then contrasted with moments of extreme weirdness. And the veil is never pulled back completely. You are given hints that something is going on beneath the surface, and that it’s larger than the small corner you have witnessed, but you will never see (or understand) everything.

    To bring it back round to your original post, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was one of my favourite games of last year. I love weird fiction from the late 19th and early 20th Century (not just Lovecraft – also Franz Kafka, Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Robert W. Chambers, Algernon Blackwood, Guy de Maupassant, etc.), and Ethan Carter is explicitly based on that kind of fiction (specifically 1920s pulps).

    However, the ending (*spoilers*) strongly suggests that all of the weird fiction elements in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter existed only because it was all in Ethan’s mind, and he read lots of pulp magazines. That’s an almost metafictional ending, which deconstructs all of the preceding weirdness in a way that ultimately diminishes any sense of the weird or sublime.

    Does that make sense? I loved The Vanishing of Ethan Carter because it’s one of the few games based on non-Lovecraftian weird fiction (the other great example I can think of is The Last Door), but I hated the ending because it explained it all away.

  11. You wrote CANNIBAL KIDNAPPER SEX

    It’s funny because what you didn’t like about the ending was what I didn’t like about the core game. Specifically, that all the weirdness wasn’t actually real and the game became a sequence of disconnected scenes. I was comfortable with the ending because it gave that structure a little context, but I’d have preferred to have engaged with something that was more consistent.

    I love all that weird fiction too – but I just wasn’t satisfied with what Ethan Carter was offering me.

    Also you wrote CANNIBAL KIDNAPPER SEX

  12. Huh. Yes, I guess that true. I suppose I had just ignored / suppressed that thought while playing. Particularly (*spoiler*) the spaceman scene, because that’s probably the most incongruous vignette. But, of course, you’re absolutely right – it exposes the metafictional wankery of the plot.

    But without the skeleton key of the end there was still some mystery, and that enabled my suppression / doublethink to continue. So, I guess one of the things that most annoyed you about Ethan Carter was one of the things allowing me to enjoy it as much as I did.

    Also, watch out for CANNIBAL KIDNAPPER SEX II: UNDERPASS TO HELL in a videostore near you!

  13. I just finished Ethan Carter and I totally agree with you about the autosave system. Yikes! Just tell me for real when you’ve saved!

    Also, how long did it take me to realize Shift was sprint? The answer is too long. Even though I know the Unreal Engine I guess I just assumed it’d be disabled for some reason.


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