The first thing you see when you start The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a black screen with only this message in the center: “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.”
Pretty harsh, isn’t it?
We always wanted to make a game about the excitement of discovery. The problem is, true discovery means it needs to be earned, and that the players need to be able to miss things.
Imagine there’s something interesting to be found in a forest. It’s a different feeling if you reach that spot using an objective marker and a map where “X marks the spot,” or if you just stumble upon this discovery almost accidentally, exploring the forest, maybe even getting lost in it. And it’s a different feeling if the game forces you to visit all crucial spots to tick boxes off a checklist, and when it allows you to miss some things, never even realizing they existed.
In our game, there are no objective markers, and there is no guide to help you on your journey. When you arrive at the Red Creek Valley, it’s up to you how deeply you want to explore it and in what order. And, indeed, you do not need to find and do everything to finish the game, although obviously the more you discover, the more you understand all layers of the story.
But when we were nearing the end of the development, I panicked. I realized that some players may see what we’ve built not as an idea but as an error. “Why don’t I see my next objective displayed? I don’t know where to go now, what were they thinking?!”
Thomas Grip (Frictional Games, the designer/programmer of Amnesia and SOMA) helped me solved this issue one day. “Have some sort of helpful statement at the start of the game. Something as simple as ‘This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand’ but better written,” he suggested.
But I did not want it better written. It felt perfect to me. I asked our writers – both from the US – what they thought. Was it too rude, too strong? “A little severity isn’t a bad thing,” they said.
So, I went with it. I know, it’s a paradox, a hint to say this is a game without hints (although of course, you do find clues in the game, after all, you play as a private detective). But I think it works and puts the players in a certain desirable state of mind: they know they’re on their own.
I hope that the actual experience proves that this risky move was the right choice. As I said it before, a true discovery needs to be earned to feel your own.