Few games are as in-your-face about how little they hold your hand as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is. After you start the game for the first time, it literally says on screen, “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand.” That statement is true in every sense.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does not tell you what any button does. It does not tell you where to go, or what to do. Outside of prompts when you walk over an object you can interact with, there’s nothing to go on in-game. You’re thrust into a world (that’s fairly big, considering you’re given no direction) and just told to figure things out.
To talk about the story is to spoil the exploration and adventure. That’s why I won’t do it.
You play the role of a detective that’s been tasked with finding out what happened to Ethan Carter, a boy who went missing. You don’t know much, other than the fact that things aren’t what they seem. It’s spooky and minimal and just works. It reminds me of an Ambrose Bierce story; the game feels old-timey and slightly off in a way you can’t put your finger on.
If you know exactly what to do, you can probably beat Ethan Carter in about an hour or two. Maybe less; I’m not sure how much of the game is “required” to view the ending. It took me about five hours to get through, including a long stretch of time where I was wholly and completely lost. (That was on me, though; I hadn’t completed an earlier event, which guided you toward where you needed to go next.)
To do everything the game allows you to do, I’d say Ethan Carter would take the average person about 4 hours to beat. Those are 4 hours very well spent. I’m a really big fan of short stories told well, which is a category Ethan Carter fits into perfectly. Atmospheric and wonderful, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is well worth your time.