You enter the town of Red Creek Valley through a train tunnel. The passenger line, apparently, doesn’t run here. It’s no surprise—the place is a mess. The tracks, as you follow them, are rusted and far out of working order, with a boarded-up bridge and a derelict train car stuck sitting broken on the other side. The whole town is similarly abandoned. Whoever used to live here left—maybe in a hurry.
But The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter doesn’t spend much time dwelling on its scenery. For a game so thick on atmosphere, a lot is left unexplained. The story focuses squarely on the Carters and a neighboring family, the Vandergriffs. It’s a traditionally Lovecraftian tale, featuring the Sleeper, an arcane entity with the power to dominate minds and incite horrific violence. Ethan, youngest child of the Carter family, awakens The Sleeper from its apparent slumber in the halls of the old Vandergriff place, and then—well, it’s your job to find out what happened next. As Paul Prospero, supernatural detective, you explore Red Creek Valley and solve a series of murders to piece together this family’s story and, ultimately, to find Ethan. But through that process, you learn almost nothing about Red Creek Valley itself. What happened to make this place such a ghost town? The game doesn’t tell, but it also doesn’t have to. By leaning on our recognition of well trodden cultural tropes, Vanishing makes its setting work better than it should. It’s an atmosphere constructed from of the extratextual and the implied—the details that might be there instead of the ones that actually are. The game relies on us to build its town’s backstory for it.
Red Creek Valley is sparse and heavily wooded. Most of the space you have available to explore is forest. There’s no noticeable wildlife; it’s silent except for the occasional chirping of unseen birds. It’s a neutral environment—a good place for a hike—but knowing why you’re here, it oozes menace. It’s not clear where Red Creek Valley is. The forest evokes the Pacific Northwest and with it, lingering cultural memories of Twin Peaks, where those chirping birds are just as likely to be demonic portents as anything else. The isolated setting is also inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s Northeastern towns, especially Innsmouth. Red Creek Valley is nearly abandoned and cut off from the world, feeling lifeless yet tied up with nature. This place, the air thick with old magic and evil, belongs to a reality that doesn’t work quite like ours. You can just tell: This is cursed ground.
Like Innsmouth, the only remnants of civilization left in Red Creek are falling apart. After following the railroad long enough, the player crosses a dam (the only thing in this town that’s still working) into a small settlement with a pair of formerly lush Victorian houses. They’re torched and torn to pieces. Clearly, they’ve suffered some neglect, and neglect, in the weird-fiction tales of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, always holds moral weight. In the Southern Gothic tradition, for instance, which dovetails well with Lovecraft due to a shared preoccupation with evil and evoked mysticism, one of the central symbolic figures is the post-Civil War plantation. In that rendering, the plantation is a symbol of economic and moral loss. It is a monument to the terrible evils of slavery, and its continued existence after slavery’s end is symbolic of the malaise of the era that followed. The plantations slowly decay, and with them, the South itself threatens to rot. Something similar goes on in Innsmouth, where the wreckage of the town is an echo of the interference of the Old Gods and symbolic of Lovecraft’s ongoing anxieties about social change in the Northeast. In that context, Vanishing’s burned houses are loaded signifiers. This is a place that exists post-cataclysm, wrecked by whatever terror left Red Creek empty.
Then there’s the abandoned mine tucked away in the woods behind the houses. It’s easy to miss at first glance, but this mine, which is suggested to have been a part of the Vandergriff’s legacy once upon a time, was likely a bustling center of the town in its day. Considered alongside the railroad, it’s possible to put together a hazy picture of the real-world events that could have put Red Creek Valley in such a sorry state: As industry centralized in bigger urban centers and the resources (whatever they were) from the town’s mine fell out of demand, the Valley fell into disrepair. The mine is also a manifestation of the weird-fiction theme of “digging too deep,” and when you explore it, it’s hard not to get the feeling that something terrible crawled its way out of there. Its dug-out walls, stretching deep underground, become an easy anchor for all the game’s lingering uncertainties.
The evocations feel both amateur and advanced as a storytelling technique. The tropes themselves are dreadfully obvious—Weird Fiction 101—but Vanishing’s reliance on them is never anything less than entirely self-assured. It expects us to sense the hints and connect the dots. Like the train tracks that lead into town, the tropes it taps into are a guide. They bring you into its world and tug on your imagination and memory until the town’s backstory is built from our references and assumptions. And by relying on your assumptions, they do what so much good weird fiction does: force you to consider the unknowable, to weigh the boundaries of what stories can communicate by confronting you with everything you don’t know. Those assumptions are all you have, after all. Everyone you could ask is dead, or gone, or suffered some even stranger fate.