Ethan Carter has vanished within the remote valley that is his home, but in a last act of desperation, he called out to Paul Prospero, paranormal investigator. Despite the silly superhero name and profession of the protagonist, this mystery is as gritty as it gets. On his search for Ethan through an astonishingly picturesque valley (it's certainly one of the most gorgeously looking games around), Prospero happens upon the boy's grisly murdered family members, who appear to have been taken hold of by an unknown force.
In principle, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is one of them walking games. Prospero only interacts with his environment - besides opening doors and activating elevators - when he investigates a crime scene using his psychic powers. When the hero touches a corpse, the deceased's spirit tries to communicate with him, but the connection cannot be made until Prospero restores the scene to more closely resemble the time of death. The search for clues is thoroughly inspired by TV series like Sherlock - when Prospero examines an item, his thoughts start hovering around it, sometimes resulting in a big idea about what to look for next, which then keeps circling the screen until the player looks in the right direction, which allows a peek at the target's surroundings. In the first scene, for example, Prospero finds a train that obviously has been moved recently after standing still for a long time. Looking at the vehicle, he finds that a crank to operate it is missing, which he then has to locate using his powers. Once the crime scene is restored, lights emerge from the victim's body and project segments of the crime in the environment. Prospero has to watch them and bring them in the right order to learn the deceased's final thought, which gives a clue towards Ethan's whereabouts.
There is one other gamey element: Young Ethan is a vivid short story writer, and for some reason that's not immediately obvious, his stories find ways to merge with the reality around his home, challenging Prospero to solve some kind of puzzle relating to the stories' resolution. Prospero finds the boy's manuscripts only afterwards, so the first time they happen they feel unreal and weird, but in the end, it all falls together quite nicely.
The Vanishing does an admirable job in trying to match narrative experience with gameplay, but ultimately the latter still cannot quite convince on its own merits. Putting cases in order is a simple matter of guessing among a small range of options, and finding items to put back to their original location is the 3D equivalent of a pixel hunt. The game aspires to be an open world, but that means that it's never quite clear where an area for a puzzle ends, and leaving it causes things to reset. The environment is also not as open as it seems to be. There are only few paths through the valley, and Prospero cannot surmount any obstacles higher than his knees. There are also a few stupid roadblocks to puzzles, like an item that's clearly visible in the dark, but can only be interacted with after pointing the frontlight of a mining train at it. Then there's an annoying monster jumpscare section that feels quite out of place in the otherwise subtle narrative, even after accepting the premise that Ethan's stories somehow become real. However, the game is worth playing for the clever story and dense atmosphere alone, even though some might feel a bit Shyamalaned in the end, which comes after no more than 3-5 hours.