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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Mikolai Stroinski)

February 4, 2015

Cover_VanishingofECTHE VANISHING OF ETHAN CARTER

Mikolai Stroinski, 2014, The Astronauts
17 tracks, 47:07

A stunning looking video game that is as much (if not more so) about scenery and atmosphere as it is about solving a murder. What approach will the score take; and will it live up to the gorgeous visuals?

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Inspired by the weird fiction (and other tales of the macabre) from the early twentieth century, “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” aims to evolve immersive storytelling in games. You play the game as Paul Prospero, an occult-minded detective who receives a disturbing letter from Ethan Carter. Realizing the boy is in grave danger, Paul arrives at Ethan’s home of Red Creek Valley, where things turn out to be even worse than he imagined. Ethan has vanished in the wake of a brutal murder, which Paul quickly discerns might not be the only local murder worth looking into. While it features a private detective and quite a few mental challenges, the focus is on atmosphere, mood, and the essential humanity of the characters.*

The game is created by independent Polish studio The Astronauts; and looks fabulous (in the trailer videos). Reviews have generally been positive, noting the animation and the atmosphere. The low-key original score comes courtesy of classically trained and award-winning composer Mikolai Stroinski. He won twice at last year’s Annual Game Music Awards (“Best Score Orchestral/Cinematic” and “Newcomer”).

What does it sound like?

Those who have played the game, noted that it is “immersive”. So is its soundtrack. If you’re looking for a quick musical fix, you won’t find it here. Stroinki’s score is slow-moving, relying on long chords and atmospheric sounds. There is often a spooky quality to the music, not surprising as the game’s lead character has the ability to see the deceased’s last memories. The strings and flute in “Lonely Planet” are particularly ghostly, but you’ll find plenty of moody cues throughout the album. All of which are pleasant enough, if a little unremarkable when taken out of context.

The score’s most recognisable theme is presented in “Valley of the Blinding Mist” (which is reprised with sampled vocals towards the end of the album). It’s an odd little tune performed on ‘flute’, augmented by lush strings. I suspect it’s not a flute, but rather a synth sound. The legato performance is quite striking and there’s something quite old-fashioned (or: nostalgic) about it. It’s reminiscent of a Mellotron, which is an electronic instrument, like an early synth or sampler, popular in the 60s and 70s.

Atypical use of piano and mallet instruments, as well as reversed sounds set “The Alchemist” apart from the rest of the score. “Forgetful Forest” utilises the legato flute sound again, with a melody that sits somewhere between the “Valley” theme we heard earlier and Ethan’s theme which is yet to come. It’s hard to judge whether these are supposed to be three individual themes or whether they are variations. They’re certainly closely related in both sound and style. It confirms the coherency that already exists through the instrumentation; and I’m sure it helps bind different elements of the game together (much like a consistent colour scheme might do). Even without playing the game it’s easy to imagine how the animation, the colours, the scenery and the music all converge to create this immersive experience. Personally I’m not a big gamer, but I might want to make an exception for “Ethan Carter”.

“The Last Walk” surely accompanies the game’s resolution, as it has a certain amount of energy to it that we haven’t heard before (on this album). It’s still very subtle, but there’s a notable shift towards something altogether (a tiny little bit) more epic. “Ethan’s Theme”, which is mentioned earlier, is performed on a heavily reverberated piano. Its melody reminiscent of, but not quite the same as, the “Valley” theme. Tiny little hesitations in the performance make it feel like an improvisation. I’m undecided as to whether it enhances the humanity of the piece, or hinders the listening experience.

Is it any good?

The music follows the game in that the focus is on atmosphere and mood. There are themes, several of them, but they are so subtle and infrequent they might just pass you by. The overall sound is low-key with an emphasis on woodwinds and plucked instruments, though always backed by slow chords (either from strings or synth pads). There is a dreamy quality to the music, but I suspect it’s one that may divide listeners. Those who love slowly evolving, ambient scores may appreciate Stroinski’s music, whilst others may struggle with the understated nature of it. My rating below reflects the album presentation rather than the music’s function within the game. Whilst it certainly creates a mood and serves quite nicely as background music, I think this is one score that is best appreciated within the game it was written for.

Rating [2.5/5]

Tracklisting

01. Bloody Roots (02:59)
02. The Legs Are Gone (03:08)
03. What Do Ghosts Say? (02:23)
04. Lonely Planet (03:00)
05. Valley of the Blinding Mist (03:09)
06. The Alchemist (03:09)
07. Carter’s House (02:15)
08.0 The Dark Witch (02:13)
09. Rotten Priest (03:11)
10. Forgetful Forest (03:14)
11. Deadly Lantern (03:18)
12. Miner Problem (03:03)
13. Inside of the Deadly Wound (03:15)
14. Where is the Knife? (02:15)
15. The Last Walk (02:14)
16. Ethan’s Theme (01:48)
17. Valley of the Blinding Mist (Credits Vocal Mix) (02:33)

Availability

Digitally – for samples via The Astronauts on SoundCloud.

Footnote

* Text taken from the games’ official website. I made minor edits to the text.

 

 

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