The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and its soundtrack escaped my attention due to the game falling outside of my very narrow gaming interests. When I discovered, however, that Mikolai Stroinski (a composer for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and its expansions) was behind the music and that the soundtrack was nominated for a number of awards, I decided to check it out. This proved to be a very good decision. Although it won’t satisfy everyone, this is a haunting and atmospheric album that really captivated me and deserves the recognition it has received.
The album artwork suggests a combination of lush beauty with mysterious and sinister undercurrents, and although this image accurately visualizes the music, its introduction is rather more ominous. The opening piece “Blood Moss” is a dark ambient work that establishes a foreboding and uneasy atmosphere with a single, sinister drone growling underneath nervously fluttering strings and (what sounds like) a wailing reversed guitar.
“Blood Moss” typifies many features of the soundtrack: the dark ambient label needs emphasizing. Minor keys govern the harmonies and Stroinski augments the music’s darker aspects through liberally utilizing drones, dissonance, harsher textures and sounds such as creaking doors, and slow momentums. Often gravitating around a single root note, tracks progress slowly and frequently blend into one another. This feeling is complemented both by the smoothness of the heavily featured synths and strings and a strong, otherworldly reverb. Finally, although there is some frantic tension, largely due to tremolo strumming on violins, the music is never explosive or particularly animated. Instruments fade in and rise in volume as if something sinister is about to jump out, but the crash never comes. These features enhance the game’s setting, and Stroinski’s commitment to maintaining this atmosphere is creditworthy. Nevertheless, those who prefer their soundtracks with some adrenaline or variability in dynamics or mood might be less enthusiastic.
Insofar as the elements described above don’t deter listeners, the foreboding atmosphere sustains interest across the soundtrack as if daring one to continue. However, some of my favorite pieces break the balance somewhat in favor of one extreme or the other. With respect to the darker extreme, “The Dark Witch” is a strong example: an unsettling soundscape that disposes of clear structure, harmonies and melodies. Instead, instruments cacophonously wail and screech atop a swirling subterranean hum as indecipherable voices cry out, submerged in the noise. Although this is probably the album’s most explosive track, the wilder tendencies are largely subdued. In a way this makes the song much more chilling.
Conversely, pieces such as “Valley of The Blinding Mist” and “Forgetful Forest” are airy and majestic, with the mysteriousness comparatively more inviting. These songs will feel much more familiar to fans of the RPG soundtrack genre. Whilst on other tracks the heavy reverb enhances a feeling of claustrophobia, here the music feels more open and enchanting. No longer tethered to a single root note or simple chord progression, the instruments feel like they can finally shine and stretch out, taking advantage of the space they now occupy. These tracks are further differentiated by some unique instrumentation: woodwinds, mostly absent on the darker pieces, undertake melodic duties. Nevertheless, these pieces’ mournful characters are in keeping with the rest of the soundtrack, and overall Stroinski negotiates an uneasy balance between the music’s lighter and darker extremes (even if it is more concessive to the latter). Uneasiness and trepidation, rather than outright terror, is the norm.
The suspense generated across the album reaches a point of closure with the penultimate track, “Ethan’s Theme.” A soft and intimate piano piece, the music’s candid sadness and romantic character are particularly affecting when considering its place among the other pieces, as if pent up emotions can finally be aired. By ending the piece without returning to the key signature’s home note, Stroinski conveys a sense of incompleteness that juxtaposes with the music’s peaceful sorrow and the closure that’s meant to be provided, as the piano slowly echoes away. But such a conclusion fits with the album’s shadowy atmosphere, and to connect back to the game, this also provides an appropriate musical analogue to Ethan’s life.
There are musical elements that will challenge some listeners, but those able to tolerate the darker undertones will be rewarded with a distinctive and engaging soundtrack. Some of the music’s power is perhaps lost when isolated from the game, given its largely ambient nature. As a fan of ambient music, however, I was greatly pleased with the results. The foreboding atmosphere captured my interest right from the beginning and sustained it to its melancholic end. Hopefully Stroinski’s accolades will persuade you to give this a listen, as they are definitely well deserved.