Ether One Review!
Ether One is one of the strongest narrative experiences of the past ten years. It’s up there with the likes of Gone Home as far as its narrative structure and gameplay are concerned, and similar to Gone Home, there is so much more to this game than meets the eye. The truth is White Paper Games has outdone itself here, because Ether One is video game poetry.
The game centres around the Restorer, an employee of Ether One charged with curing the dementia of your patient, Jean Thompson. They navigate various parts of the subject’s mind, exploring important moments from their past and weaving together a narrative with the tools the game provides. It’s tasteful, beautiful, emotional and extremely haunting to explore such a frail mind.
And that’s all you need to know. To give anything else away spoils much that the game has to offer.
The story can be unwound through two ways; by simply exploring the small town of Pinwheel searching for red ribbons, or solving the various puzzles you encounter along the way to give a deeper insight into the tragic and beautiful pasts of its inhabitants.
The level design is absolutely gorgeous, being a fractured and broken open world of which the player can navigate at their leisure. The Restorer will find newspaper clippings from 1969 in an area which is clearly supposed to be a snapshot of the 1950’s. Many of the notes and letters – which spindle the story’s many interesting threads into a cohesive narrative depending on what the player learns – are scattered out of their expected memories, reinforcing the damage of dementia. Whilst it can be easy to get lost in Pinwheel’s four areas, particularly the creepy industrial centre, one can’t help but feel that this is the point, and once the story comes full circle, this sense of loss and disconnect the player experiences makes complete sense.
As far as how satisfying the puzzles are may come from how the player wishes to play. The player who cares about the clicks and whirrs of the puzzle, seeing how it all comes together, will be sorely disappointed, especially as many of the puzzles are rather convoluted. However the player who cares about the whole picture – about full characterization of characters the Restorer will never meet but shall get to know quite intimately – they will be immensely satisfied. One of the beauties about Ether One’s story is how it relies so greatly on an intelligent player and a clever game design. The satisfaction of puzzle-solving is purely down to how the player interprets the answers they are given. One particular instance where an old Mining Warden was reunited with his favourite mug led to a safe code which then led to a tiny action figure. This action figure didn’t help with anything else later in the game, and is technically useless, but its narrative purpose was later made clear as it allowed the Restorer to identify who this Mining Warden truly was, and how they mattered in the town of Pinwheel.
The level design is also every bit as unpredictable and unreliable as the mind of the patient and it often goes in directions the player will not expect. The integration of the inventory case as another part of the patient’s mind is a stroke of genius, not only streamlining the mechanic of an inventory, but charging the player with their most important task very early on in the game – think outside the box.
Ether One’s simple graphic design is a façade. The world and its artefacts look like a gorgeous watercolour painting, even if it doesn’t require the greatest graphics engine to run. The motif of painting is consistent throughout Ether One, and is perhaps a subtle nod towards the game’s conclusion early on. The style of the game is possibly one of the game’s greatest hints to what is waiting for the player in the climax, and forces the player’s thirst for further exploration just enough to push past the convoluted puzzles or sense of loneliness in the town. Where it may look like the level design is repeating itself, this is simply a nod to the broken, repetitious nature of the mind the player is exploring. Everything here, even the graphical fidelity, is purposeful, and Ether One is even more haunting for it.
The all-important voice-acting for Ether One is extremely strong. Phyllis and Jean play their parts extremely well, bouncing off of one another’s comments with a spooky sense of knowing the bigger picture. The music is beautiful too. The same rift plays on interactive guitars and pianos, reverberating around every knock, every creak and every hard footstep as the player explores Pinwheel. The chiming soundtrack which appears every now and then in sharp bursts or subtle tinkles, keeps this sense of fragility and unpredictability around every movement the player makes. Whilst the music may sometimes sound rough, the rest of the game is so polished that it’s hard not to imagine this is on purpose, as the soundtrack does its job of stalking the player through the mines and the cobbled streets, terribly well.
Ether One is gorgeous, haunting, spooky and eerie. Its story is beautiful and its game design is one of the most intelligent seen on the indie platform. It’s going for a relatively cheap on Steam right now, so if you have any sense you’ll pick it up before its story and its ending are spoiled for you, and you’re robbed of one of the most heartfelt and thought-provoking experiences brought to Steam in the past few years. It’s inspiring to see difficult subject-matter tackled in such a tasteful manner without unnecessary ‘shocking,’ turns or gruesome plot twists. Other games should take note from Ether One’s example. Buy it now.
Written by Guest Contributor: Alex Lamont