Impressions: Ether One

By John Walker on April 3rd, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

First-person adventure Ether One aims to explore a difficult subject – dementia – through storytelling and puzzles. The debut game from indie team White Paper Games is out now, and I’ve had a play. And a struggle. You can read my thoughts below.

I don’t envy game developers. No one’s ever happy. Either something is “too linear” or “too directionless” or “too easy” or “too hard”. It must be infuriating. And yet I’m going to do exactly this to Ether One. Because as much as I fought to like it, as hard as I tried to appreciate the obviously huge amounts of work that have gone into it, its sprawling, obscure ways left me detached and unengaged.

The concept is, if I’ve understood its ambiguous story correctly, that you are coerced into participating in a memory recovery service, in which you are implanted into the fading memories of a woman with dementia. As you wander the mines (essentially an extended tutorial level) and harbour in which her memories take place, you aim to recover scrambled memories, with a purported therapeutic purpose. Who you are, why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for, and who is the disembodied voice of a tetchy British woman are all mysteries to be solved. Perhaps too many mysteries.

Beyond those starting mines, things immediately become really impressively open. There’s half a village available to you, filled with buildings to go inside, explore, and perhaps to recover memories within. For some reason you’re also gathering red bows tied to things, but at the same time broken reel projectors lie on the floors of various buildings. Manage to puzzle what each section wants you to do to recover order, restore the memory, and that projector rebuilds itself, until you can play a memory from it. Meanwhile, collecting those bows means you can enter another form of memory elsewhere, and, um, take photos of it? I guess.

All the while you’re able to “teleport” back to a hub area. This is the virtual room from which you project yourself into the memories, but itself a form of dreamlike metaphor. Since you’re only allowed to carry one object at a time, you can zip in and out of memories, and store objects you suspect might come in useful on the shelves back there, adding an enormously fiddling dimension to puzzle solving. And the world is packed with objects you can pick up, almost none of them having any relevance to the plot.

And that’s where it really starts to come unthreaded. Puzzles are deeply obscure, and solutions are vague. Even knowing if you’ve solved something is vague. You don’t need to complete all the projectors in an area to move on, but if you opt out of them, then the game doesn’t offer a great deal beyond having its story spoken at you. But when the game gives you an entire town to wander, no sense of why or what it’s for, and then multiple obfuscated puzzles to solve within it, that sense of gaming agoraphobia kicks in. You can walk in every direction, have no clear idea or motivation for any of them, and each results in confusion.

Having completed three of the projectors in the harbour area, and gathered all the ribbons to allow me to make at least narrative progression onward, the game then made no attempt to tell me how to actually progress. Eventually I stumbled on a formerly locked gate that was now open, which led to the third section of the game that was so sprawling, so multiply pathed, that I found myself accidentally walking into the fourth area before anything else. And that itself was made up of myriad passages and choices leading to myriad passages and choices, until eventually I only felt overwhelmed.

I agree that in another game, this level of freedom and choice might be welcome. But to go that open, that sprawling, requires something else – it requires a deeper connection, and greater sense of purpose. And for me, that’s missing too. I was aware I’d not even half-finished the harbour, skipped straight past goodness knows how much more, and was now faced with yet more madness. And having not engaged, it became increasingly hard to want to try. Not least because the game had gone out of its way to make me suspect that what I was doing was wrong, that my character’s own circumstances were hostile and opaque, and given any genuine choice in this rambling world it would be to stop.

Going back to earlier areas, trying to fill in gaps of puzzles I’d not solved, I stumbled around for a good long time failing to work out how to piece anything together. Two puzzles involved my writing words onto paper in the game, and neither made sense. One seemed unexplained, the other over-explained and yet failing to recognise the only sensible answer. Exasperated, I thought I’d watch a couple of Let’s Plays on YouTube, see how others had figured it out. What I watched were other people having the very same experience, wandering aimlessly around, not having a clue what to do, getting frustrated and giving up.

Sadly that’s what’s happened to me too. Ether One seems packed with so many good ideas. While its art-style didn’t do it for me (far too much like World Of Warcraft, despite being first-person), it was very beautifully crafted, with clearly vast amounts of time and effort having gone into building the world. The voice recordings are many and professionally done, and the plot is obviously experimental and packed with potential. But for me, none of it came together. I only felt unattached, the game obscured by its own obscurity.

It’s true that the game is designed such that you absolutely can walk past all the puzzles and just hear its story. And perhaps that story exploring the difficult subject of dementia is worth hearing. Unfortunately, Ether One failed to pull me in, to give me a desire to hear it. I really rather hope the opposite is true for others. The game is clearly enormously detailed, a real passion piece, and one I fought and fought to enjoy. It didn’t work out for me. I suspect it may for others.

Ether One is out now on Steam, GOG, Humble, and directly via White Paper Games. It’s around £15/$20, although slightly cheaper on Humble.

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21 Comments »

  1. RedViv says:

    Those are far too many myst-erious similarities to a certain series of games that bother me like very few others.

  2. Trif says:

    So you were feeling confused, bewildered and had no idea where to go? Sounds to me like the game was exploring dementia all too well.

  3. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I’m playing through this at the moment, and I do agree with the sense of sprawl being overwhelming; however I think for this game the devil is in the detail, the myriad clues and vague allusions that are scattered around. [MAYBE SPOILER] For example with the overexplained “writing” puzzle, there is a clue as to exactly what you should be writing in the same house in the form of a note. However, if you haven’t noticed that holding LMB on an item gives you its name, you may not put two and two together. Similarly the ‘underexplained’ one is mentioned on a poster in town, so its more experimentation, though I was disappointed that there didn’t seem to be any real relevance of it to the character connected with that building. [END MAYBE SPOILER]

    To me the aim seems to be that you absorb anything and everything, such that the answers come more in the form of “I wonder if it has anything to do with that?”. In another harbour section, I was totally stumped and had to seek online help to at least begin the puzzle. [MAYBE SPOILER] Then I realised there was a slogan on the wall which was pointing me towards the starting move. [END MAYBE SPOILER] I’d read it, but not realised that almost EVERYTHING has meaning.

    Regarding the bows, I believe that this is the “two streams” approach to the game. Find all the bows and you don’t have to bother with the puzzles, and just listen to the story. With respects to the harbour, again the game does tell you where to go next – but its in the form of a snippet from the doctor who mentions a location that has just become clear. Its all ‘blink and you’ll miss it’.

    It took me a day or so to complete just the harbour area, and I must admit some of the puzzles are very obscure. Having said that, I got the “Dark Souls Effect” when I completed it, in that it felt great to have solved something so tough. Moving onto industrial, I DO feel overwhelmed, but I feel pulled in by the story. I love games that make me feel sadness and loss, and this one has a ton of resonance for me considering the issues it touches on. It may be that without that I wouldn’t feel quite so fondly towards it.

    Just as an added aside, the devs have been awesome over on the Steam forums with responding to technical issues and queries, especially the performance issues that have been affecting gaming laptop users. A splendid chap there by the name of Pete Bottomley. Cheers Pete!

    EDIT: Have played quite a lot today and am starting to feel fatigued with the Industrial area, so long sittings may not be recommended. It has that age old gaming problem, finding codes for things!

    • treat says:

      I played up to most of the way through industrial in a single sitting and can’t help but agree on all points. Getting deep into Ether One and solving all the puzzles requires no small amount of patience, determination and wit but the reward in the end has so far been well worth it. I just hope the game can keep it up through to the end.

  4. Simbosan says:

    Making a game out of dementia would require making a game that you couldn’t “win”, where it was a study of the process of losing. This is the fundamental issue that you must come to terms with when someone you know has dementia. The only quesion, is “how long will it take” because the only way is down.

  5. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Unconnected, but the puzzles in this put me in mind of the AWESOME HL2 mod, “Mistake of Pythagoras”. Despite being bastard-hard wrt to puzzles, it had a long lasting effect on me. It created a surreal, trippy but genuinely threatening atmosphere that nothing else has.

  6. ZombieJ says:

    So you guys loved the fact that Gone Home was all about the obscure tripe you could infer from it’s every detail, and yet when that same principle is used in an ACTUAL GAME you flail your arms in frustration that it isn’t holding your hand and leading you along? Weak.

    • KevinLew says:

      I own Gone Home and I fully understand the game. That game wasn’t a vast landscape but just a large mansion with a bunch of rooms, most of which were unlocked. Also, the premise is dead-simple–you’re just trying to figure out why your family is missing. By looking at the surroundings and reading the notes, you began to paint a picture of what was really going on in the house while you were gone for a whole year. It was also obvious what you were supposed to do next because the notes often flat-out told you what you needed to do next.

      This is a little different than Ether One, because I could tell from the early alpha builds that the game basically threw you into a very large landscape, often without any explanation about what you are supposed to be doing or where you are supposed to go. It’s easy to get lost or confused. The developers wanted to make their game not hold your hand, because they didn’t want it to become a traditional adventure game where you click on every object in inventory until the puzzle solves itself. So for example, there’s no “quest log” that stores important notes or clues to hint on what to do next or how to solve a challenge.

      • The Random One says:

        Yeah. The only resemblance between this and Gone Home is that you might not have enough idea of who you are in the beginning if you don’t already know a bit of the story beforehand. But if Ether One is too obtuse, Gone Home is almost too linear – the devs limited themselves to stuff that might be realistically found and this worked for them, since otherwise they’d end up spoonfeeding you every info about the family like any AAA game. (I mean, for instance, you find a single receipt in the house, and it just so happens to be for the mom’s hairdressing before she met Fireman Dick? What a coincidence.)

        I think the case is that Gone Home makes it clear how your in-game objective match your character’s objective, while Ether One doesn’t, so even if you can use the bows to skip the puzzles you feel like you shouldn’t.

    • caff says:

      Where Gone Home had strength of character and a sense of history, Ether One has a vague and stylish air of mystery.

      I like both games, but Gone Home is far superior for its determined bluntness. It makes you feel part of a family home to which you no longer belong.

      Ether One tries hard and I suspect will see better reception in the VR world as it supports Oculus Rift.

      Thank you John for giving us your straight opinion, as always.

  7. AugustSnow says:

    I’ve finished the story and am now completing puzzles. The story and presentation are great and the puzzles are really satisfying to complete. However, the complete lack of any recordong system causes most of the confusion described in the review. For example, there is a clear explanation how to get to the third area which took lots of John’s time, but you hear it exactly once and can’t replay. There actually is a method to track the puzzles (when clicking on an area on the world map you see a list of puzzles and you can click on them to see how many steps you completed on each one), but it isn’t explained anywhere.
    So, tracking the game with pen and paper is a must, and for me it solved most of the confusion and made the game one of my favourites. In the developer’s defense, they pretty much advertise this everywhere.

    • newc0253 says:

      Tracking the game on pen & paper is a must?

      It reminds me of that recent episode of Justified:

      “Is there any way to put a reply on T.C.’s blog?”

      “God no. The technology to reply to a post is decades away.”

  8. jonahcutter says:

    Weird that game criticism so often yearns for no hand-holding, and exploratory experiences. Yet when presented with one that does just that (while also not halting progress if you don’t complete portions), it is not enjoyed. Sometimes people don’t really want what they claim to desire.

    This review makes me more interested in the game. The description at least reminds me a bit of the Dark Souls experience: No sign-posting or map pointers. Figure it out. Difficult puzzle/encounter? Work through your frustrations and figure it out.

    • The Random One says:

      Enjoyment of a game is not depending on a number of features that need to be checklisted. A lack of hand-holding needs to be combined with giving the player enough information that they are able to discern what they must/want to do and how they might accomplish it, even if in obscure terms. Merely taking an obscure experience and removing the tutorial or explanation it needs does not automatically make it more engaging because it’s not hand-holding.

    • Josh W says:

      That’s true, but I think you have to take it not as people being picky, but being honest about what is fun. If something doesn’t work, why would the exact opposite be perfect? Driving off either side of a bridge is a bad idea.

      Me and some of my friends have had a great amount of fun with dishonoured and slightly modded skyrim taking the objective markers off, because we were able to explore and make sense of the environment, and move about. In the case of skyrim that modding required putting more roads on the world map, but dishonoured worked fine as was.

      Hand holdy tutorials and objective markers take away the task of getting used to a place, but there’s a skill to pacing the challenge, the difficulty curve of navigation and internalisation of space. Many old first person shooters failed at this entirely, and for about 10 years there was a big thing about making levels that were able to be read by players, particularly in a multiplayer context.

      In puzzle games like this that is even more important, and this game seems to have a bit of an “error carried forward” problem, that if you start getting confused you only get more so until you give up. I can picture a kind of adaptive difficulty, especially in a fantasy style context like this, that reveals that you are doing things wrong and pulls you back to the relevant details, perhaps by slowly misting up the world, leaving only those parts that are relevant to the specific puzzle that will explain the ideas the puzzles you have been messing with require. These little sections could be spaced in the central regions of the world, so that when taking a random walk you are more likely to run into them, and be only particularly spatially delineated when the fog rolls in, and reveal your success in them by pulling back the mists again. This would mean that for the people who are having difficulty, the game would produce emergent tutorials, scaled to wherever in the game the player actually needs help, from reading their interest in different puzzles.

      Edit: Anway, this is just me thinking up ways to solve the problem a game, I’m not at all sure it would work in this one.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        What I am finding more and more is that the clues are in there, but are so easy to miss that you get it through trial and error / cheat, then AFTER see the clue you missed. This is as much down to the visual design as anything, and two major clues I missed because I mistook an important item for ‘dead’ geometry (though there was a brief flash of a clue that didn’t register for me), and another which was due to field of view (as in, it was always at the top of my screen so I needed to look up!). But even with the clues, there is a certain element of the old Myst “Moon Logic” (to quote a recent RPS article) e.g. the arsenic house solution, and slight randomness which does frustrate, not to mention some bugs and glitches which can cause you to actually be TRYING the right thing, and it not registering.

        Having so many things to solve in such a small space does become quite overwhelming and can induce a sense of defeat, especially when you are wandering around e.g. hunting for a code, and you are bumping into yet more unsolved puzzles. Its a new experience certainly, but I do think that visual design, geometry, level navigation and ‘puzzle overlap’ are issues that could be tweaked in such a way that design subtly guides you to the answer, as with games like Portal. It can be done such that it is not obvious and the player still feels as though it is their discovery.

    • John Walker says:

      I’m glad this review makes you more interested in the game. That was my intent.

      I find your first remark a little odd, since I, er, say exactly that at the start. The point being, if you’re not going to hand-hold, you need to give a better sense of purpose in the world, which is where this falls short.

  9. Professor Paul1290 says:

    I’m still only partway through the game, but so far the puzzles have been my favorite “feature” of the game, even more so than the story or atmosphere. Most of them aren’t too bad as long as you don’t get too stuck pursuing dead-ends for too long and know when to set a possible solution aside for later re-visit.

    Then again, I also played through the Myst games and only had to consult a guide on two occasions in the whole series (one puzzle in Riven and one puzzle in Revelation) and played through Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes “The Awakened”, “vs. Jack The Ripper”, and “Testament” without any guides or online help, so perhaps I’m too far gone into crazy land to have a trustworthy opinion on this.

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