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Ether Devs On Mature Game Stories, Taking Risks

Mind Games

I quite like leaping into people's heads and spelunking the deepest reaches of their brain caves. And in the game. Or games, rather, seeing as Psychonauts and To The Moon are two of my absolute favorites. So when Ether emerged from the woodwork promising mind-opening mind-exploration with a more personal, intimate focus, I sloppily salivated in the most attractive of fashions. And then I asked its creators a bunch of questions, as is my way. Head past the break to see White Paper co-founders Benjamin Hill and Pete Bottomley discuss Ether's puzzles, why you can beat the game without solving a single one, whether or not storytelling in games is "mature" yet, and why it's important to take risks that triple-A developers and publishers won't.

RPS: You're a fairly small studio, but you've already got two games planned for Ether. Is it possible that you could be getting ahead of yourself, though? I mean, what happens if the first one doesn't do so well?

Pete Bottomley: I think firstly as a team we all believe in what we’re making. I don’t think we’d be able to tackle two games as our first titles if everyone wasn’t as passionate about working on Ether. That said, I don’t think it’s hugely risky planning two games. If anything, it shows our desire to do something more in the industry. Separating Ether into two titles, Ether One and Ether Two has allowed us to focus on getting the best content possible in a certain space of time.

I think Ben will be able to explain better about how the narrative will to both together really well, but from a design point of view, it allows us to seal off the first project. It gives the team a good goal to work towards and get Ether One out there to the community. Then whilst people are picking that up - with goodor bad responses - we can be developing the next title, if there were certain things that didn’t work so well in Ether One, we can address those in Ether Two. I think it’s a smart process to work towards so that it creates the best product that we can create for us and the people playing out games.

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The point you made about possibly being a bit too ambitious. Maybe we are? But I don’t think any of the team is scared about ambition. I think if anything, as a small team we have something to prove with these titles. We have already designed both parts of Ether so that they are coherent and flow well with narrative and design along with some really interesting visuals to go with it. I think we just need to work hard and get the games out for people to see for themselves what we can do!

RPS: The game takes place inside someone's mind, but the gameplay footage seemed to be pretty focused on a concrete memory. Obviously, though, being inside someone's head opens the door to trippier, more dreamlike stuff as well - ala, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Will Ether move in that direction at all? 

Benjamin Hill: Ether One and Two are both structured around different core memories locations that each have lots of different memories attached to them. In terms of structure they are quite concrete, although the player will encounter a multitude of moments that are more ‘trippy’ where different elements of Jean's memories are breaking through to the player. This will come across as quite ghostly a lot of the time although there are definitely parts of each environment that will make the player question the stable structure of the memory that is being explored, primarily through environmental changes that may be seen as similar to the memory breakdown in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

A key area that is a lot stranger than the core memories is The Case, a hub structure that represents a mental space where the players mind and Jean's have collided. This is where the player will access the different core memories as well as having a stranger experience as they work to fix Jeans broken memories. The overall feel of The Case is more in tune with the science-fiction roots of the story and will really allow the player to understand the Ether world and structure.

As for the story? It will get A LOT stranger as the player progresses, and we feel that people will be surprised at the different endings and emotional outcomes of their journey while also feeling a true sense of satisfaction.

RPS: What sorts of puzzles will players be solving? Will they leverage the conceit of exploring people's memories at all, or will the puzzles themselves be more traditional things, ala positioning the bridge in the footage you just released?

Pete Bottomley: I’m very conscious of the way Ether should tackle its puzzle design. I don’t think it’s an either/or question. The simple answer is both. The more complex answer is that we have designed multiple layers around these puzzles. The most basic layer is exploration going up through to artifacts (one of which is the lamp you see in the trailer), to narrative and object based puzzles up to the most obscure puzzles which will really make you scratch your head for a while.

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The aim of Ether in terms of gameplay is to make it accessible to everyone. I remember loading up the old puzzles games like Myst with my mum and playing them for hours. We both loved them and we had scraps of paper lying around the desk with all these bits of information and diagrams we thought we might need to solve a puzzle later on. I think a lot of games have lost this approach to game design, and I want to try and bring some of that back.

The way we plan to tackle this is to have the entire game playable from start to finish without having to solve a single puzzle. This means that even the most of unskilled players can pick up and play Ether and be immersed in the world by wandering around and listening to snippets of the narrative. Yes, they may complete the game within a couple of hours - I hope they will have a good experience also - but they may not understand exactly what Ether is.

The more skilled of players will explore all the corners of every environment, look in every drawer and try to consume all the information they can. There may be puzzles in there they’re not able to solve. If this is the case, they can come back to those puzzles at any time throughout the game through the use of The Case. This ties in well with our multiple endings. Ether has X number of endings and you may get one that doesn’t fully answer why you’re there. You will have visual feedback in the Case so that you know if you’ve not fully explored each level and solved all the puzzles. This will allow you to keep working and solving puzzles to get the true ending.

RPS: How will those endings work, though? Will I need to discover certain items to trigger certain endings? Find secret areas? Solve specific puzzles? Something else? 

Pete Bottomley: So, to get the final ending you’ll need to have found all the marker stones in the game. You will need to have solved all the puzzles and found all the narrative objects. In the Case there are also puzzles and different things you need to align in order for everything to click into place. There is quite a lot of content to get the true ending. However, all endings will give you interesting elements to the story, so people may want to see each ending as they get to the final one. This will of course be possible. You don’t need to restart the entire game once the ending has played, you can just pickup from where you left off, which I think will be really fun.

RPS: Your goal is to tell a mature story about character relationships and choice. What sets it apart, though? How does Ether cross the admittedly arbitrary threshold into maturity?  

Benjamin Hill: At the heart of Ether is a tale about relationships, youthful hope and lost innocence and through the gameplay itself players will be connecting with Jean and her experiences directly. This is an important basis that I don’t always feel is achieved in storytelling. Games are often seen as quite mechanical structures focusing effort on gameplay first and story second. From Ether’s initial conception, we have been building all elements of the game - art, narrative, mechanics and audio - together in a truly iterative cycle allowing each element to grow with one another creating a tighter experience.

I think that all of us wanted to create a game that’s carried by its story in a mature fashion that isn’t reliant on violence or gore to be given the title of "mature," and through this process and our personal influences we feel that we are creating a game that looks at the deeper ideas of humanity through a science-fiction setting. There are no right or wrong choices in Ether – just choices, and those in turn will affect the way that the player views the outcomes of the story through personal perception. Through the exploration of Jean's memories, we feel that we are creating a sensitive approach to her personal experiences and for a player to re-live those experiences from a different perspective, unraveling a plot line that invariably reveals an emotional raw truth, will be pretty powerful.

RPS: So is the implication here that you view gaming as a largely immature storytelling medium? If so, is Ether an attempt at breaking new ground? 

Pete Bottomley: I wouldn’t say that at all. It depends what you want to class as immature. I think all games have a place in this industry. There are lots of different types of player who want different levels of interaction and immersion. I would say however that we are trying to break new ground with Ether with the storytelling and interaction.

Like I said previously, there are too few games out there willing to take the risks we need in order to change some of the mainstream titles. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved some of the triple-A offerings this last year but how many of them have tried something dangerous or different? Not too many, I would say. Some of the feedback we’ve received about the QR codes specifically being in the game hasn’t been to peoples taste, and they instantly shun it. We take on board all feedback from the community, but we also stick to our guns with ideas we want to implement.

I think if something is a little too different than what people have played, they immediately shut off to it. People like to be able to make connections with games they they’ve seen before. So if someone looks at Ether and says, "Oh this looks like [a game I played]. I loved/hated that game," they’re more likely to make a decision about Ether based on their experience of the other title. For those that don’t see the connections they might be turned off by the idea of Ether. I think it’s a tricky balance to make but I would rather break new ground and do something our entire team is 100 percent proud of than listen to what the industry specifically wants at that time.

RPS: Is the story itself mainly about the relationship between the player's character and Jean? If so, do you think game developers undervalue intimate narratives like that? I mean, Portal - for instance - created one of the most memorable game characters out there, and much of that game's plot was all her.  

Benjamin Hill: I feel the games industry as a whole is starting to get better at understanding the importance of the micro-story and the relevance of relationships as a deep narrative function - although there are few games that are carried by a small cast of deep and rich characters. Portal 2 is a great example of how this works in a linear puzzle game, and we feel that we are trying to create similar relationship structures through more open story-telling and gameplay. Games like Uncharted do understand individual relationships as well, such as Drake and Sully's, but they very rarely use it as a direct backbone for the game - opting for more grand storytelling. I do feel that less is sometimes more, and that limiting the character relationships within a game gives the players more time to emotionally invest in them, get to know them. Who can forget the relationship that you have with Agro in Shadow of the Colossus? For those that have played it, not many.

RPS: Recently, we've seen games like Dear Esther and - though it's not out yet - Gone Home attempt to tell first-person stories without any puzzles at all. In essence, they argue that puzzles and/or combat are just filler - something to keep players with short attentions spans along for the ride. Why have you opted to augment your story with puzzles? Do you think puzzles and story mesh well, or have you found instances where they tend to step on each others' toes?

Pete Bottomley: Hmm. I really think that comes down to what type of experience you are trying to create. I think to add other gameplay elements into Dear Esther would have been a mistake. What they offered was a multilayered story that allowed the player to take in the story as they explored. I would argue that puzzles and story can and do go hand in hand when designed correctly. Our design process isn’t necessarily a static one. If I hear bits in the script that spark a puzzle idea I’ll incorporate that into a puzzle. Similarly, if there’s an interesting puzzle that fits into the environment, I’ll get Ben or Dan to add some type of narrative relevance as to why this certain object/setting is there.

I think that the people making the argument that puzzles don’t belong in these types of games are wrong to dismiss it entirely as a no go area. They may have no relevance for such gameplay in the games they are designing, which is fine, but it shouldn’t be ruled out as an element automatically. In a game such as Ether, it’s integral to the story and gameplay that all these elements fit together cohesively and don’t feel like shoehorned additions or time fillers. There's no set recipe or formula for a first-person narrative game - things that you should or shouldn’t do. You just have to give it the room it needs and design on a per-case basis.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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