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.