Ether One Review
What if you could do what science has yet to manage – find a cure for dementia? And what if that cure involved not drugs or a series of routines, but a journey into the mind itself? This is Ether One’s pitch, a first-person explorathon which is equal parts Gone Home, Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, with a smattering of To The Moon thrown in for good measure.
You play a Restorer, a scientist at the Ether Institute whose primary focus is to assist people who have forgotten - such as those with dementia - by "cleaning" their memories. This is done via a futuristic machine which telepathically projects you inside the patient's mind – in this instance, an elderly lady named Jean - in order to track down the causes of trauma, and to help heal them.
The game is split into four different areas, each of which contains a specific event relating to the patient's condition. Details of why you are there and what caused the mind’s degradation can be found in the notes and items dotted around which help fill in the backstory. This is a core element of Ether One as if you don't take the time to explore and interact with the environment or learn as much as you can, you'll not only be reducing the game to a Myst-clone, but you'll be missing out on a remarkable story.
A teleportation hub called The Case allows you to flit in and out of memories with a single keystroke, and also lets you store items you pick up along the way. Since you can only hold one item at a time, this is a useful mechanic to prevent the need for backtracking. In The Case you’ll also store important notes for side-quests, as well as being able to track your completion progress overall. The Case is an ingenious method of handling puzzles, as the one item limit means you’ll be constantly returning to the hub to unload them, and since different items are often found in different areas to the location they are used, a central storage place helps jog your memory and provide links between previously discovered items and the area you’ve just returned from.
Side-quests appear in the form of broken projectors which need to be restored and which further elaborate on the patient’s history and fill in the gaps for each area, as well as the overarching narrative around the nature of the Ether facility itself. Whilst completing these isn’t essential, they help provide more weight to the story, and trace the journey of Jean through to the present. Puzzles are also trickier than your standard point-and-click, with little in the way of help other than the odd note or poster placed here and there to set you on your way. One example in a mining area has you following instructions on plotting a barometer’s pressure to find the best day to send a shipment out - but the puzzle itself isn’t completed until you’ve then written that date and the shipment’s destination (also hidden away amongst the noticeboard articles) on a blackboard. Few of the puzzles are overtly obvious, and there is definite satisfaction to be had in working them out. Similarly, whilst some may be a little opaque, the majority of the puzzles make sense in the context of the area you’re solving them in. This isn’t head-slapping realisation or head-shaking frustration, but a nice equilibrium which offers enough of a reward to make each of the optional activities almost essential.
You are completely alone in the town of Pinwheel and its outlying areas, exploring an environment delicately balanced between picturesque and sinister, listening to the reminiscences of various characters in Jean’s life. The hand-painted backdrops are simply lovely, set perfectly against the occasional score which alternates between whimsy and menace dependent on the events you have uncovered or your location at the time. However, there is a lot of asset re-use which belies the budget restrictions of an indie developer, and you’ll definitely want to bump up the resolution in order to fully appreciate the environment; indeed, some puzzles require you to read text which is almost indecipherable at the lowest settings.
The game is narrated by plummy-voiced Dr. Phyllis Edmonds, the researcher whose department has funded the project you are a part of. As her instrument, you are essentially setting out to prove that her procedure works, as the funding has run out and the initiative is about to be canned after this last venture unless results are delivered. Unlike the deadpan Narrator from The Stanley Parable, Phyllis flits between a sympathetic carer urging you to help the patient, and a more threatening authoritarian whose concern for Jean takes second place to actually completing the tasks you’ve been set. This bipolar reaction can often leave you as confused as the patient, as some areas you visit or items you pick up will trigger cues which are tonally at odds with what you’ve heard just before. It’s the disadvantage of having a sprawling environment to explore – players aren’t steered towards a particular goal, so there isn’t a set path. Instead, progression is measured by the red ribbons you collect as you progress, representing fragments of the patient’s memory. Each area has eight ribbons that need to be found in order to move to the next area, and doing so will grant you access to a core memory which furthers your understanding of Jean’s plight.
We have deliberately avoided touching on the story in any detail, simply due to the nature of the game. However, we can tell you that the topic of dementia is treated tastefully and with respect, and anyone who has known friends or relatives with this awful condition will find much to sympathise with in Ether One. The main story will take around three to four hours, but completing all of the puzzles could extend that by three times as much. A few frustrations abound: there’s no map, note-taking is essential in some areas, and the amount of backtracking can become wearisome after a while. The end result though, is a game which does for dementia what Papo & Yo did for alcoholism, albeit a lot more subtly.
As gamers, it’s heartening to see such serious and prevalent issues being treated with the weight they deserve in a medium more inclined to hand you a gun and point you towards the finish line; Ether One is a decent alternative to mainstream mindlessness, a thought-provoking and moving experience for those willing to commit.