There’s been quite the uptick in exploration based first person games over the last few years. Largely these games have been very heavy on the exploration, story, and atmosphere; but were lacking when it came to actively engaging the player. Ether One, White Paper Games’ debut title, aims to include all the strengths of these other games, but with an extra dose of gameplay in the form of puzzles.
Tackling a delicate topic? Check. Capturing the full emotional range involved in that topic? Check. Juggling multiple storylines without confusing the player or sacrificing too much detail? Check. There are many games out there – very good games – that would be content with this, but Ether One goes yet further. The narrative is structured in such a way that players who choose to explore and complete the side areas will find satisfyingly deep expansions to the basic story arcs of the game, whereas players who prefer to blast their way through can do that and still be able to appreciate many of the game’s more powerful moments.
Set in the near future, Ether One follows the story of a Restorer – someone who specializes in restoring the memories of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease – as they enter the mind of a relatively mundane, but nevertheless important, patient. Ether One isn’t unusual just for one of its major themes, mental illness; it’s for the deftness with which it handles the cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease, the sense of loss that comes with losing a person, but still being able to give them a hug. That it manages to do this without sinking into a permanent bout of melancholy is an impressive feat, but Ether One goes farther still; it manages to weave an interesting tale about the fictional Ether One program and the events of the present day, even as the player delves through the history of a character’s life. The result is a narrative which represents exactly what good sci-fi should be: Ether One uses speculative fiction and futuristic technology to say something about a real problem which is very much a present-day social issue.
The writing is, frankly, astounding. If there are flaws, we can’t find them. A lot of time and effort was clearly spent on the story. Ether One may not be a horror game, but the importance of atmosphere wasn’t lost on the developer. Just as most horror games live or die by their ability to generate a powerful atmosphere, so does Ether One use every trick in the book to generate an atmosphere that lends its story weight. This environmental storytelling would, of course, not be half as effective if it wasn’t for White Paper’s skilful use of color and music to build the moment to moment atmosphere. When White Paper wants to tell you a story, they go all out. The environment flows to meet the needs of the moment, and the emotional ride their writing takes you on is fully supported with every element of the game working in unison. In an where it’s not uncommon for games to be worked on by large development teams that sometimes run into the hundreds, it’s rare to see this sort of harmony between all the elements of a game achieved by a small team you can count on the fingers of one hand.
Visually speaking, Ether One is both beautiful and unusual. Combining an almost cel-shaded look with a highly varied color palette, the game contrasts clinical laboratories with homely towns and old industrial areas. This, in addition to some lovely lighting effects, the incredible soundtrack, and some spot on voice acting builds a wide range of atmospheres that ensure you’ll remember the journey for a long time to come.
So what’s the catch? Where’s the trade-off? Is it the puzzle design? It’s got to be the puzzle design, right? It’s an almost immutable law of videogames that games with excellent stories tend to have sub-par gameplay. Fortunately, Ether One excels in this area.
Not only does the game have a wonderfully wide array of puzzles and mechanics, the puzzles are also well designed and highly challenging. There’s a vague hint of Myst and Half Life 2 in some of them, although unlike in Myst, you don’t need a genius-level intellect to parse the basics. In addition, there’s an almost unreasonable level of fairness about them. You’re never stuck because the game is obtuse; you’re stuck because you missed something obvious. The most basic and, I suspect, most common examples of this are forgetting about the basics of physics – what goes up must come down and so on. By the end of the game, you’ll be cursing the videogame logic that years of gaming have hammered into you. All this is not to say that the puzzles are easy -they’re not – but they are fair and they are logical.
Observant players will find many nooks and crannies to explore in Ether One. Some of these contain hidden little side quests, some have scenes that tell you a little about the lives of the inhabitants and some are nothing more than pleasant diversions. It’s been some time since environmental story telling was an important buzz-worded topic in video games; just long enough, I think, to be able to safely discuss it here. And here, once again, Ether One shines. Each puzzle, each area, and each little clue adds as much to the story as the dialogue and the cutscenes. The atmosphere that all these little touches creates is one of homeliness and warmth. It builds an attachment to the characters in a way that the presence of the characters themselves never could. For a game that features almost no people, Ether One feels very lived in.
Ether One is easily the best game we’ve played this year and it stands proudly next to the likes of Journey and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It’s a game that melds the art of atmosphere with the science of game mechanics and ultimately it’s a game that has us excited for White Paper’s future output.
Whether you want to spend the 20 or so hours required to explore everything in the game, or you only have a fraction of that time and just want to see the main story arc, Ether One delivers plenty of powerful moments and a truly touching tale.