Ether One - What a Wonderful World
Ether One is an exploration of the effects of dementia on the perception of memory, seen through the eyes of a foreign observer—the player’s “Restorer” character—who is trying to physically “cut out” the sources of the disease. The world of Pinwheel explodes to life before the Restorer’s eyes as they duck through mines, twisting intake valves and repairing projectors to find some hint to their next task. This is the type of game that will make a lot of people angry, because it is subtle in its ‘game’ aspects. At its core, the game is a puzzler with a strange inventory system and sometimes-obfuscated puzzles, but it has the look and feel of the ‘walking simulator’ games like Dear Esther and Gone Home. However, the developers, White Paper Studios, have created a marvelous world to explore. Above all else, they made a game about a terrifying disease without trivializing it, or getting it entirely wrong.
To speak too much about the story of Ether One would be a disservice to anyone who might play it. Not to say that the game is one that would be ‘spoiled’, but it’s the kind of thing that a player should see rather than be told. It is highly reminiscent of The Stanley Parable in that regard, in that it is a game which warrants a short description and a recommendation to play, rather than going through every nuance before the other person can ask how much it is.
Ether One looks incredible.
This much is nearly par for the course with these exploration/puzzle games. Ether One crafts the imagined world of Pinwheel in the mind of a dementia patient Jane, and the player alternates between searching through the various locations in Pinwheel and walking around the lab in which they are doing their work. The first ‘mission’ of the game requires the player to search through an abandoned mine shaft, picking up clues about the reason for its emptiness while trying to work out what importance it has to the patient. At no point during this process did the puzzle elements feel forced in. Personally, I play games by looking in every door, and cracking every chest to find what may be inside. This playstyle lent itself great to this game, because every object might help open a door later on. This also illustrated one of the game’s more subtle ways of mimicking dementia, through its inventory system.
Rather than giving the player a dimensionless sack which objects can be thrown into with no regard for size, Ether One gives the player a hub room with shelves, where they can place objects as they find them to come back to later. The player only has space on their person for one object at a time, so any new object means swooping back to the room and putting down the plate you found twenty minutes ago, so you can pick up a goblet that looks like it may have been a family valuable. At the beginning of the game, even objects of miniscule importance are worth picking up, because there’s just so much space in the storage area! Moving forward means the clutter grows, and if the game wasn’t played in a single sitting then you can forget about why that gas mask you grabbed could have been important. Why do I have three different copies of the same plate? These questions become more and more common, until it clicks that you are being put in the shoes of someone with dementia - all of these objects had meaning at one point, some even could have been very important, but you just can’t seem to remember for the life of you what they were for.
Ether One was a damn joy to play. Now that I have the game wrapped up, I find myself wanting to go back and see what I may have missed. I want to look in the corners I may have glanced past, trying to find the valve to turn to get to the next area. It is a truly infectious game - the fact that I have completed it only makes me want to go back for more. Some puzzle games feel dull with the solutions already known. Some exploration games leave the player with some sense of “I don’t want to come back here.” Ether One hits a great middle ground, where the puzzles take a backseat to the exploration a lot of the time, but still provide incentive to come back and see what else that Pinwheel has to offer.