Dear Esther’s brand of purely exploratory gameplay driven by voiceover narration and environmental storytelling sent waves rolling through the indie game scene. Of course, Dear Esther itself was merely part of a sea change sparked by Ico years prior to its release, but it’s notable nonetheless. The influence of The Chinese Room’s debut “non-game” can be felt in a number of titles that followed, each offering their own take on the ideas behind it. The Stanley Parable injects choice mechanics (and a heavy dose of humor) to create a delightful metanarrative about the contradictory nature of branching storytelling. Gone Home places interactive objects in a more tangible, intimate (and literal) game world to tell a touching story of self-discovery. The Novelist populates its small beach-house with NPCs, and asks you to explore their relationships as you would a desolate island or bizarre office complex.
Ether One takes the basic framework of these games – Gone Home in particular – and combines it with the intriguing narrative conceit of To the Moon. You are a Restorer, a specialist hired by the Ether Institute of Telepathic Medicine to enter patients’ minds and recover memories lost to dementia. It’s an experimental procedure, and a lot’s riding on the session you’ll take part in during the game. Your patient is very close to recovery, but one misstep could easily trigger a relapse. On top of that, tonight might well be your last chance, as the institute is threatening to pull funding if you and the doctor in charge don’t show results. It’s game time.
When I say “game time,” I really mean it. While there’s been a lot of debate on whether titles like Dear Esther are really “games”, Ether One inarguably is. The game is a gauntlet of logic puzzles intense enough to make Myst blush, and the world is packed with hidden notes, collectibles, and vaults to crack as you unravel the mysteries behind the institute and your patient’s past. Mind you, if you’re so inclined, you can play it like one of those “non-games,” casually searching for “memory fragments” and ignoring the puzzles entirely. In doing so, however, you deprive yourself of the game’s true depth.
Though you start at the Ether Institute, you’ll spend most of the game exploring the quaint English harbor town of Pinwheel, where your patient grew up. Pinwheel feels at once desolate and lively, almost as though the townsfolk stepped out only moments ago. Their belongings are strewn where they left them, and their drinks and meals sit on tables waiting for them to return. Ether One manages the difficult trick of making a foreign place feel homey, and I’d argue does a better job of it than even Gone Home. This is owed almost entirely to the game’s warm, painterly art direction and sound design so fantastic you can practically smell the salt air coming off the sloshing waves.
Good as the game is at drawing you into its world, that world is unfortunately a bit rough around the edges. Though you wouldn’t know it from glancing at the cel-shaded graphics, Ether One is built in Unreal, and Pinwheel is as haunted by the old specter of texture pop-in as it is the ghosts of its inhabitants. The levels are also a touch sloppy in places, with models blatantly clipping through each other (like the water from a river floating in the ceiling of a mine) and geometry thrown together in ways that just don’t make sense. These “glitches in the matrix” are somewhat excusable, though, given the nature of the game’s dream world. Less excusable are the numerous typos and grammatical errors that plague the game’s notes, diaries, and newspapers. They completely take you out of the game, and they could have been caught with even a bare-bones editing pass.
Fortunately, where it counts, the writing is solid. The core narrative is impeccable, a smart exploration of a frightening, incurable disease and all its ramifications. As someone with a lot of older relatives, this really hits close to home. On top of that, the voiceover work for the game is among the most emotionally affecting I’ve heard in a game. Some of the exchanges toward the end of the game are positively heartbreaking. The game doesn’t pander in the way of emotionally manipulative pap, either. You’re asked to infer a lot – nothing’s spelled out for you unless you earn it.
Earning it, as I said before, is a bit grueling. There are broken film projectors scattered throughout Pinwheel, and you can only fix them by delving into the history of the area in which you find them. Sometimes puzzles involve physical tasks, like completing a shipment of cider, while others involve figuring out the details of an event – for instance, the destination of that shipment and the day it was shipped. Once you solve the puzzle, you gain a bit more insight into your patient’s therapy. The ambient story of the quiet industrial town is also quite compelling in its own right. Each puzzle offers up a satisfying challenge of your ability to solve problems, assess your environment, and make logical inferences.
In the first area of the game, these puzzles are nicely self-contained, with all the clues you need to crack them found within spitting distance. Later levels have a tendency to sprawl, though, and the puzzles begin to bleed into one another. You have to run around increasingly large environments searching for subtle hints, and though the puzzles are still fantastic on a conceptual level, solving them begins to feel frustrating and overwhelming. Clues become lost in a jumble, useful information is spread further and further apart, and there’s an ever-increasing temptation to just give up and ride the story out. It seems like a clash of design choices, but the difficulty keeping everything straight mirrors the challenges of dementia just a little too well. I can definitely appreciate it when a game forgoes base player satisfaction to strike a deeper chord.
Not to say that these puzzles aren’t satisfying. Indeed, as they grow more obtuse and frustrating, solving them only feels more fulfilling. There aren’t a lot of games that can deliver a real sense of accomplishment like this, and you can count the ones that also maintain a strong emotional core on one hand. The game asks you to spend a lot of time really considering its world and characters, and I was more than happy to oblige. I’ve already run past a review deadline exploring Ether One, and I can tell you that once I’m done writing this, I’m going back in.
Ether One might well represent the apex of its particular subgenre. It engages the player at every level they might want to engage it, and rewards them handsomely for plunging into its depths. The art and sound direction are inspired, while the puzzles are complex and stimulating. In the balance of things, it’s easy to forgive a handful of technical mistakes. Ether One explores dementia in a sensitive and affecting manner, and shows the value in a life well-lived (if not well-remembered). Toward the end, I had to fight back a few tears, and it feels refreshing to say that about a game that doesn’t compromise on depth.