The concept of the human mind being an explorable place is far from a new idea. In film, we’ve seen the personified minds of characters in The Cell and Inception. In gaming, Tim Schafer’s cult classic Psychonauts had us physically delving into the minds of several characters, only half of whom were sane. Ether One, the first offering from indie studio White Paper Games, has us wandering through a human mind as well, though with much less drama and violence than we’ve seen in the past. It’s an excellent debut which, despite some unintuitive (but entirely optional) puzzles and somewhat odd mechanics at times, creates an immersive world that contains some truly touching moments.
Ether One begins in an elevator at the Ether Institute, a company that, if their numerous posters are to be believed, can help heal the mentally sick through the restoration of their memories. After checking in at the vacant front desk, you are greeted by a doctor who introduces herself as Phyllis. She does so over a loudspeaker, however, and instructs you to make your way down to the lab to help begin the treatment for an elderly patient named Jean. By reading notes scattered around the facility and listening to the occasional statements by Dr. Phyllis, you come to realize that you are a “restorer” – an employee of the facility whose job it is to actually project yourself into the minds of others to help heal them from the inside. However, certain notes indicate that this procedure isn’t without risk, both to the restorer and the patient, and there are other subtle indications that not everything is as it seems.
After beginning the session, you find yourself transported into a small series of rooms called “the case”. This is explained as a safe haven for your mind in case any of the scary things you’ve read about actually happen during your stay. These rooms almost look like a small apartment, with a bed and some comfortable chairs, plus a bathroom and shower. By pressing the “T” key on your keyboard you can whisk yourself in between “the case” and Jean’s mind proper pretty much any time you please. When you do so for the first time, you find yourself on a cliff overlooking the ocean and a scenic little village you learn is called Pinwheel. The bulk of the rest of the game involves exploring Pinwheel and its relationship to the patient.
This relationship is sometimes vague, as the stories of the denizens of Pinwheel, while touching, don’t always seem to connect to the patient much, other than being aspects of daily life in the town. Jean herself occasionally chimes in with a non-corporeal voice-over as you walk around the village, commenting on various things like how that schoolyard is where she played as a child. Other comments of hers are a little less specific and a lot of reading between the lines needs to be done in order to pin down the tragedies in her life and what specifically happened to her. Much is revealed towards the end, but there will still be holes in the story if you haven’t been paying close attention. In fact, it could be said that Ether One has some replay value, in that many of the things you read and hear in the town will take on whole new meaning in light of the things you learn later in the game.
Exploration works much the way it does in a first-person shooter, minus the shooting. You control your restorer’s viewpoint with the mouse and physically move yourself with the WASD or arrow keys, though these can be remapped as you see fit. You can jump with the spacebar and crouch with the left Ctrl key, but these are almost never used. Left-clicking will attempt to manipulate whatever is in front of you, either by picking it up or activating it. Right-clicking will zoom in slightly, giving you a better view of small print or simply things that are hard to see. You can also press the “E” key to look at whatever object you happen to be carrying.
The inventory system is one of the odd aspects of the game, as you can only carry one item at a time. Pick a second object up and it will exchange itself with the one you’re holding. There are black mats on desks and tables around the village that objects can be placed on to get them out of your hands for a while. There are whole shelves of these mats in “the case”, so you can essentially store as much as you need in a room you can always warp to with the touch of a button. This removes a lot of the inconvenience, but not the awkwardness as you essentially teleport out of the world whenever you want to change items. That being said, the whole system seems designed to eliminate the immersion-breaking presence of an inventory screen and it’s hard to fault that decision in a game that relies on immersion as much as Ether One does.
This focus on immersion is present in almost every design decision, including the puzzles. There are a number of film projectors in key locations in each area you explore. These projectors are broken into pieces at first, but will fix themselves as you solve the puzzle connected to them. This puzzle can be anything from fixing machinery to unlocking a specific door to making a cup of coffee in a very specific coffee cup. The objectives are never fully explained, just hinted at in notes and clues throughout the environment. As you can imagine for a game based in someone’s mind, these tasks get very arbitrary and count among some of the more difficult puzzles I’ve encountered in recent memory. So how does the game keep these occasionally maddeningly unintuitive puzzles from breaking the immersion? It makes them completely optional. Each restored projector will show an object that Dr. Phyllis has used to elicit a reaction from the patient, along with her dictated notes on the success of each object, thus giving you more insight into what precisely happened in the patient’s life. But none of them are mandatory to complete the game, though you may find the already confusing story that much more confusing if you reach the finale without working to acquire the additional information.
The only task actually required is to find a number of red ribbons hidden in plain sight in each area. Finding a ribbon results in a loudspeaker message from Dr. Phyllis, updating you on your progress in restoring the patient’s mind. Her tone in these messages varies greatly. In one, she’s hopeful that this treatment will show people how useful this new technology is. In another, she’s audibly concerned about possibly losing her funding if you don’t get results. In yet another, she’s threatening to not let you out unless you’re able to cure the patient. This fragmented communication creates a story of its own, though one a little bit different than the story told by the patient’s memories.
The decision to make the puzzles completely optional is one I’d normally criticize. After all, what is point of making a game that gives you the choice not to play it? But it feels like an excellent fit for Ether One. Not only can the puzzles get frustratingly difficult, but the game feels less like a traditional adventure game and more akin to titles that focus on exploration and storytelling over puzzles and gameplay, such as Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, and Gone Home. Fans of these games will almost certainly find a lot in common to enjoy here, but those same fans might have been put off by the challenging puzzles Ether One offers that the other games didn’t. Making these challenges avoidable allows players to explore the game in their own preferred style.
Whether you choose to solve the projector puzzles or not, Ether One’s priority is its exploration, and in that the game truly delivers in being an immersive experience. The cel-shaded 3D graphics may look a little simple next to the most vibrant AAA titles today, but they give Pinwheel a rustic charm. The whole village seems to consist of buildings made of stone or wood, and ramshackle brown fences line some of the cobbled pathways. The atmosphere is quaint and homey, even in the nighttime sections of the game, but this warm feeling is given a haunting quality when you realize that the only movement you’ll see are the waves on the water and the leaves of trees and plants blowing in the breeze. My only real criticism of the scenery is its occasional redundancy. You’ll see a lot of the same mundane objects in houses that look quite similar to each other and walk through many industrial hallways that look almost identical. The designers do a good job of giving the absent denizens of Pinwheel diverse personalities, but it comes through more in their writing than their décor.
Soft, lilting music highlighted by a piano creates a serene atmosphere that fits both the melancholy mood of the game and the peaceful nature of a walk through such beautiful surroundings. Excellent sound effects complete the picture, down to different footstep noises depending on what surface you’re walking on. And the voice acting, while only including a handful of voices, is spot-on.
Ether One is an odd title, but its oddity is more a breath of fresh air than anything else. Pinwheel is utterly charming in its humdrum glory, where you’ll read and hear more about issues like local economic troubles and the cinema closing than the more overt drama that other games offer. Yet despite its seemingly banal setting, the game truly got to me emotionally, particularly in its finale, though I can’t explain why without giving something away that’s best left discovered for yourself. Getting to this ending will only take a couple of hours if you skip the puzzles entirely, or up to ten hours if you decide to tackle them all. But once you finish, the story is well and truly over; don’t let the “One” in the title fool you into thinking this is just the first of an episodic series. Perhaps the puzzles could have been a little more sensible and the town could have been a little more diverse, but these are nitpicks next to the real essence of Ether One, which is exploration and character. On these points it more than delivers, and if this is the kind of experience you’re looking for then you really shouldn’t hesitate to explore Pinwheel for yourself.