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Ether One

Ether One

A first-person experience game about memory loss and dementia.

Ether One has been a game that’s been on my ‘to play’ list for a while now. I somehow picked it up in a bundle somewhere for PC, and so later on got the Redux version, but I only got round to playing it recently on my PS4 because I’d got it with my PS Plus subscription (still one of best value offerings in gaming I think!).

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The premise is simple, on the surface at least. You are a ‘restorer’ – someone who works for a company called Ether One who projects themselves into people’s minds to help discover and restore old memories and remove amyloid plaques that cause dementia. All this is done in an abstraction of the patients mind, and so you end up walking through a kind of alternative-reality reconstruction of locations they’re familiar with, populated by objects which don’t belong there but are connected to the patient. In practice, in terms of gameplay, this means walking through an off-kilter reconstruction of the town of Pinwheel in Cornwall (apparently), interacting with objects, reading notes left around and collecting ribbons which represent the patients memories. All the while you are ‘accompanied’ by the voice of Phyllis – a researcher back in the real world who comments on your actions and provides guidance and context for what is happening. To an extent you can think of her as a sort of ‘unaware narrator’.

Ether One is interesting – there’s very little context and intro given and many basic questions are still unclear in my mind. For instance, your identity as a restorer is unclear. I normally like this kind of thing, but in some places I’m not entirely sure whether those gaps are intentional or because they haven’t been communicated properly. Regardless, this is a game that has be thinking a lot about it well after I’ve finished playing – if only because it looked like I had another 25% of game area to explore and then the end of the game happened! It has plenty of well-hidden surprises that are revealed in a gentle fashion and, unusually, are there for you to discover or not.

For a game where you can’t actually do a great deal, Ether One offers you more control over your gaming experience than many other titles would have you believe. At base level, you can just race through the game and collect the red ribbons which represent lost memories. But to do this would miss the point – the game allows you to do this, but beckons you to explore further. For instance, there is another world (1 of 4) to explore from the hub location in the game, and yet the game ended (and quite suddenly, to be fair – the pacing doesn’t pre-empt the conclusion very well). Several notes are scattered around to be read which really do provide a lot of context and so if you didn’t take the time to read these you’d be totally in the dark about what is going on. But of course, this all seems very well orchestrated to convey the feeling of being lost within one’s own mind, and you do feel that way. The more you dig, the more you find, but progress is slow and sparse and this aspect does a grand job of conveying it’s source material.

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Such agency in determining how you might feel coming away from the game is unusual, but what a shame that so much of that extra content is hidden behind some of the most infuriating puzzles that I’ve played in a long time. Several puzzles require you to have notebook in real life handy; this is despite the provision of what is purported to be a kind of ‘in-game notekeeper’ in the game. It remembers some objects for you, but not the codes and details that are often needed to unlock doors, safes and locations needed to access the other quarter of the game I refer to above. This in and of itself is not a major problem, but some objects are a little too well hidden and without an in-game map helping you to orientate the large and sprawling environments it becomes difficult to remember where you have and haven’t been. Of course, this might well be intended – I certainly did feel disorientated throughout much of the game and found myself going round in circles whilst trying to find an elusive solution to a puzzle to unlock optional memories (called projectors in this game – they’re kind of like the audio tapes you get in Bioshock but you have to work HARD to get them!), but again I’m not sure if this was intentional or a design oversight. The puzzles that I did manage to solve fit well into the world and into the narrative – they were great actually, but the vast majority of solutions are so obscure that most of the extra memories in my game were left untouched. I’m keen to go back and solve them to fill in the blanks in the games narrative, but I feel it would be impossible without either using a walkthrough or spending HOURS banging my head against a brick wall (as a father with a young child and a PhD student, time is not something I am blessed with an abundance of!).

The other major thing that I feel is worth mentioning with Ether One is that I cannot for the life of me see why they felt an HD remake with Unreal Engine 4 was necessary for the PS4 and the ‘Ether One: Redux’ version on the PC. This game looks artistically fine, but it’s hardly what you would use to show off the graphical capabilities of your PS4 or your new graphics card in your PC. There is very little in the way of snazzy particle effects and even the water looks like it was done several years ago. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the graphics – although there was no particular time when I thought, “Wow!”. I liked them on an artistic-level with their bold painterly colours, just not from a technical stand-point.

Of course, I don’t feel that graphics are that important (within reason) in this kind of game – Ether One certainly isn’t affected by it, but I struggle to understand how the UE4 version of the game looks any different from the UE3 version. This could have been effort used elsewhere.

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In summary, Ether One is most definitely worth a play – even if it has it’s most frustrating oversights. You’re unlikely to find everything on your first playthrough, and I’d encourage you to dig further than just collecting the memories required to progress. But for a game of such limited mechanics the cognitive possibility space is really quite large and it does a great job of conveying the feel for its subject matter and doesn’t just tell you about it. For all of its flaws, there is A LOT to be learned here.

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