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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.

Beyond Eyes

Beyond Eyes

This was a genuinely different and affecting game, and well worth a play by anyone who looks for more than the latest high-octane FPS. Whilst not without its faults, this is a really good look at how we can use mechanics in games to increase their emotional range.

You play the part of a young girl who loses her sight in a bonfire accident. Some time later, a cat starts to visit her regularly and they become friends. Then, one day, the cat doesn’t come back. Even though Rae (the player character) is scared to leave the safety of her garden, she’s so worried about her friend that she feels she must find out what’s happened to her.

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It’s a premise, but one that’s easy to relate to and that plays on the child-like innocence that forms the core of the mechanics and narrative of the game. Movement is simple – use the stick to move around and then press an action button to interact every now and again. In essence, a third-person ‘walking simulator’. But the world only reveals itself (in a beautiful, painterly fashion) when it makes sounds and smells, meaning that the player often has to walk into a pure blank white expanse of nothing with little knowledge of what’s there, hoping that they’ll find something significant or be going the wrong way. Once you’ve passed through, the world fades away again as you ‘forget’ exactly what was there.

An interesting twist on this, from time to time, is that not everything is as it seems – what Rae thinks she hears, and what is actually there can sometimes be radically different, and this is used to great effect throughout Rae’s short journey through her local neighborhood (the game takes about 2-3 hours on average, although I took much longer – see below!). Without wanting to spoil the surprise for the reader, I can vouch that there are some interesting and touching surprises in store using this device.

Not only are there surprises, but there are several things that Rae – as a young, delicate child who’s unsure of her surroundings, finds scary and difficult to deal with. These things often form barriers to progress (such as dogs barking, or a flock of seagulls that she can’t perceive quite 100%) and whilst simple, they mesh together with the narrative and back story so well that you don’t really mind.

And so the game is a journey of a young girl’s courage to overcome her limitations and fears in order to find her feline friend. That this takes place in such an average everyday setting only makes it all the more touching – you really have a chance to experience how Rae feels as she explores the surrounding town’s streets – both her fears and her joy found in simple things.

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The slow pace of the game suits the subject matter, but I would have liked an option to move slightly faster – traversal at points was often laborious and felt unnecessary. However, it’s difficult to see how this could have been achieved – there’s no way a blind, timid young girl would do anything else other than step cautiously through an environment that she doesn’t recognise very well. This was compounded in one particular section for me – on a pier, where I spent ages walking around in circles, unable to find an object that I needed to solve one of the sparse puzzles in the game. This quickly became frustrating – I was lost for about 45 minutes! A little more variety in the environment of that section would have made things a lot easier for me.

Ultimately though, I feel I learned a lot having played Beyond Eyes. It allowed me to empathise with the fears and thoughts of a young child caught in a world that they can no longer fully comprehend, and it used simple and elegant devices to show just how much more we can achieve with video games with what we’ve already got, without any need for hi-res textures, particles effects and virtual reality.

Love in Games

The other week I was party to an IGDA London event on Love in Games – which was great! Being closely aligned to my favourite topic (emotion in games) this was stimulating evening with an interesting array of viewpoints on the title ‘Love in Games’. If you’re in London regularly then you could do worse than join the IGDA London Facebook page. It’s not active all the time – talks are ad hoc rather than regular, but they put on some good events (usually at LSBU near Elephant and Castle) and you should check them out.

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Esther MacCallum-Stewart was first up by offering a more academic take on things. As an established academic who’s written extensively on sexuality and love in games her main beef was, “Why do games always have to be about f*cking?”. Good question really. She drew well-deserved attention to the crudeness of how love it dealt with in video games, and that we miss out on the nuances and multi-dimensionality of the phenomenon we collectively refer to as love.

Ste Curran – journalist, radio presenter, performer and general gamey-dude-at-large took his (usual) tangential take on the topic. Instead of speaking directly to the topic in hand in a kind of problems, how-to, solutions kind of way like most of us would do, he instead took an approach that challenged us to rethink our relationship with love altogether. How many ways it can be experienced, how fleeting it is and how subjective our experience of love is.

Christos Reid always has an interesting viewpoint on things – his passion and practice being autobiographical games, and so he opted to talk about how games could be made to explore the difficult situations that romance often puts us in. His example – first dates! I look forward to seeing a short game by him sometime on the subject, since this would be an excellent example of how the role-playing aspect of games can force us to play as and then understand someone else’s point of view – whether we find it comfortable or not.

Finally, my favourite talk of the evening was by Aubrey Hesselgren. He didn’t have anything particularly to say about love and its portrayal within video games, but he is the first person I’ve ever seen try and propose a system for representing and handling emotions in games. Essentially, the idea is to use 3D vectors to represent different aspects of an emotion or emotional experience. In this way you can plot them in 3D space, discern relationships between them, and then track the emotional journey through 3D space. It was a honest attempt to abstract out emotions into a workable system. I need a dedicated beer with this man! This will be a most interesting thing to keep an eye on….

Emotions in Games (talk at LEGup)

Last night I gave a presentation on ‘Emotions in Games’ at the London Educational Games meetup (LEGup) at their website launch party (you can see the new website at edugameshub.com). I’ve also written an article for it’s opening which you can go straight to with this link.

Many thanks for those that gave me feedback on it. I hope it wasn’t too much info in the 5ish minutes that I was given, but I do hope it gave many people food for thought about games as an art form and how we can better design them.

As promised, you can find the slides/prezi that I used here: Emotions in Games Prezi.

I’ve written some notes on each slide because there was rather a lot of material I was trying to convey. My problem here was that I recently wrote my MA thesis on how ambiguity can be used to broaden and deepen emotional engagement within videogames,  so trying to select and condense an 18,000 word essay into 5 minutes is a definite challenge!

Notes on slides below. Feedback welcome and appreciated.

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