Not all video games have to be explosive affairs about hunting down terrorists or blasting away vicious space aliens. Games, as a medium, can be used to as a means to educate players on real life issues and experiences. Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest comes immediately to mind, which offers a glimpse into the trials of everyday as experienced by those suffering from depression. Ether One takes on the subject of dementia in a unique way that bears a similarity to Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
Played from the first person perspective, you’ll play as a Restorer who dives deep into the subconscious of a patient suffering from dementia by exploring an ethereal reconstruction of a fictionalized English harbor town called Pinwheel. Devoid of human life, the town exists as a snapshot in history made all the more surreal through the use of cel shaded textures and vibrant colors, giving the experience a What Dreams May Come-like atmosphere. This version of Pinwheel holds numerous scars from previous calamities and disasters which can only be healed by a special device. Also, certain areas are home to crystals of varying blue hues that represent a physical manifestation of dementia. As a Restorer, it is your job to clear out these crystals and break through various barriers in the patient’s memory in an attempt to cure their affliction. Accompanying you on this journey is a handler who provides data and insight into your mission. Her sometimes harried commands and statements presents a character driven by her own obsessions, chief among them is to prove the validity of the company in the face of growing public scrutiny.
Ether One harkens back to the Myst days of first person exploration and puzzle solving, putting the onus on the player to seek out journals that shed light on the main character and the world they live in. What separates this game from others is how it easily accommodates two playstyles. For those primarily interested playing the game for its story can simply collect a series of red ribbons scattered throughout each map. Doing so opens up a specific memory that the patient has locked away. There’s very little work required in collecting these objects but the detrimental side effect is that the game ends fairly quickly. To increase the game’s longevity, justify achievements and test the player’s mettel, each area is occupied by a series of broken projectors that function as the game’s optional puzzle element. Repairing these machines involves completing area specific puzzles that bring together a series of seemingly innocuous items. Apart from fleshing out Pinwheel’s history and its significant events, fixing these projectors can also help to repair the patient’s damaged memories.
The projection puzzles are the most difficult portion of the game. The developer intended for them to be difficult and cryptic in order to appeal to an old school “pen and paper puzzle” sensibility. Adding further complexity to each situational puzzle is the handicap of only carrying one item at any given time. This is where The Case proves its invaluable worth. After being transported into the patient’s subscious, your “home away from home” is a dual floored Sherlockian mind palace functions as a traditional adventure game style inventory where items can be stored alongside important notes and puzzle clues. The greatness of The Case is its comfortable accessibility. Moving to and from the mind space is almost instantaneous with no visible loading screens save for a brief white fade animation. Leaving the Case will put you right back where you left on in Pinwheel without having to backtrack or spawning into some random location. As far as inventory management goes, this is a really well thought out idea that makes perfect sense in the context of the adventure. It is too bad that for each time you enter the Case, you’ll always be sent to the second floor (closest to the inventory) and have to travel down to the first floor each time to examine special notes. To speed things up, I ended taking pictures of certain clues on my phone in order to speed things up a bit.
Ignoring the projectors to focus on the story turns Ether One into a pretty linear experience. On the other hand, completing often requires you to bounce to and from different locations to complete them. While some are fairly easy to understand, others are often needlessly confusing. True to their nature, there’s very little handholding for each puzzle and players are required to be keenly aware of their environment for clues. Things get especially difficult in Pinwheel’s Industrial quarter, a sprawling piece of property with so many locations and interactive elements that the projector solutions are quickly obfuscated by the terror of not knowing exactly what to do. Interactive objects litter the environment but beyond a few journals, there are no visible cues to determine whether or not something is worth saving in the Case. I would often linger more than normal when passing random trinkets, juggling their worth to determine whether or not I would need them in the future. I spent more time than I would care to admit walking around with a fork readily in hand. Bogging down the puzzle experience further is tedium associated with the character’s awfully slow walking speed. If there was ever a game that needed an “always run” option, this is it. Having to hold the Shift key down for the entire duration of play session is uncomfortable and mildly infuriating.
For an adventure game, Ether One does some pretty interesting things that allow it to break free from the genre’s mold. The environments are interesting in their design and although Pinwheel is abandoned, it looks lovingly lived in. The idea of taking on the subject of dementia is fascinating and works better should you choose to focus on collecting ribbons, as having to solve the projector puzzles have a tendency to bring things screeching to a halt.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.