When one considers the most beautiful console games titles such as Okami, Final Fantasy XIII, Mirrors Edge or even the lesser known Child of Light may come first to mind; all of the above predating the current console generations across both Playstation and Xbox.
With the release of the PS4 and XBOX One last year a new era in console gaming was promised to follow on the heels of the upgraded memory and graphics available on the new systems. Many gamers were disappointed by the lack of followthrough in certain areas, and meaningful releases on both platforms are still hard to come by as a result.
However that could be about to change as the physical copy of Ether One releases for the Playstation 4.
I first played Ether One when it was offered as part of the Playstation Network Plus free download bundle for May, but honestly it's a game well worth paying for as one of the finest puzzle games currently available on the PS4.
Ether One is a first-person adventure puzzle-solver developed by the independent studio White Paper Games. A Playstation 4 digital edition was released back in on May on the Playstation Network and the physical Blu-Ray is coming later this month on October 23rd.
But what exactly makes Ether One so wonderful? In case the above trailer isn't enough to catch your attention, here's the run-down:
The Immersive Game Play
The gameplay and the story the mechanics weave are all based around symptoms experienced by patients suffering from dementia, as Pete Bottomley, studio co-founder and game designer, described:
"All the gameplay mechanics were designed around dementia symptoms. We knew that in, order to create a story that depicted dementia, everything had to tie closely into that."
The why of this is something I'll talk about shortly, but first the how as the centrepiece of any console game must be the artifice of its gameplay.
Ether One is a puzzle-solver/exploration game that off the bat feels like it was born from the same vein as the widely acclaimed 90s adventure puzzle Myst. Like Myst we're dropped into a first-person journey throughout an interactive environment, in this case it's a replication of the English seaside mining village of Pinwheel.
Through this landscape medium the player physically navigates the reconstructed childhood memories of 69-year old dementia patient Jean Thompson. You're guided by the disembodied Voice of God in the form of Dr. Phyllis Edmunds, a researcher with the Ether Institute of Telepathic Medicine. Does it sound like [Assassin's Creed](tag:437814) yet? There's no Templars here though, indeed unlike the majority of first-person adventure games we're afforded no access to weaponry of any sorts and there's no sign of any other souls existing in this seemingly abandoned slice of life.
Ether One offers complex interlocking puzzles, very little is given in the way of hints, though there is an option to skip should you become stuck. However skipping over puzzles kinda defeats the purpose of an exploratory game, and leaves you missing vital parts of the centrepiece: Ether One's narrative (and we'll get to that shortly).
The difficulty level feels comfortable for the majority of gamers, requiring challenging lateral thinking but without the hair pulling illogicality of some of the more obscure puzzles in the likes of The Longest Journey or the unsettling freakiness of the Silent Hill series. Admittedly it can be a little buggy at times, the glitches do interfere somewhat with the puzzle play but I'd imagine that by the time the physical copy releases later this month they'll have worked out most of the kinks.
One clever aspect is the recreation of your inventory into a physical space, called the Case. The Case acts as your mission base, similar to the Sanctuary/menu screen in Fable 3. Whilst the addition of a physical storage area for your inventory may seem like overkill it actually works well with the overall feel of the game; you can go to and from the Case at your own will, picking up items from Pinwheel and storing them on shelves located in the inventory area. This is a required feature too, as you can only hold one item at a time.
You encounter a plethora of objects throughout the world, some of which are entirely redundant when it comes to the puzzle solving - but of course that's all part of the intrigue. The Case allows a visual workspace in which the player can examine seemingly disconnected items to try and piece together a meaning or solution. Not only does this help with puzzle visualisation, it also reinforces the overarching theme of dementia as the user struggles trying to make sense of the world through random, often useless objects.
From the Case you can examine film reels from the projectors you find and restore throughout the world. It also contains a cork board which stores and catalogues pictures notes and flyers you find on your travels, allowing for a greater scope of visual mapping.
There's also a mysterious sealed safe, which to open you must collect six code wheels from various locations in the outside environment and figure out the correct six-digit number. What you find inside is central and spoiler-y to the final narrative reveal, so I'll leave to you to discover for yourself.
The Story Will Captivate You
Ether One was created by a six-person team at White Paper Games, and was the studios' first major release. Every developer on the team had some degree of experience dealing with dementia and its effects so it's a very personal piece of work for them, a fact that you can tell from the careful crafting.
Bottomley spoke to the New Yorker (in a piece that's well worth the read) about why they set out to develop this specific game:
"Our main goal was to tell a story that we could invest ourselves in. That's the only way we knew we could create something really interesting. If someone [on the team] looked at a part of the game they hadn't seen recently and some aspect of it didn't seem credible they'd be able to see something immediately."
As a result the story crafted is incredibly human and indeed relevant to current struggles around combating Alzheimer's, which accounts for 60% - 70% of cases of dementia. Despite the recent advancements in research we still know little of the terrifying disease or how to treat it.
Like most games of this nature Ether One doesn't spoon feed you the narrative but rather gently prods you on the correct path to uncover it for yourself. The game opens in the Ether Institute itself, and the player appears to be the only person there. Through the voiceover of Dr. Edmunds the player is guided to a strange machine and informed that they have been brought there to act as a Restorer: tasked with investigating a mind fractured by dementia in order to retrieve Jean's lost memories.
The machine that the Restorer enters is used to generate 3D simulations of damaged memories, and the aim is to rebuild those memories by exploring and collecting the missing pieces (which is where the puzzles come into play). Once entering Jean's mind the player finds themselves in Pinwheel and as the journey unfolds learns the story of the village, its residents, Jean's relationship with her husband Thomas and a terrible accident that occurred in the mine there.
The general aim of the Restorer is to seek out large gemstones which represent the illness eating away at Jean's mind, the stones are destroyed using a lamp the player carries called the Artifact, freeing Jean from the dementia little by little. However the more stones are destroyed the more unstable the environment becomes, until the Restorer risks bringing the world (and Jean's mind) crashing down around their feet.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg, the narrative continues on from there in pieces and fragments, but the fun of Ether One is discovering that story for yourself. Without giving too much away, the final twist recalls some (less depressing) elements from the Bioshock Infinite narrative, without the giant mechanical Songbird sadly.
The Aesthetic Beautifully Reflects The Narrative
Everything in the environment is set up to support this narrative, in a gorgeous fusion of design and story. From the visual workspace of the Case to the interwoven themes of dementia, death and industrial decline Ether One paints a bittersweet picture of the struggle to hold together a mental world.
You can't really call Ether One a cinematic game in terms of aesthetics, not in the same way that you can describe the action/adventure/heart-string-pulling The Last Of Us; it's subtler than that.
The surrounding environment is painted in shades of watercolour, the cell-ish shading reminiscent of Dishonoured. Whilst this is admittedly easier to produce than graphically heavy games it makes sense in terms of the story; painting is a motif repeated throughout, in paintings and paintbrushes used as part of puzzles and as part of the wider narrative. You can read more about the finer technical details of rending the environment at the White Paper Games blog too, if you so desire.
As mentioned earlier there's no other people around, giving the impression of severe isolation in cryptical environments, again tying into the dementia theme. All we have are the remnants of others in letters and notes like whispers of ghosts, a feeling which can be unnerving at times.
In this land there are no people, only what they leave behind.
The Motivation Behind Ether One
Unlike the recent bio-feedback Nevermind which was designed both as a game and a tool to help trauma suffers manage anxiety Ether One isn't going to do much to help suffers of the disease it sets out to illustrate. Indeed there's still much contention over the effects of video games on cognitive functions, despite studies claiming certain forms of games can improve memory there's still much research needing to be done in this area, and it's probably never going to yield any significant medical advances. But that's not what creating the game was about:
"Our aim was to create an empathetic story but it wasn’t necessarily to raise awareness about dementia." Bottomley clarified. "Most people know what dementia is—they just find it hard to talk about, especially if someone close to them suffers from it. The main thing we wanted to achieve was to open the conversation about dementia and put you in the shoes of someone suffering with it."
Ether One doesn't try to provide any solutions to the problem, it is after all a video game. But the media lens through which we look affects the way in which we view the world, be it cinema, television, magazine, fact, fiction or indeed video games. For those who are working through the suffering of a friend of relative it may provide both a cathartic and somewhat clarifying experience (as testified to in the official trailer).
In Michael Thomsen's New Yorker piece he speaks of his grandmother who suffered through Alzheimer's, and describes how whilst playing Ether One may not have afforded him any grand revelations about the disease it did provide a deeper understanding of perhaps not the mindset but the motions of those who suffer through it.
The virtual space of Ether One may be one of forgotten things but through its artifice comes an understanding of the things which should not be forgotten, namely the struggles of those who suffer through dementia and what must still be done for them.
Have you played Ether One yet? What did you think of it? Tell us in the comments below.