THE REAL WORLD, VIRTUALLY
For all the arguments about games as art, it is hard to ignore the fact that there are few games with real intellectual depth. Not that I would for a moment endorse shoe-horning social commentary into a game where it doesnít fit, as Iím sure we have all rolled our eyes when certain games make cack-handed attempts at being Ďdeepí. Still, while many games have interesting stories, itís rare that one actually has something to say about a topic that is an everyday reality to millions of people.
A new release in this rare breed is White Paper Gamesí Ether One; a first-person adventure which attempts to tackle dementia. Itís a subject matter refreshingly different from the norm, and one which lets you know from the off that the developers are targeting a mature audience.
Guided by the dulcet tones of an invisible scientist in a futuristic brain-clinic, you travel through the memory of a patient in an attempt to re-build, or at least validate, her life. This travelling takes the form of first-person exploration of the town of Pinwheel, in the vein of Dear Esther but on a far grander scale.
LITTLE RED RIBBONS
After spending a little time in Ether Oneís world, PC gamers of advancing years may well feel a twinge of nostalgia for Cyanís Myst series. Certainly, anyone disappointed with the lack of challenge in games like Dear Esther or Gone Home will be interested to hear that the game is packed full of puzzles, and a high proportion of them are genuinely difficult. If, however, you are more interested in seeing the story to the end without too much in the way of speed-bumps, the developers have accommodated for you too.
The primary gameplay involves searching the expansive environments for ribbons, which indicate the patientís fleeting memories. By seeking out these ribbons, you gradually progress through the game all the way to the conclusion. If you choose to stop and smell the roses, completing the many puzzles, you will be rewarded by a deeper understanding of whatís going on along the way, but they are completely optional. It is a nice touch, and means that you should never feel like the game is holding you back with a puzzle you just canít figure out.
Despite their unforced nature, though, it is surprising how difficult some of the puzzles are Ė particularly when you consider that this game exists in a sub-genre which usually prizes the complete telling of a tale above all else. Here, if you arenít able to work out one of the problems, that part of the story will remain locked away from you like the lost memory it represents.
WISH YOU WERE HERE
From a cursory glance at screenshots of Ether One, itís easy to see that this is a great looking game. In motion, it is truly something to behold; evocative and full of detail. The graphical style is a more subtle interpretation of the Borderlands hand-painted look, and the landscapes are very easy on the eye. Thatís fortunate, since landscapes are all you get. There is a distinct lack of any visible characters in the game, but I donít think this detracts from anything. Quite the opposite, in fact Ė it leaves room for the one character you will get to know very well: the town of Pinwheel.
With the gameís leisurely pace and ample brain-scratchers, exploring the environments should not be rushed. The first time you step into Pinwheel Harbour, after a short tutorial-section, youíre likely to be awed by the sheer scale. This is a game that quite literally gives you an entire town to explore, inside and out. Every time I thought the world couldnít possibly be as big as I thought it was, I turned a corner to find more. This is a game designed to be explored very gradually and savoured, piece by piece. Lived in, almost. Frankly, given that Ether One supports the Oculus Rift VR headset, itís not hard to imagine coming back to Pinwheelís soothing shores time after time.
As might be expected with a game so unashamedly massive, though, thereís an uneasy tension while playing. On numerous occasions I would open a seemingly innocuous door, and find myself presented with several branching paths, each one as complex and beautiful as the last. After the first few cries of Ďthis is amazing!í, my reactions soon turned to trepidation and even tangible stress at the thought of getting lost. After choosing a direction at a crossroads, you wonder if you should have gone a different way and have to fight the urge to backtrack.
ĎIt will be okay,í you say to yourself, ĎI will just find the end of this path and then come back.í
You walk past several buildings, not wanting to commit to one yet, but then reach another crossroads leading in four different directions. Itís almost too much freedom.
Itís fairly apt that a game which tries to deal with dementia ends up evoking feelings of concern. Naturally, most games create some kind of stress through the challenges they present, but Ether One really does make me worry. I worry that I will get lost, I worry that I canít do a puzzle, and I worry that I might have missed part of the story Ė part of my story. In that way, it is perhaps the closest a video game has ever come to conveying dementia, or at least some of the emotions associated with it.
Perhaps most surprising is just how broadly the game appeals. Those looking for a challenge will certainly find one, but lovers of immersive storytelling can be captivated by Pinwheel and the patientís memories without the puzzles getting in the way. Perhaps most importantly of all, those who just want to play something truly interesting will find that this is a game to make you think.
Huge, beautiful world to explore. Fascinating concept about a mature subject. Play at your own pace.
Scale can be overwhelming. Some puzzles are needlessly obtuse.