Retro Review: Ether One

Ether One is a first person exploration adventure game, much in the same mould as pioneer games such as Myst, developed by a tiny six person development team known as White Paper Games, based upt’ north in Manchester, England.

It sets us in the role of a ‘Restorer’ – someone whose job it is to help eliminate signs of dementia from within a patients memories whilst helping to restore fragmented memories. This process of restoration and destruction of dementia symptoms should, in theory, lead to the recovery of a persons mind and memories.

Its not the first time I’ve reviewed games, and it won’t be the last as the ones that inspire me or effect me in any way tend to lead me straight to my keyboard in order to write about them – much like this has!

So what exactly about Ether One touched me in such a way that I just had to WriteSteveWrite (sorry…) about it?

The story.

Note: There will most probably be spoilers ahead, so be ye warned!

Let me get this out of the way up front: Ether One is a buggy game.

It glitches, suffers from annoying pin point precision issues when trying to select objects, is by no means a straight forward game, and lacks any sort of linearity as you may expect from any other games. But, for all its (MINOR) faults, Ether One still shines bright, and that is directly due to its strong story, and the way that its smart narrative unfolds.

The worst I suffered from in relation to bugs was when I successfully completed a projector puzzle (which help unfold the story piece by piece as we attribute emotional meaning to seemingly random objects), meaning I could not complete this story with a 100% projector ranking. This doesn’t normally bother me, as I’m not a completionist gamer. I usually just want the story and am happy to experience it as as I progress through the games world; but knowing what I could have experienced as an alternate ending had the game not glitched left me slightly peeved as I continued to mine through Jean’s murky memories as this Restorer.

Or is it Jean?

You see, not is all as it seems.

At first, in the role of the Restorer, it becomes apparent that you are attempting to piece together the memory of a character called Jean as she relives sporadic memories from her small hometown village, known as Pinwheel. This quickly escalates as we read and witness events that rock this small village: chiefly a mining accident that led to a high number of deaths for its local populace, impacting their way of life in ways they could not have initially foreseen.

The story unfolds as we follow Jean’s memories deeper and deeper, allowing us to discover truths about her, Pinwheel, and her lover, Thomas, as each projector is completed or key object is discovered, adding more jig saw pieces to the puzzle.

As the narrative progresses however it becomes clear that we aren’t in Jean’s head. No, the Restorer is inside Thomas’, later to be revealed as actually BEING Thomas, as we deal with Jean’s ghostly voice reminding us of events that happened to him, them, and their town, which lead to a number of Core memories that Thomas has attempted to block, causing emotional blockage and exacerbating his dementia. This is aided as well by Dr. Phyllis Edmunds’ disembodied voice coaxing you onward, especially when it comes to destroying what she deems to be destructive memories relating to Thomas’ dementia. It isn’t initially clear whether Edmunds has ulterior, darker, motives, but a particular dilemma came when I had to destroy a large dementia crystal which, when I held L1 to get a description, was clearly labelled First Kiss. I must have stared at that thing for at least twenty seconds, knowing that by destroying it to advance in the game meant taking away something precious to this character.

First Kiss

On a personal note: both of my grandparents suffered through dementia in the later years of their life, and it is not an easy thing to witness someone you care for suffer through. This is probably why I felt so compelled by this game. Certain elements wrenched at my heart, as the developers cleverly took adventure game archetypes and used them to enhance narrative purpose.

Gathering items and placing them on shelves before exploring vast gaming towns with numerous houses to enter, drawers to rifle through, and items/paper/subtle hints to encounter, lead you, as a gamer, to quickly forget which items relate to what puzzle, let alone where! This sense of confusion and helplessness only grows as the games locations also expand, and I can’t stress how clever a twist this is on an adventure games inventory system, used in order to further immerse you in their story.

A personal highlight I felt with Ether One was during the numerous confrontations with Thomas’ Core Memories. These lead you into dark, dank, ghostly, apparitions of his childhood home. The representation of which being almost purposely unfinished, with objects hollow or incomplete. The only thing you have to interact with these vague objects is a camera, which lead to an unpleasant comparison to Japanese horror ghost story Fatal Frame. Every time you take a picture of an interactive memory, you are greeted with a creepy scene playing out in front of you. You never know if you’ve triggered them all; instead, you are left assuming you’re done, and you are left with an unsettling feeling of uncertainty. Is this done? Have I forgotten something? Should I continue?

This game does such a fantastic job of nailing what it may be like to slowly slip into decline as your memory starts to leave you and your grasp of reality in question, developed even further as Jean regales you with random memories. Little snippets where she talks about forgetting keys, or leaving food cooking, resonate on a deep level as you connect with this character, and is made all the worse if you have ever encountered a loved one going through this themselves.

Ether One roots you, as a gamer, firmly into Thomas’ muddled mind, leaving you directionless as you try to make sense of what’s going on, constantly questioning whether what you encounter is needed, or, in fact, true. It doesn’t hold your hand one bit as you traverse the eerie, disconcerting, emptiness of Pinwheel Village and beyond, and is all the better for it.

By the time I reached the ending, it left me feeling stretched and raw, not helped by the fact that the leather chair that Thomas inhabits is the spitting image of the one my grandfather used to own. The ending I got wasn’t a happy one, thanks to the Miners Dry glitch my play through suffered from; it was dark, lonely, and harrowing as I was stuck in a chair surrounded by the artefacts I had successfully managed to unlock via the projectors. The Doctor speaks to me, trying to coax a positive reaction, but fails to do so, forcing us to come to a harsh truth: those suffering from dementia will go through good days, but will also encounter many bad. Ether One does not shy away from this, and the ending I got is proof of that.

True, there is a ‘happy ending’, or should that be, ‘happier’, if everything is unlocked and completed, but both endings truly have their merits, and I applaud White Paper Games for crafting such a fine and immersive experience. It’s amazing this was created by the minds of only six people – though it does also attribute to the glitches and bugs found along the way. These, assuming they don’t break your game/corrupt your save, are easily forgiven however when looking at the much bigger picture, and it’s fantastic to see indie developers braving territory such as this.

Immersive, creepy, atmospheric, disconcerting and emotional, I highly recommend you play Ether One if you have the chance, especially if you have a friend or loved one who is suffering from dementia. A loved one forgetting their keys, or where they left their glasses, or, in my case, having wandered outside and not knowing why they are there (in the case of my granny) may seem sad and mildly frustration to the family member who has to ‘deal’ with it but, believe me, this game puts that shit into terrifying perspective, allowing you to begin to understand on a more passionate, human, level for the person who is actually sadly suffering.

★★★★☆

Ether One is available now on Microsoft Windows and Playstation 4


Have you played Ether One or, unfortunately, had a friend/loved one suffer from dementia? How do you think Ether One handled the issue? 

I’d love to know what you thought, so please shout out below!

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